/ 21 June 2012

Marginalised parties strive for unity

A meeting  on Youth Day brought black-consciousness adherents and pan-Africanists together on a platform of disillusionment with the ANC.
A meeting on Youth Day brought black-consciousness adherents and pan-Africanists together on a platform of disillusionment with the ANC.

While rumblings of discontent echoed widely during recent Youth Day events, a collection of particularly indignant voices gathered at the historic Regina Mundi Catholic Church in Soweto.

In an unprecedented show of unity, the three major parties to the left of the ANC, the Azanian People’s Organisation (Azapo), its splinter the Socialist Party of Azania (Sopa) and the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) held joint Youth Day commemorations with the slogan “reclaim the revolution”.

The church, with its stained-glass windows and a grand statue of Christ on a cross in the centre, was just more than half-full. But everyone knew the words to the struggle songs and knew to extend their fists in solidarity – or, in the case of PAC members, an open-hand salute.

Sitting in a pew at the back wearing a beanie against the mid-winter cold was 62-year-old Sadeque Variava, a founding member of Azapo, formed in 1978 as the flag-bearing black-consciousness organisation after the banning of the movement’s leaders.

The audience was asked to stand as the speakers entered. But Variava hesitated. “In Biko’s time, we never stood up for our leaders,” he whispered, “because it creates a personality cult.”

A united front
And the reasons for the unity of political parties on the podium were unclear to him. “Even in exile, Azapo and the PAC never got along,” he said. “Many people would be opposed to them joining.”

But a united front was in force on stage and the prevailing sentiment was that ordinary people had lost the capacity to influence politics.

At the lectern, Azapo president Jacob Dikobo highlighted the ­apathy: “Our people have become spectators waiting for hand-outs.”

Speaker after speaker bemoaned the ANC’s sacrifice of struggle principles, beginning with the compromises made at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa in 1991 and followed by demonstrations over the years of “self-serving leadership” and the “free beer and boerewors” served at the National Youth Development Agency’s Youth Day celebrations that same day.  

But for all the rhetoric, it seems that no real alternative to the ANC is forthcoming for those from a liberation tradition.

According to Steven Friedman, director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg, “no party will challenge the ANC unless it can convince ANC voters that they can vote for it while remaining true to the traditions of the ANC”.

The breakthrough success of the Congress of the People, which captured 7.2% of the national vote in 2009, was unlikely to be replicated. “Cope’s route to success was in projecting itself as a successor to the ANC,” said Friedman. “It has not done this and this means it will always have limited growth prospects.”

But for minority parties, such as Azapo, the perception of marginalisation has increased. “We can say, without mincing words, that things are worse under President [Jacob] Zuma,” said Strike Thokoane, the deputy president of Azapo.

During his presidency, Thabo Mbeki incorporated Azapo members into the government. The president of Azapo at the time, Mosibudi Mangena, was appointed minister of science and technology in 2004 but resigned in 2009. Another Azapo leader, advocate Mojanku Gumbi, was Mbeki’s powerful legal adviser.

“Zuma is not an intellectual,” said Friedman. “He was not really interested in those ideas and did not consider the organisations a political threat. So he has not made the same effort.”

Funding as a barrier
On an organisational level, the political outlook for black consciousness and Africanist parties such as the PAC is bleak. “I can’t see what would change for them to make any political difference,” said Friedman. The parties could not reach the 1% mark in the 2009 national and 2011 local elections.

Leaders blame funding as a barrier to entry for small parties. “Democracy and elections are money elections,” said Thokoane. “If you have money, you get the votes.”
Azapo has community projects in the pipeline. “The reason black consciousness grew in the 1960s and 1970s was our community projects, like health and education. This is the only route we can take to rebuild,” said the veteran Variava, now an executive member of Azapo. But Dikobo was reluctant to provide details of these projects at this stage and their potency remains to be seen.

Calls for unity have grown among the black-consciousness triad of Azapo, Sopa and the Black Consciousness Collective. Amukelani Ngobeni, head of the Azapo Youth League, said the negotiations that started in 2002 were finally yielding results, but he pointed out that there were senior businesspeople who had “taken a back seat” because they were too fragmented.

Resistance to unity comes from old adherents reluctant to relinquish their organisational identities. Sopa Youth League president Mandla Khoza said he had had enough of the “toxic propaganda of the elders” and “of who did what to who in exile”.

Ideological differences
Unity with the PAC has been attempted only on special occasions. Most agree that the organisations’ ideological differences are too large for any permanent arrangement.
Policy-wise, both the PAC and Azapo do not belong to the ANC’s Charterist tradition with its founding document, the Freedom Charter.

The PAC envisions a radical land redistribution policy and Africa-wide unity, whereas Azapo wants the abolition of private property rights towards creating the “socialist state of Azania”. But race issues seem to be off the table and both the PAC and Azapo assert themselves as colour-blind and open to all “races”.

Plagued by what Friedman has called “endemic splitting”, the Pan Africanist movement, similarly, has slim prospects of success.
It seems there is little alternative for people disillusioned with the ANC. As long as those with some claim to black consciousness and pan-Africanist liberation traditions lack organisational strength, it is difficult to see any real threat being posed to the ruling party.