The Degeneration of the African National Congress

By Richard Pithouse · 24 Feb 2010

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Picture: Vark1
Picture: Vark1

The degeneration of the African National Congress has reached the point where it poses a clear and present danger to the integrity of society. Julius Malema is one of the more flamboyant examples of how a movement committed to national liberation has become, in the words of Frantz Fanon, ‘a means of private advancement’. But Malema is hardly alone. The Communication Workers Union is entirely correct to have diagnosed an ‘embedded and deep-seated Kebble-ism’ within the ANC. 

In recent days it has been revealed that Nonkululeko Mhlongo, mother of two of Jacob Zuma’s children, has a multi-million rand contract to provide catering services to the KwaZulu-Natal legislature. And Zweli Mkhize’s wife and daughter have just secured a R3 million rand tender from the Department of Correctional Services. This sort of thing has been going on for years and cannot be ascribed to a few problematic individuals. On the contrary in cases like the arms deal and Valli Moosa’s double dealing between Eskom and the ANC fund raising committee, the organisation as a whole has been deeply compromised. It has also been collectively compromised by the systemic failure to take a clear position against individuals involved in dubious practices.

It may be true that the fish rots from the head but it is essential that we understand that the degeneration of the ANC is not just a question of the increasing power of a predatory elite within the party. Empowerment used to be imagined as a collective and political project that could transform society from below. It is now understood, at all levels of the party, as a matter of personal incorporation into the minority that is able to profit from our increasingly unequal society. This process does go some way towards the deracialisation of domination but there’s not much ground for social hope if that’s the limit of our aspirations.

The ANC has abandoned the language of social justice for the fantasy of a post-political language of ‘delivery’. This language assumes that the state only has to meet people’s most basic needs for survival and that this is a simple question of technical efficiency. The first problem with the language of delivery is that delivery itself is often a strategy for containing popular aspirations rather than a strategy for achieving universal human flourishing. Dumping people in ‘housing opportunities’ in peripheral ghettos where there is very little hope for much more than a child support grant and the possibility of a short term ‘job opportunity’ might keep them from blockading a major road but its only development in the most perverse sense of the term.

The second problem is that the fantasy of development as a post-political question of government working faster, harder and smarter fails to engage with the deeply political realities that shape any attempt at development. Political decisions have to be taken on questions like whether or not the social value of land and services should come before their commercial value. When the politics of these questions is not addressed ‘service delivery’ can only be ‘rolled out’ in the margins of society with the result that it itself becomes a process of active marginalisation.

But the inevitably political nature of development is not just about the competing interests of the poor on one side and the rich and corporate power on the other. There is also a politics that plays out between people on the ground and local party elites. Time and again officials, often trying to follow directives from senior politicians in good faith, find that their attempts to implement technocratic development are captured by local party elites and appropriated and redirected for their own purposes. This is not always a case of simple plunder. Often the allocation of housing and services, as well as all the contracts that go with this process, is subsumed into the systems of clientalism and patronage by which the ANC often cements political support within the party at the local level. In many cases development projects justified in the name of meeting the needs of the people become projects that are primarily orientated towards cementing alliances within the micro-local structures of the party. Its ward committees and local Branch Executive Committees are populated by a multitude of mini-Malemas.

In Fanon’s analysis there is, inevitably, an authoritarian underside that accompanies the degeneration of the party into a ‘means of private advancement’. He writes that the party ‘helps the government to hold the people down. It becomes more and more clearly anti-democratic, an implement of coercion.’ A party that says and that must continue to say that is for the people when in fact it has become a means of private advancement via complicity with domination will inevitably collapse into paranoia and authoritarianism as it tries to square the circle by pretending, to itself as much as anyone else, that private enrichment is somehow the real fruit of national liberation.

In contemporary South Africa it is not at all unusual to find that people live in fear of local councillors and their ward committees and Branch Executive Committees. In fact it is no exaggeration to say that we have developed a two tier political system with liberal political rights for the middle classes and increasingly severe curtailment of basic political rights for the poor.

Poor people’s movements have long been subject to unlawful and violent repression carried out with impunity by local political elites. But as these practices become normalised they are carried out ever more brazenly. The enthusiastic support from key figures in the local and provincial ANC for the attacks on Abahlali baseMjondolo in Durban in September last year stand as one of the lowest points to which the ANC has yet descended in post-apartheid South Africa. But the fate of Chumani Maxwele, the Cape Town jogger on whom the full and at times lunatic paranoia of the ANC descended last week, has done more than any other event to reveal to a wider public the paranoid authoritarianism that is deeply entrenched within the ANC.

Of course there are people and strands within the party that are opposed to the way in which it has become another predatory excrescence on society. But the ANC no longer has any real political vision and is deeply and often violently suspicious of any real politics that emerges from below - be it from within or outside of the party. It can issue statements against corruption but the fact is that the political machine by which it is elected is built on systemic patronage, clientalism and corruption. It cannot oppose any of this without fundamentally opposing what it has become. And it’s not at all clear if there is any real prospect for the organisation to develop a meaningful political vision with which it can mobilise itself against itself – against what the National Union of Metalworkers has called the ‘marauding gang’ that has compromised the ANC at every level. If the task of posing an alternative political vision can be still be taken up effectively it may well fall to those unions, poor people’s movements and churches that have already become the conscience of our society.

Dr. Pithouse teaches politics at Rhodes University.

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Verified user
26 Feb

Interesting and Insightful

I would like to complement Mr Pithouse on his piece, I found it both interesting and insightfull, he has put into words what I have been worried about for some time now. The reality is I'm afraid that the majority of ANC members pay lip service to Human Rights while they have a controling majority as soon as that comes under threat I fear for our country,

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Miles Teg
27 Feb

Fantastic Piece

Great stuff. Fanon also said the "the first shall be the last" - the culture is senile even before it passes from infancy. Another thing Fanon warned about the pitfalls of national consciousness is that it tends to fall into ethnicism, tribalism, and other forms of intolerance. And the people are shocked and alienated. SA seems to be following the well-trodden path, and as Fanon aptly put it - the bourgeoisie finds itself without any money. The state as ATM it seems! But how were other countries able to turn things around so that strong nationalists able to employ people and develop the economy and country. Perhaps the NEC can focus on this instead of trying to spin out of blatant private enhancement. Perhaps it is too much to expect the NEC to take the Alliance partners seriously and heed Fanon's warning - that as an intermediary (opposed to even Capiltalist), the nation suffers.

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Verified user
28 Feb


This is a devastating critique of the ANC. After reading the City Press this morning, and seeing the outcome of Malema's tenders, its clear that the ANC is, without question, 'a clear and present danger to society'. The unions and communists made a tragic and disastrous error of judgement in backing Zuma.

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Mmusi Moraka
1 Mar

The Degeneration of the ANC

The article by Richard Pithouse on the above mentioned subject poses very critical questions for the ANC and its revolutionary mandate to lead South Africa towards a prosperous society and the achievement of human rights. The question that the ANC must answer is how it is going to respond to this crises of crass materialism, greed and deeply entrenched corruption practices in society at large? This is particularly important when such practices are perceived, proven and suspected to be led by the members of the ANC itself. The integrity of the ANC is currently being put under public scrutiny and some of the comments from its leaders do not assist the situation.

My view is that the ANC remains the only hope for millions of South Africans, especially those that are still trapped in grinding poverty and joblessness. This is because the vision of the ANC is not in doubt or being contested by its members and supporters. What is at stake is whether the current leadership is poised to lead the organisation to achieve this vision. I thought Richard should have been able to dissect this fact and isolate the leadership practice as a problem, and not necessarily that the ANC no longer has a political vision. We all know that this cannot be true!

I totally agree with Richard that the ANC must confront the question of development in the context of the current socio economic conditions. I am of the view that we have been reluctant to temper with the structural problems of our economy lest we agitate investors and in the process the past sixteen years of democratic rule has not yielded the levels of development that the national liberation project is seeking. On the contrary, we have continued to sustain and increase social inequalities! this is largely due to the macro economic choices we have made. furthermore, we have not built strong public institutions to drive the national liberation project. Our government departments are weak at all levels and that is why, year in and year out, they get qualified audits reports. We have not mastered policy process from planning to implementation, we have not followed meritorious deployment of capacity to lead state institutions, we have not built strong parliaments that provide effective oversight.

All these questions require an introspection on the part of the ANC.

Lastly, the millions of poor South Africans cannot afford to lose hope in the ANC and its vision, they must fight for it and use all kinds of actions to draw their organisation back to its revolutionary track. I am happy to see some of the ANC branches leading community demonstrations against government's inability to respond to their socio economic needs and in the process also pointing out corruption on the part of those deployed by the ANC. This gives me hope that the character of the ANC can still be restored by the millions of its members and supporters. There is a growing movement within the ANC who believe that the current leadership of the ANC, at all levels, cannot help us to achieve total national liberation and that indeed they pose a danger to the integrity of the vision of the ANC.

The are a number of actions that the ANC must take to restore it character, namely:
1. Implement lifestyle audit across the board, ANC leaders at all levels and and all government officials.
2. Review current deployment practices and policy.
3. involve citizens in policy processes and stages.
4. review the macro economic trajectory.

Richard and other academics must come to the front and lead this debates.

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