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Alex Callinicos

Politics of the ANC

(September 1985)

From Socialist Worker Review, No. 79, September 1985.
Transcribed by Christian Høgsbjerg.
Marked up by Einde O’ Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

THE main force in the black resistance in South Africa today is the African National Congress. Banned since 1960, its influence within the country is evident in the calls for the release of Nelson Mandela, in the rapid growth of the United Democratic Front since 1983, and in the activities of the ANC military wing, Umkhonto weSizwe (MK).

To say that ANC is the main resistance organisation is not to say that it is the only one. The National Forum Committee represents the other major current of African nationalism in South Africa – the black consciousness movement – which vigorously contests ANC/UDF hegemony. The independent unions, especially FOSATU, represent, albeit much more circumspectly, a political force independent of the ANC.

Nevertheless, ANC’s relative ideological coherence, cadre organisation, and popular following give it a strategic hold on the black resistance. How is it likely to exercise this influence?

The ANC’s strategy amounts to a version of the stages theory of revolution imposed by Stalin and Bukharin on the Comintern in the 1920s. For the ANC, the struggle against apartheid is one for democratic rights and national liberation which is in the interests of the vast majority of the population and which can be achieved by a broad alliance of the black bourgeoisie, petty bourgeoisie and proletariat, and of white ‘democrats’. Only once majority rule has been achieved will the question of a distinctively working class struggle for socialism be posed.

This strategy undoubtedly reflects the influence of the South African Communist Party within the ANC, which enjoys considerable support from the Soviet bloc. But it also corresponds to the interests of the African middle classes.

The black consciousness movement espouses essentially an identical view of change, with the incidental differences that it sees no role for white anti-racists and is willing to indulge in much worthless Marxist rhetoric: thus invocations of the black working class are undermined by statements that all blacks are workers!

HOW has the ANC responded to the past year’s crisis? Previously it had relied largely on a strategy of armed struggle involving the infiltration of MK guerillas from neighbouring black-ruled frontline states. This approach suffered a very serious blow when President Samora Machel of Mozambique signed the Nkomati pact with South Africa in March 1984, and ordered the closure of ANC’s important military bases in his country.

The township revolts, and the rapid growth of the UDF, very much a legal continuation of the ANC tradition, have revived the movement’s fortunes, but there remains the question of how it should relate to the intensified mass struggles inside South Africa.

For the exiled ANC leadership, fiercely protective of their claim to be the sole embodiment of the South African people, this question is inseparable from that of how to ensure that they are not marginalised by forces inside the country. This concern sometimes assumes pathological proportions. ANC/SACP absurdly insist that solidarity with workers’ struggles should be routed through its trade union front, SACTU, nonexistent within the country, rather than through the independent unions which actually organise and lead these struggles.

The solution has been to attempt directly to link MK with the mass movement within the country. This has taken a variety of forms. First, the ANC consultative conference held in Zambia in June authorised MK to attack ‘soft’ targets – white civilians and black collaborators – as well as the government installations on which it had previously focused.

The second theme is well summed up by ANC president Oliver Tambo’s new year message: ‘Render South Africa ungovernable.’ In particular, this means turning the townships into ‘liberated zones’. As Tambo put it:

‘In the course of our mass offensive, we have, from time to time, and with increased frequency created the situation in various localities such that the democratic forces challenged the apartheid authorities for control of these areas, emerging as the alternative power. With regard to the perspective of people’s war, this means we have forged the conditions for us to transform these areas into mass revolutionary bases from which Umkhonto weSizwe must grow as an army of the people.’

Thirdly, the ANC has called on the African masses themselves to wage armed struggle. ‘The weapons are there in front of you,’ one broadcast declared. ‘They are in the hands of the policemen themselves ... We should attack the police stations and army barracks and capture those weapons.’ There have also been appeals to black soldiers and policemen to turn their guns onto their own officers.

This shift on the ANC’s part undoubtedly corresponds to the mood of many of the best young militants – of the students who fled South Africa after the Soweto uprising and are now MK cadre, of the youth in the Eastern Cape carrying placards demanding that Tambo supply them with AK47s. And armed struggle will be necessary, and the masses will have to be armed to destroy apartheid.

Nevertheless, as Engels said, ‘Don’t play at insurrection.’ ANC’s current strategy amounts precisely to that, since it involves advocating tactics which would only make sense if the overthrow of the white state were an immediate issue. As an accompanying article makes clear, this condition is not met: the ruling class continue to monopolise coercive power.

AT best, ANC’s calls may lead to some townships, probably mainly in its Eastern Cape strongholds, becoming no-go areas for the white state. At worst, it could result in the lives of the best militants being recklessly squandered in heroic but hopeless armed confrontations with the apartheid state.

The crucial problem facing those seeking to overturn white power is political, not military. How to mobilise the full power of the black masses? More specifically, how to combine the industrial strength of the black trade unions with the political militancy of the township revolts? So far the fusion of these two movements (whose membership of course overlaps) has been temporary and limited.

It is easy to overestimate the strength of the independent unions. In 1983 only 15 percent of the economically active population had been unionised. Given South African conditions, a class-wide movement is likely to develop only through a wave of mass strikes such as those in Poland five years ago, in which political and economic demands are combined.

Unfortunately, the ANC is not addressing the question of how to develop the strength and consciousness of the black working class. The conference confirmed the militarisation of the organisation, with the election of a War Council, the decision that all members should undergo guerilla training, the imposition of military discipline, and constant chants of ‘Mayihlome’ – ‘Let us go to war!’.

The expulsion of the Militant-aligned Marxist Workers’ Tendency, who had protested against the subordination of trade union work to recruitment for MK, was confirmed by the conference. The MWT themselves present a far more adequate analysis of the situation than the ANC, based on the recognition that apartheid can only be destroyed by socialist revolution. However, they conclude by offering a South African version of the Militant’s British strategy:

‘The revolutionary workers’ party and workers’ leadership which is needed in South Africa can be created successfully in a struggle of organised workers and youth to build and transform for their purpose the ANC itself.’

THIS approach has some merits. It is better than the recent call made by Socialist Organiser for the independent unions to form their own party. Any such quasi-syndicalist strategy fails to confront the fact that the mass of black trade unionists are likely to look towards either the ANC or the black consciousness movement for political leadership. African nationalism can only be challenged politically.

But the MWT does not explain how the ANC, an organisation whose politics are based on nationalism and populism, and whose internal regime is highly Stalinist, can be won to revolutionary socialism. Surely the MWT’s own unfortunate experiences inside the ANC should be of some relevance here.

The MWT’s parroting of their British co-thinkers’ opposition to ‘sectarian splitting of the mass organisations’ seems singularly inappropriate to a situation of such political flux as South Africa. The independent unions, many of whose best activists have strong reservations about the ANC/UDF, provide an arena in which support for an independent revolutionary socialist organisation could be won.

For such an organisation to be built, what Trotsky called the primitive accumulation of cadres is first necessary. The task is an urgent one.

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