New traditions in liberation politics

Compelling as it may be, getting too absorbed in the intrigue of palace politics and personalities will lead us away from clarity in this crisis.

We are witnessing the convulsions of the tripartite alliance and a shift in state-party relations in South Africa, at the heart of which is the difference between a liberation movement and a political party. Between the habits of the old and the challenges of the new, each claiming to uphold the “traditions” of the ANC and the tripartite alliance, something had to give.

Besides the competition over who benefits from the spoils of BEE, the Terror Lekota initiative represents the alarm of the elitist nationalist traditions of the ANC, confronted by the less coherent Zuma coalition of populist left nationalists, among whom the spectre of “tribalism” and disrespect, for both judicial law and customary law, seem to be flourishing. Competing recourse to the traditions of the ANC, embodied in the Freedom Charter, is actually about the struggle to determine its “traditions” in the years ahead rather than the past. It’s about both the ideas it upholds and the way it gets things done.

The ANC as a liberation movement has forged practices it claims are an integral part of its identity: collective leadership, supposed absence of careerism, democratic centralism and grass-roots-driven mandates. The overall organisational aim was the creation of a single united identity; the overall organisational effect was the strength of the clenched fist rather than the dangling fingers of an open hand. The ANC up to now has been able to marry its ideas and practices with remarkable success.

But what makes for successful political manoeuvring in a liberation movement facing repression does not translate easily into a liberal democracy. Liberation movements emphasise a collective identity, while parliamentary portfolios, by their very nature, individualise political power. Ministers are responsible for their portfolios and are accountable to a Constitution, to a Parliament and to the party.

Individuals will inevitably “interpret” mandates in their own ways and many different interest groups will try to influence the thinking of an individual minister, in proper and improper ways. This is the new normal.

The tripartite alliance may have been a formidable arrangement as an oppositional unity, but its future can really only be symbolic. Former president Thabo Mbeki felt the tension between “the movement” and the state, putting a solid wedge between the alliance partners and the presidency. How much this had to do with his own ideological preferences and how much of it was the result of a structural logic that will be forced on any future head of state, we will see. President Kgalema Motlanthe will soon learn, and later, perhaps, Jacob Zuma too.

What the SACP and Cosatu, and factions within the ANC have to think about carefully is whether their current “success” in removing what they see as obstacles to their inability to influence political power will actually solve their problems. They may be buoyed by their presidential purge, but this is short-sighted. If they don’t realise that the problem is more complex than the individual style of a leader then they are soon going to find themselves plotting again for the removal of a political leader who will feel the pressure of the global economic and political forces, of local pressures, including business and the new black elites, to make policy that reflects myriad contending interests.

Short of a complete revolution, what the left needs to think about is how to influence political power and policy-making more effectively in a democratic South Africa. Relying on tactics and strategies honed in the trenches of liberation politics are unlikely to realise progressive political objectives and more likely to regurgitate its problems and our crisis. If the right wing of the liberation movement is about to seek a new democratic voice in the form of a political party, it’s not clear that the left has found it yet.

Suren Pillay is a senior research specialist in the Democracy and Governance programme of the HSRC and senior lecturer in Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape

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