The African National Congress and South Africa’s struggle to overcome Apartheid and colonialism are all but synonymous. For decades they were the standard bearers of progressive ideas, revolutionary fervour, intellectualism, justice, and reconciliation.
But the “born-free” generation, who have witnessed the ANC’s transition from a liberation movement to the ruling party in South Africa’s young democracy, know the party by a different name: corrupt.
So, where did it all go wrong?
There is more than a century’s worth of context, but there’s a good argument that the party’s descent into corruption, incompetence and moral decay began about 40 years ago.
It’s hard for the younger generation to understand the vastly different global order under the Cold War, which played a large role in the continuation of the ANC’s underground operations as a banned political organisation.
But with the USSR and its satellite states in Eastern Europe losing ground in the ideological battle against global capitalism, the ANC found itself in a weakened position as negotiations to end Apartheid coincided with a loss of support from their international benefactors.
As explained in this article written in 1990, the ANC had little choice but to compromise on the socialist ideals intended to correct the structural inequities created by Apartheid in the form of land and wealth redistribution, among other key policy directives.
Looking at the Freedom Charter of 1955 – the ANC’s guiding policy document to spearhead the strategy of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) – you’ll see calls for the nationalisation of monopoly industries as well as the redistribution of land. The NDR, intended as an incremental, working-class-led, two-stage transition to socialism, stemmed directly from the South African Communist Party’s programme for a democratic ‘bourgeois’ revolution to be followed by a socialist one.
“When workers engage in the national struggle to destroy race domination they are surely, at the same time, engaging in class struggle,” wrote General Secretary South African Communist Party, Joe Slovo, in 1988.
This led to compromise after compromise under Nelson Mandela’s Government of National Unity (GNU), which allowed FW De Klerk to lay the foundations for the socioeconomic order in South Africa to remain almost exactly the same as it was before the democratic transition.
This is reflected in the legislation designed to achieve economic justice, shifting from wealth redistribution and worker empowerment to growth-oriented initiatives.
A culture of inequity
With a Gini coefficient of 63, South Africa is the most unequal country in the world.
We have more than 18 million people living in extreme poverty, exposure to crime is commonplace, and we are living through an epidemic of gender-based violence. And, with the ANC winning just 45,59 percent of the national vote in the 2021 local government elections (down from 66,35 percent at the height of the ANC’s popularity in 1999), the public trust of the ANC is lower than it has ever been.
And the real turning point was, ironically, under Thabo Mbeki when the ANC had more support from the electorate than ever.
The government abandoned the socialist wealth redistribution policies outlined in the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) – that manifested in service delivery and community creation – in favour of the Growth, Employment, and Redistribution (GEAR) policy.
This refocused political efforts towards job creation through a neo-liberal focus on structural reform of the economy, trade liberalisation privatisation and the attraction of foreign investment and kickstarted the factionalism that we see in the party today.
The sharp break from RDP policies led to the abrupt and unilateral loss of progressive perspectives in policy creation and, ultimately, those left behind would offer their support to Jacob Zuma in his battle to become ANC President, which led to Thabo Mbeki’s recall.
These two sects of the ANC would eventually become what we now know as the New Dawn and Radical Economic Transformation camps within the party.
Many will probably point to the Zuma years as the definitive period in which the ANC rot began to show, but the truth is that those years (and what we see today) are symptoms of decay that started decades before.