Mission unfulfilled

One of the spin-offs of the ongoing convulsion within the ruling tripartite alliance has been to highlight the two most popular pet subjects of post-apartheid South Africa. The first is that the ”African National Congress project has been exhausted”. Or, put bluntly, the ANC has betrayed its mission and sold out its black working class and the poor to the capitalist vultures for a bite of the residue from its prey. The second favourite topic is that the South African Communist Party is dead. Those who attended the SACP’s funeral thus liken its recent criticism of the ANC to the spirit of the dead that does nothing else, except remind us of the death. The party’s criticism of the ANC is thus dismissed as the inscription on its tombstone in some graveyard that provides a resting place for all relics of history.

Both these conclusions are grossly flawed. To charge the ANC of betrayal reflects misdiagnosis of its mission. If anything, the ANC is yet to fulfil its mission. And, contrary to being a ghost that taunts us periodically, the SACP is still a living organism occupying space above ground with the rest of us. Beyond just being alive, the party is illuminating the contradictions that are inherent within the current transitional phase, also known as the national democratic revolution (NDR), within the alliance circles. Frankly, the party is probing the class content of the NDR — a question that the ANC’s mission has subsumed to addressing the more urgent historical burden imposed on its nationalist shoulders by our colonial legacy — the race question.

What do I mean by misdiagnosis of the ANC mission and that the mission is yet to be complete? One cannot understand the mission independent of the cause that set the nationalist project into motion. That cause, as we all know but conveniently forget, was a racist system that, at the time, had been in place for close to 250 years. Believing that they were superior and a God-ordained race and that Africans were sub-human and incapable of doing anything beyond being servants to the white race, advocates of white supremacy structured South Africa in a way that gave expression to this racist belief. Every aspect of black life mirrored this racist foundation of our society. The paradoxical imagery of Alexandra and Sandton is a tangible depiction of that past, to say the least.

Of course the nationalist cause finally attained political victory in 1994, but this did not spell an end to the nationalist mission. The mission means more than simply earning the right to the ballot. If anything, the present dispensation provides space and resources to annul the colonial injunction that blackness is synonymous with inferiority and pauperism. Again, the juxtaposed imagery of Alexandra and Sandton is a constant reminder of the persistence of colonial legacy eight years into independence. Intangibly, too, racism lives among us. Chester Williams, in his new autobiography, breaks the silence and tells us of the racism he suffered at the hands of his white teammates who openly called him a ”kaffir” and believed that his black skin made him unworthy of a Springbok jersey. Breyton Paulse adds that his coach, Nick Mallet, referred to his selection as ”merit with a bias”. Mallet thought Paulse unworthy of a spot in the national team. Left to its own devices, the white rugby establishment would prefer to keep blacks out of rugby. Including blacks is seen as a nuisance that has to be tolerated to placate the new political authority. How can a black player be a nuisance in a national team of an African country? Sickening isn’t it?

This is the legacy of apartheid and the challenge that lies ahead of the nationalist movement. Surely we must all agree that the myth of racial inferiority/superiority has to be actively debunked not just by nice talk, but programmatically as well. After all, we cannot continue to call ourselves a non-racial society when everything around us reflects our racist past. Our society must of necessity be deracialised in its entirety.

Failure to do so perpetuates the myth of racism and suggests nationalist complicity to the racist ideology that whites naturally deserve to control the commanding heights of our economy, determine public debates, occupy the best spots in the land and dominate influential positions in our society.

This is what the NDR refers to and which, incidentally, the SACP endorsed.

Now, what does one make of the SACP’s criticism of the ANC? After all, in pledging support to the NDR, the SACP inevitably supported deracialisation of the economy by promoting a black bourgeoisie. In light of the fact that this objective cannot be pursued through appropriating white property, since it has constitutional protection, one of the routes available and that is being pursued is selling off state assets to aspirant black business. This obviously means privatisation with adverse results for workers and affordability of services. This is the contradiction that the SACP highlights in its criticism.

While workers have generally benefited from the post-apartheid settlement, compared to black business they’ve fallen short. It seems black business is benefiting at the expense of the workers’ retrenchment and impoverishment.

The current NDR phase doesn’t seem to sufficiently and equally pursue both interests. This is what has suddenly made the SACP restless and propelled it into questioning ANC policies. Hence I argue that the party has not betrayed its communist mission but wants to recapture the dream.

In questioning black economic empowerment, though, the SACP effectively questions ”black progress”. This is the dilemma. How does the SACP, after decades of professing opposition to economic exclusion and commitment to black people owning a share of the economy, suddenly find fault with blacks ”making it in business”? This is where the ANC’s accusation of being counter-revolutionary, tinged with unfortunate allegations of racism, comes in. It now seems that the party is betraying the NDR, which remains incomplete, for a seat alongside opponents of ”black progress”. Contrary to those who’ve written the obituary telling us of its death, the party is not only alive but also seeks to break with tradition by questioning the class bias of this NDR phase.

There is nothing enigmatic about the current ANC-SACP stand-off. It is simply unusual, but inevitable. The differing character of the two parties preordained this confrontation, but deferred it until the racial power structure was deposed. Even the ANC itself, as a nationalist movement that seeks to cater for all black interests regardless of class position, is grappling with the class contradictions within black society. This is an inevitable stage that all nationalist movements have to navigate.

Ultimately, what the party is saying is nothing that the ANC itself has not thought of. The ongoing debate on the feasibility of social grants for the unemployed is borne out of the recognition that our capitalist society is less caring towards the working class and the poor. Whether or not cushioning the effects of capitalism will soothe the tension both within the ANC and between alliance partners, is of course another question whose answer lies in the future. It may be in the immediate or distant future, but the answer will certainly come.

Mcebisi Ndletyana teaches history at the City University of New York

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Mcebisi Ndletyana
Mcebisi Ndletyana is a professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg and co-author of a forthcoming book on the centenary history of Fort Hare University.

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