Building real alternatives to ANC’s degeneration

The political decay in the ruling party is so pervasive that weeding out a few leaders will not be sufficient to rebuild the possibility of real social hope

The ANC once carried the hopes of millions of people. It has now descended into a debacle and, in bitter contradistinction to the democratic and social programme laid out in the Freedom Charter, runs a brutal, repressive and profoundly corrupt state. This state is highly skilled at accumulating private wealth from society and utterly uninterested in advancing a democratic or social programme.

The rot in the ANC has dragged the country deep into the putrid mire of pervasive violence, corruption, cynicism and pessimism. Creating what was once termed a “patriotic bourgeoisie” has degenerated into creating a cynically and grossly predatory political class. The state-owned enterprises were supposed to be managed with a view to deracialise both their management and the corporate elites with which they do business. They were also  supposed to act in the interests of the majority, and to use their heft to steer the economy away from its colonial form. Instead they were turned into tools for elite accumulation via crude looting. Their efficacy has collapsed. This hits the majority, who cannot afford private services, the hardest.

SAA, Eskom, the National Lottery, the public broadcaster, the South African Post Office and many other state organisations and projects have either collapsed or been seriously compromised. Prisons are profoundly corrupt hellholes. The police are frequently seen as an abusive, predatory and at times straightforwardly criminal organisation. Police officers openly request bribes to drop charges, lose evidence or even allow the family of an accused person to enter a courtroom. Ordinary people face a relentless grind of impoverishment, state contempt and exploitation. For some categories of people, rule by violence is an everyday experience.

It is cynicism and not wealth that trickles down.

Parliament provides no rational grounds for hope. The DA is inciting and courting a shrinking, often racist and increasingly right-wing constituency. It is, at best, irrelevant to the profound problems confronting our dream deformed. If the ANC is a tragedy, the EFF is a farce with its rhetoric of a militant authoritarian nationalism cynically masking a set of predatory practices every bit as corrupt and exploitative as the ANC.

As author and public intellectual Malaika Mahlatsi has said, the current fiasco in the ANC – featuring a president and a secretary general each trying to suspend the other – is symptomatic of “a chronic illness that has afflicted the organisation since the very dawn of democracy. The ANC has been going through an existential crisis that is evidenced not only by its haemorrhaging of electoral support and the rise of institutionalised philistinism, but by the decay of all component structures of the Mass Democratic Movement (MDM).”

Deeply ingrained rot

She goes on to say that “the removal of the current crop of leaders would be a cosmetic exercise because the layers of younger generations that currently exist are not fundamentally different. The things we bemoan about the ANC happen in other component structures of the MDM.” 

She is right. The ANC’s student, youth and women’s structures, as well as trade union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party, are hopelessly inadequate for the political task of restoring social hope, building popular democratic power and constructing a state that can advance a credible and effective social programme.

The contestation inside the ANC is not between different emancipatory visions. It is between a ruthless, predatory and at times violent project to extract private wealth from public funds and one – often allied to corporate power – that is also marked by corruption, and offers no meaningful social or political vision. The second camp does, however, carry a current aimed at reconstituting the capacity of the state laid to waste by the locust years of the Zuma presidency.

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This is important given that no state can advance a meaningful social project without developing a capacity for effective action. However, the forces in the ANC that aim to use the state as an instrument for predation are pervasive and have a presence in both the main factions in the party. At the same time those who wish to undertaken the urgent task of restoring state capacity have no meaningful emancipatory vision. As Mahlatsi notes, there is simply nowhere to look inside the party – or its internal and allied formations – for a layer of principled activists who can restore the integrity of the party, and thereby the state.

And with no current in the party or its allied organisations able to sustain or renew an emancipatory vision, there are no real prospects for either to play a role in constituting social forces with the power and commitment to contain, push back or defeat the predatory forces that are rampant inside the ANC and the state.

Lacking the vision

The most profound cause of the long-developing crisis in the ANC is the lack of any kind of emancipatory vision – let alone a political project that speaks to the needs and aspirations of the majority and can support the constitution of democratic forms of popular power able to drive the technocrats in the state in a progressive direction and oppose, or even rout, the kleptocrats.

Beginning in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and gaining significant scale and power in the 1980s, South Africa became one of the most organised and mobilised countries on the planet. There were, of course, contesting emancipatory visions that sometimes collapsed into damaging forms of sectarian conflict. But millions of people were brought into forms of popular progressive power, there were vibrant circuits of intellectual engagement, and emancipatory visions were profoundly rooted in the consciousness of society. 

Exhaustion, the return of the ANC from exile and underground, the widespread joy that marked its ascent to state power, the party’s desire for political control and a general naivety about the political possibilities of state power in the absence of sustained popular organisation and mobilisation were all factors combined to put an end to that long and extraordinary sequence of popular politics.

The reconstitution of social hope requires a reconstitution of popular democratic power and the development of credible emancipatory visions. Achieving that requires a political vision that extends beyond the limits of the ANC and takes the lives, thinking and agency of the oppressed seriously.

There is work to be done, urgent work.

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