52nd National Conference of the ANC

The African National Congress (ANC) of South Africa held its 52nd National Conference from 16-20 December 2007 in Polokwane, Limpopo, attended by more than 4,000 delegates and numerous fraternal visitors from other countries.

The results of this conference were, in the apt words of the Financial Times, “arguably the most significant event in South Africa since the end of white minority rule 13 years ago”.

In the ANC’s first contested leadership elections in more than 50 years, Jacob Zuma delivered a humiliating blow to the incumbent ANC President (and still President of the Republic of South Africa until 2009) Thabo Mbeki, capturing more than 60 per cent of the vote. Zuma not only enjoyed the support of the rank and file delegates of the ANC, but also of the organisations that provide the core of its left wing, namely the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League, as well as the movement’s alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU).

Moreover, Zuma’s victory was part of a clean sweep that dramatically shifts the ANC leadership to the left. The Financial Times said, “in what amounted to a total rejection of his [Mbeki’s] camp, the ANC’s five other leadership positions were all secured by backers of Mr Zuma and by the same comfortable margin”.

The highest margin for any candidate elected to the National Executive Committee (NEC) was enjoyed by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of Nelson Mandela. Like Zuma, she has earned the bitter hatred of an establishment still barely reformed from the days of white racist minority rule, but both are hugely popular among the oppressed masses, whose political representatives are the ANC rank and file.

In contrast, eight of Mbeki’s cabinet ministers, including his deputy president, lost their seats on the NEC. At the previous ANC conference five years ago, Trevor Manuel, the Finance Minister, noted for his enthusiastic pursuit of neo-liberal policies, was re-elected to the NEC by the highest margin of any of its 80 members. This time he came in at 57th place.

As the new President of the ANC, Jacob Zuma is scheduled to become the party’s candidate for the post of head of state in elections next year, which, given the overwhelming support that the ANC still enjoys among the popular masses, would virtually guarantee his election.

One of the very few ways to stop this would be if he were to be convicted on criminal charges. Within days of his election as ANC President, therefore, Zuma was charged with various offences related to alleged corruption, concerning a long-running investigation into South Africa’s arms purchases in the late 1990s. Zuma was dismissed as Deputy President of South Africa by Thabo Mbeki in 2005, after his financial adviser was convicted in the same affair. A previous corruption case brought against Zuma collapsed in 2006, as did a charge of rape.

The timing of the case against Zuma would appear, therefore, to have very little to do with any determination to root out corruption and everything to do with a political conspiracy, relying on unreformed and unaccountable parts of the state machine, to frustrate the democratically expressed aspirations of the masses.

According to the South African media, Zuma is scheduled to face trial in August, but his lawyers have indicated that they intend to appeal to the Constitutional Court, the country’s top court, before a case begins.

Whatever the exact course of events, we can be certain that the South African masses will resist any attempt to circumvent the exercise of their hard-won democratic rights by conspiracy and legal manoeuvring. In February, the ANC, despite President Mbeki’s opposition, announced to parliament that it intended to disband the force of prosecutors and investigators known as the Scorpions by June. The Scorpions were set up as a so-called “elite crime-fighting unit”, largely removed from the normal chain of command or any effective system of checks and balances and they have been increasingly accused of pursuing a politicised agenda against sections of the ANC, including the framing of charges against Zuma.

There is no doubt that Jacob Zuma strikes a chord among the masses, which has allowed him to be elected as ANC President against the odds. He was born in Inkandla, Kwa-Zulu Natal Province, high in the remote and hilly grasslands, in 1942, to a family engaged in subsistence farming. He had no formal education as a child and was illiterate until adulthood. The area still has the second highest unemployment rate in South Africa and HIV afflicts more than one third of the community.

After his father’s death at the end of the Second World War, he moved with his mother to Durban, where she became a domestic worker. Influenced by a relative, who was a fervent trade unionist, he joined the ANC in 1959. Engaged first in trade union work, he joined Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK, ‘Spear of the Nation’), the newly formed armed wing of the ANC, in 1962, after the liberation movement was banned in 1960 following the apartheid regime’s massacre of peaceful demonstrators at Sharpeville.

Arrested, he was sent to the notorious Robben Island, arriving there in March 1964, a few months before Nelson Mandela. They were bleak times, but it seems that the young Zuma played a key role in rallying his comrades. In a profile article (The left-leaning Zulu) published in the Financial Times on 1 December 2007, journalist Alec Russell wrote that he “had an irrepressible urge to lighten the atmosphere… ‘He was the leading light at choral singing and Zulu dancing,’ says Ebrahim Ebrahim, an ANC veteran, who shared a cell with him. ‘He was always very cheerful even when we were on our way to the island. In fact, whenever he goes to a meeting he wants to sing.’”

Zuma was to spend 10 years on Robben Island, followed by 15 years in exile, in which time he rose to become the head of the ANC’s intelligence service. Last year, he told guests at his 65th birthday celebrations:

“I am just a little herd boy from Inkandla who happened to be a trade unionist and politician who participated in the struggle. Rest assured, I will always be what I am. I will never change.”

However, whilst individuals are certainly important (and it is important to note that Thabo Mbeki himself was born into the liberation movement and has worked for it all his life, his father being the late Comrade Govan Mbeki, one of South Africa’s greatest revolutionaries and communists), what is at stake in the recent and unfolding events in South Africa is far more than some clash of personalities. Rather it is about the whole future course of South Africa’s development, about whether or not South Africa’s national democratic revolution, which achieved a great victory in 1994 with the formation of a democratic, non-racial government, will be continued and deepened, so that South Africa’s impoverished masses can at last enjoy some real economic fruits from the political liberation they secured in 1994.

Founded in 1912, the ANC is Africa’s oldest liberation movement and as such continues to occupy a special place not only in South African life, but also in the politics of the whole continent and, to a degree, in the world progressive movement generally. For decades it waged a truly heroic struggle against colonialism, apartheid and imperialism against the most difficult of odds and a most brutal foe. However, as Comrade Mao Zedong famously observed: “You cannot win at the negotiating table what you have not already won on the battlefield.”

This observation is particularly apposite to the circumstances of the ANC’s 1994 triumph. On the one hand, the apartheid regime had been significantly weakened by a combination of mass and armed struggle, defined by Nelson Mandela, in a famous letter smuggled out from Robben Island, as the hammer and anvil between which apartheid would be crushed, which were increasingly fusing into a single mighty stream of resistance. The key turning points were the uprising led by the school students in the Johannesburg township of Soweto in June 1976, whose brutal crushing led to a huge influx into the ranks of the ANC and MK; and the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in Angola ten years later in 1986, when a combined military force of Cuba, Angola, the former Soviet Union, the ANC and the Namibian liberation movement SWAPO decisively routed the South African racist army, shattering the myth of white invincibility, expediting the liberation of Namibia, and thereby moving the frontline of the struggle to the borders of the apartheid state itself.

However, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the east European socialist states, a few years later, after decades of revisionist degeneration, deprived the ANC of its strongest source of external support and pushed it, along with many other national liberation movements and progressive governments in the Third World, in a necessary direction of compromise.

For its part, feeling that the threat from communism had at last abated, imperialism increasingly found its apartheid client state, with its crude racism and brutish methods, an unnecessary embarrassment, especially when confronted both by the risen South African people and the moral repugnance against apartheid that increasingly gripped working and progressive people in their own countries. In fact, the system of open and institutionalised apartheid had to a great extent been the response of the Afrikaner section of South Africa’s white community to their own relatively subordinate position within South African white society and hence within the wider global imperialist system. The multinational companies and monopolies, such as Anglo-American, Oppenheimers and De Beers, that dominated (and continue to dominate) the mining and mineral industries that are the mainstay of the South African economy as well as the key to the country’s vital importance to imperialism, were more closely aligned to US and British imperialism than to its local surrogates, and were increasingly of the view that apartheid had actually become bad for business. Faced with preserving apartheid or preserving imperialist super profits, there really was no contest. Apartheid had to go.

Hence, there was a situation where some but not all of the necessary components for a revolutionary change were in place. The masses were no longer prepared to be ruled in the old way. The ruling class was no longer able to rule in the old way. However, the enemy, whilst significantly weakened, was far from smashed.

The resulting, inherently unstable for the long-term, compromise therefore saw the political representatives of the oppressed people, the ANC, assume the leadership of the state, whereas the economy and much of the governmental, military, security and judicial establishment remained to a great, although not total, extent untransformed and unreformed.

In such a situation, a transition to socialism was clearly not on the immediate agenda. At the same time, something clearly needed to be done to address the expectations, demands and needs of the oppressed and impoverished masses.

The answer to this was the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP). The RDP was drawn up at the request of the ANC leadership by the movement’s most prominent economist, the late Comrade Vella Pillay. Pillay was not only a brilliant economist, but also a staunch communist. A founder of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) in Britain, he was also a pivotal figure in arranging military training for ANC cadres in both the Soviet Union and China. More particularly, for more than four decades, he worked in a senior capacity in the Bank of China in London, with a crucial role in international financial transactions and the management of China’s foreign exchange reserves. In other words, Comrade Pillay was the man for the job.

His RDP envisaged a policy of public spending and state leadership of the economy to deliver real benefits to the poor. It stated:

“The RDP aims to set South Africa firmly on the road to eliminating hunger, providing land and housing to all our people, providing access to safe water and sanitation for all, ensuring availability of affordable and sustainable energy sources, eliminating illiteracy, raising the quality of education and training for children and adults, protecting the environment, and improving our health services and making them accessible to all.”

Unfortunately, the proposals were only ever implemented in a very half-hearted fashion. For example, Pillay had proposed the building of one million low cost houses to replace the shacks in the squatter camps in one year, but only a small fraction of this number were built.

Instead, in June 1996, Finance Minister Trevor Manuel unceremoniously dumped the RDP, replacing it with GEAR, Growth, Employment and Redistribution, which discarded the national democratic thrust of the RDP in favour of an embrace of neo-liberal commitments to open markets, privatisation and an open door to foreign investment on terms unfavourable to the country.

It is true that GEAR has delivered economic growth of some five per cent per year and, for example, doubled the percentage of the population connected to the national electricity grid to some 70 percent. However, with the urban unemployment rate in the townships estimated at some 40 per cent, the overwhelming feeling among the poor and the mass of ANC members is that the economic growth has not benefited them and that the neo-liberal policies embraced by the government are to blame. As one ANC activist told the Financial Times:

“Business is growing. You see new shopping malls. But people are still living in the same 45 square metre houses. Capitalists put in nice malls but their concern is to build business, not the people.

The significance of the shift from RDP to GEAR was seen in a June 2007 article in the South African financial publication, Business Report, which stated:

“Behind the latest series of spats between senior members of the governing tripartite alliance is the spirit and legacy of the late Vella Pillay… [The tripartite alliance refers to the ANC, SACP and COSATU.]

“As early as 1991 senior ANC figures had begun to reject Pillay’s stress on an interventionist state to rectify the distortions of the apartheid economy. Pillay was sidelined to make way for economists favouring the liberal, private enterprise policies promoted by international big business at venues such as the World Economic Forum…

“When Nelson Mandela went to Davos for that meeting, it was to deliver the first public statement about the economic policies that would be followed in a post-apartheid South Africa. The task of preparing this detailed statement was given to Pillay, then still in exile in England.

“Pillay’s document was included in the first draft of the speech, a draft that was inadvertently released and published in South Africa, to the consternation of business and the general glee of the trade unions. But it was not the speech that was delivered.

“Fearful of alienating powerful potential investors, the ANC delegation decided on a rapid rewrite. Tito Mboweni, later to become labour minister and now Reserve Bank governor, is credited with drafting what one commentator accurately described as ‘a carefully written, harmless and mildly reassuring’ outline of proposed economic policy…

“Pillay, once tipped as the first ANC governor of the Reserve Bank, found himself increasingly favoured by the trade unions and sidelined by the government. At the same time, business, through the SA Foundation, was drafting an economic policy document that emerged in March 1996 under the title Growth for All, promoting trade liberalisation and privatisation…

“This still sums up the fundamental division: stress either on redistribution leading to greater demand, leading to growth; or on the idea that greater growth will lead to wider redistribution of wealth.

“These debates were briefly buried with the publication of the government’s macroeconomic plan, GEAR. Although not so blatantly pro-business as Growth for All, it also placed the stress on growth. As such, it fell into the category of trickle-down economics.

“The unions were unhappy but, in those still euphoric years, they were unwilling to challenge the new government. As the years have gone by, however, there has been a sense among trade unionists, and certainly in the SA Communist Party, that the government may not be neutral; that the battle may need be fought outside, rather than inside, the alliance. But it is the same fight, the one that began when Vella Pillay’s inclusions in Nelson Mandela’s 1991 speech at Davos were rewritten.”

This is the key background to what is presented in the media as some sort of personality clash between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki.

In a December 2007 interview with the Financial Times, Comrade Zwelinzima Vavi, the head of COSATU, said:

“We think that this flirtation with neo-liberal policies in 1996…has been absolutely disastrous for our development. We think that it is scandalous that we are only having a proposed industrial policy in 2007, in the thirteenth year of democracy, meaning that all along we were walking in a big, big dangerous zone of globalisation without a map.

“We allowed the marketers to take charge of important departments and all they knew was that South Africa had to be exposed to the chilly winds of competition. They cut tariffs even faster than was required by the World Trade Organisation. In the process they undermined the engine of growth itself, the manufacturing sector. We are a developing country. We ought to develop our industries first. We are now reaping the fruits of that…

“We should have deliberately shifted the economy away from capital-intensive sectors to labour intensive sectors. We should have looked at more processing, food. We should have looked at issues of infrastructure, at beneficiation of mineral resources. We should have looked at many things of that kind. We didn’t and I think we will pay.”

Besides drawing lessons from their own experience, the South African liberation movement is also now emboldened to speak out against neo-liberal globalisation by developments in the international situation.

Objectively, the most important has been the rise of China, which provides an alternative example for all developing nations and which reduces, but does not yet remove, the ability of imperialism to impose its will on other nations. China and South Africa have increasingly built a special relationship in both the political and economic fields. As Thabo Mbeki noted in his opening address to the ANC Conference, China’s largest single foreign investment is the twenty per cent stake in South Africa’s Standard Bank, recently purchased by the state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC).

Subjectively, the emergence of a series of new left wing governments in Latin America, and especially the deepening of the Venezuelan revolution, has served to inspire the left in South Africa.

Speaking at an SACP rally last October to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution, Comrade Vavi stated:

“When many have declared socialism dead, it is appropriate to mark the 90th Anniversary of the Russian Revolution and reinstil confidence in the future of socialism. This rally takes place amid rising working class confidence in South Africa and the world, especially in Latin America…

“Neo-liberalism has been challenged throughout the world and more forcefully in Latin America. In this context we salute the wave of left wing-parties coming to power in Latin America, part of that wave of global challenge to neo-liberalism. The South African working class has also forcefully challenged the neo liberal dogma…

“What are the implications for the South African revolution? We must see our struggles as interlinked with the global struggle against neo-liberal globalisation. Our challenge is to radicalise the current path of the national democratic revolution. This means building the power and the confidence of the working class to challenge the hegemony of capital. That requires a reversal of the flirtation with the neo-liberal dogma by the democratic government.”

Concluding his speech, Vavi called on the members of the ANC to mobilise to elect Zuma as their president.

In his organisational report to the ANC Conference, outgoing Secretary General Kgalema Motlanthe reported that in 2006-7 the ANC had sent important study delegations to Cuba and China at the invitation of their communist parties, and had also joined a joint delegation with the SACP and COSATU to Bolivia:

“The objectives of the study tours were to draw lessons on party building, mass mobilisation and challenges of development. The varied insights gained included:

·         The functioning of the Communist Parties of Cuba and the PRC [People’s Republic of China].

·         The importance of cadre development and the institutions of political education, including party schools.

·         The role of the party and its organs in strategic thinking and providing guidance to the state and society.

·         Roles of and relationship between the National, Provincial and Local organisational and government structures in the respective countries.

·         Challenges confronted by parties in Cuba and the PRC and the mechanisms utilised to overcome them.

·         Lessons from China’s sustained economic growth path.”

In resolutions adopted at the conference, the ANC not only committed itself to reinvigorating its alliance with its old liberation movement partners in Namibia, Angola, Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Guinea Bissau, Tanzania and Sudan, as well as Palestine and Western Sahara, it resolved to embark on “a programme to strengthen the progressive movement in Africa and formalise relations with the global progressive movement, in particular Latin America and East Asia”.

It further tasked the incoming NEC to “commit resources and space for the holding of a first meeting of the progressive parties/movements in Africa, with a view to holding an international meeting of all progressive parties/movements in the world before the next conference of the ANC”.

The other vital question for the South African national democratic revolution, to which the conference at last directed significant attention, was that of the land. The liberation movement long ago defined South Africa as a state of settler colonialism, that is colonialism of a special type, in which the coloniser and the colonised inhabit the same national territory.

Since liberation in 1994, South Africa’s progress in land reform has been pitifully slow. On 6 November 2007, the Financial Times reported:

“Concern over the slow progress in land reform comes against the backdrop of mounting tensions within the ANC ahead of leadership elections next month…

“Land is arguably the most sensitive, complex and important issue for post-colonial African governments. This is particularly true in countries where under colonial rule large white settler populations controlled the prime agricultural land…

“In South Africa, the history of land ownership is just as poisoned as Zimbabwe’s was at independence in 1980. The Natives’ Land Act in 1913 set aside more than 80 per cent of South Africa’s land for the whites who made up less than 20 per cent of the population. Between then and the last years of white rule, an estimated six million black South Africans were forced into remote rural ‘homelands’…

“The ANC has a target of redistributing 30 per cent of agricultural land to black farmers by 2014 but the statistics showed that less than five per cent has so far been redistributed…

“Simultaneously, the pressure from the black landless for swifter redistribution intensifies. Their drive is fuelled by a recent wave of evictions of tenants from farms, which has gathered momentum since the introduction of a minimum wage.

“According to Nkuzi, a land rights non-governmental organisation, one million have been forced off white-owned farms since 1994. This would mean more people had lost land than gained it since the end of white rule.”

The article goes on to quote an activist in the Landless Movement:

“He and his family are tenants on a small plot in Kwa-Zulu-Natal where he, his father and grandfather were born. His great- and great-great-grandfathers were also there ‘long before the demarcation of the land by whites’, he thinks.

“‘But we don’t have any rights,’ he says. ‘Even now a farmer is telling us to move our cattle. We have ancestral graves all over the land. We lodged a claim as land tenants. But there is a separate restitution claim on the same land. Land reform is going nowhere. People are being patient but they are being fooled. Market-led reform has failed in many countries. Land invasions are the only way.’”

Indeed, the only country in the region to have tackled this problem in a fundamental and revolutionary way is Zimbabwe, which is a key reason why Comrade Robert Mugabe is without doubt the most popular leader in the entire region.

In the face of government inaction on meaningful land reform in South Africa, the explosive nature of this contradiction has found expression in hundreds of killings of white farmers in remote rural areas. Besides the settling of individual scores, the military character of the organisation and execution of many of these assaults has led many to speculate on the involvement of former members of the three liberation armies that battled white minority rule. [1]

The ANC has now resolved that about one in three farms must be redistributed over the next five years, with foreigners facing property restrictions with immediate effect.

“We should discard the market-driven land reform and immediately review the principle of ‘willing seller-willing buyer’ so as to accelerate the equitable distribution of land.”

Conference noted that only four per cent of agricultural land has been redistributed since 1994, while more than 80 per cent remains in the hands of fewer than 50,000 white farmers and agri-businesses.

“Current approaches to land reform are not achieving the scale or outcomes required for the realisation of a better life for rural South Africans…

“The lack of popular participation in land reform has limited its impact and undermined our efforts to accelerate redistribution. Our approach has been overly reliant on officials and consultants, and has not succeeded in empowering the poor through people-centred approaches to planning and implementation.”

Conference therefore resolved to “expropriate property in the public interest or for public purpose in accordance with the Constitution to achieve equity, redress, social justice and sustainable development”.

It also paid attention to the logistics of transferring land ownership, placing emphasis on the organisation of women into cooperatives, introducing comprehensive support programmes for small farmers, building a “stronger state capacity” and spending more on rural development, land reform and agrarian transformation.

In the Declaration adopted at the close of Conference, the ANC declared that the movement had “emerged the winner, as a disciplined force of the left committed to constructing a better life for all… We are also united around a common strategic objective, the creation of a national democratic society.”

In his closing address as newly elected President, Comrade Zuma struck a conciliatory but principled note:

“A lesson we have learnt from this conference, is that if the leadership fails to resolve issues, or to grasp the feelings of the membership on issues that concern the movement and instead appears to perpetuate the problems, the membership takes over and asserts its authority in ways that we may not be comfortable with. However, we must endeavour to always relate to each other in a comradely manner, regardless of how strongly we feel about issues.”

We wish Comrade Jacob Zuma, the ANC, SACP and the working people and popular masses of South Africa every success in their difficult and complex struggle to continue and deepen the national democratic revolution, which must inevitably open the way to a socialist transformation of the whole of the economy and society.

Just as we were side-by-side with the ANC and the entire liberation movement during the long night of apartheid, we will continue to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in their continuing struggles.


[1] Besides Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), these were the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (APLA, previously known as Poqo [‘Ourselves’]), the armed wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC); and the Azanian National Liberation Army (AZANLA), the armed wing of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania/Azanian People’s Organisation (BCM/AZAPO).

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