Following a previous post: The Limits of Politics I want to argue that what the ANC is becoming is less a function of the failings of its leadership and more a consequence of the titanic forces of social change.

The past and present history of the African National Congress could be characterised (in shorthand) like this:

National Liberation Movement

The ANC arose out of the fact of the prolatarianisation of an African peasantry and the deepening national oppression of all black South Africans – only codified in Grand Apartheid in 1948 but stretching back much further.

What the ANC was was a natural expression of the changing pattern of the oppression of Africans (and other black South Africans)  between 1912 and 1994. One way of understanding the shape, raison d’être, policies and leadership of the ANC during this period is to trace the history of the strategy and tactics of the pre-Apartheid and Apartheid states.

Each phase of ANC resistance to colonisation and apartheid – from the initial polite depositions of the early years, to the militancy in the 50’s, the banning in 1960, the crushing of the organisation’s internal structures, the launch of the ‘armed struggle’, the imprisonment and exile of its leadership, the playing catch-up after the 1976 explosion, the United Democratic Front as an internal wing to prevent Coloured and Indians being won over to a National Party strategy leading up to mass protests, negotiation – was mirrored in the changing structure of the society.

This is not to say the ANC was a perfect expression of all aspects of African resistance or that, in turn, such resistance was a perfect response to national oppression. The shape that all things assume is always a complicated expression of subjective and objective factors and this is true too for the African National Congress.

The forces that ended Apartheid

Of course the struggle for freedom of South African people and their organisations (and their allies around the world) is one way of understanding what brought about the end of Apartheid.

But another is to ask: what was Apartheid trying to control, for what end – and why did it fail?

Apartheid was ultimately a system of law, repression and inducements designed to deflect African’s economic and political aspirations away from white owned and controlled South Africa – for the purpose of securing white economic power and security.

It ultimately failed because Africans “voted with their feet”. The National Party was trying to legislate (and police) against the collective desires and actions of millions of people. But Africans would not have their aspirations diverted to the geographical or the political Bantustans. In the face of fines and brute force Africans kept coming back to the cities, the bright lights, the markets, the chance of work and the chance to do business.

To avoid complicating this further, let me say my own shorthand understanding of what was happening (and the timing of what was happening) is the South African and global economy were growing in ways that required an educated and settled workforce and this in turn raised for African South Africans the realistic possibility of being ‘settled’, ‘educated’ and, ultimately, of achieving a better life.

Apartheid and National Party rule constituted a barrier to the swelling aspiration of African South Africans – particularly for property, assets, homes and the right to work and live where they pleased.

The ending of Apartheid and National Party rule was the bursting of the dam.

1994 and beyond – the time of the flood

The African National Congress had always been forced to root itself in a marginalised African population and this meant it faced most forms of power in the society as the challenger and the outsider.

The ANC was able to ride the wave of rising African aspirations in the 70’s and 80’s – but there was no expectation that it meet those aspirations.

Everything changed of 1994.

The government’s of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki had a mandate and responsibility to use the winning of the ‘political kingdom’ to seek the economic one. What followed was a two-pronged approached to empowering the ‘previously disadvantaged”:

  • take the state bureaucracy out of white hands and put it into black ones;
  • encourage transformation of ownership and control of the private sector through employment equity laws and regulations and through the development of a black economic empowerment  regime.

The process very quickly assumed its own momentum and the first stratum of individuals who were sucked into the maelstrom was the political class … the senior members of the ANC and government.

Once you have begun to use the state as a lever to gain economic power it is difficult to stop.

But by the time Thabo Mbeki’s government attempted to formalise, control and broaden the process with the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Act of 2003 it was out of control – and engulfing large sections of the ruling party and the senior levels of the state bureaucracy.

… and the point?

The point is not to exonerate the ANC or government or individual leaders who have become tenderpreneurs or crony capitalists. It is not even to excuse government (particularly Thabo Mbeki’s) for making specific errors in structuring the process  … there were others paths that could have been taken that might have made a difference.

But the reason I suggest this vantage point or approach is because I think the hope that this process could ever have been calm or orderly is based on misunderstanding the deep, structural and historical nature of what is happening.

A flood of wealth and power is moving from the old order to the new and has blurred the boundaries between the public and private sector and is threatening to overwhelm government and the ruling party. Once the waters have achieved a new equilibrium it may be possible to re-establish a separation and rebuild the laws.

But it is going to be close.

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