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Unpacking the myth of ANC ‘renewal’

The ruling but beleaguered ANC first began talking about its “renewal” at its 1997 Stellenbosch electoral conference. This timeline is important to note because it was three years after the party had decisively won the watershed 1994 elections. Some serious problems were already evident after the ANC came to office three years earlier, to the extent that it warranted having to draw attention to the need for its renewal, the full meaning and significance of which the ANC has never clearly spelt out or elaborated on.

In my new book, The Great Pretenders, Race & Class under ANC Rule, I deal with this matter in depth. A resolution for the renewal of the ANC obviously meant that it had lost its way and wanted to restore itself to its former state of strength and vitality that existed before things went wrong, or when it departed from or contradicted its founding principle and policies.

But as I show in the book, the ANC was never seriously and consistently committed to the fundamental transformation of our economy and society from what we had suffered under apartheid, but only the attainment of political democracy, such as the right to vote, to free speech, to live where you want to (if you can afford to) and a wide range of related rights and freedoms associated with so-called “bourgeois democracy”.

South Africa has the worst socioeconomic crisis in its history today precisely because the ANC, in its negotiations with the former apartheid rulers, left intact the ownership and control of the economy in the hands of what is called “white monopoly capital”. This is still the case today if you look closely at the shares and structure of the JSE.

Although the ANC’s neoliberal policies from the outset in 1994, the devastating impacts of Covid-19 and the recent mass looting and destruction of vitally important infrastructure has considerably worsened all the racial, class and gender disparities we inherited from the apartheid era, what is indisputable is the continued dominance of the economy by the white elite, which explains why many big shopping malls were attacked in this month’s riots.

And it is against this background that we must seriously question the “renewal” President Cyril Ramaphosa once again committed the party to last week with the creation of a new commission for that purpose. Have we not heard enough of this vacuous “renewal” of the ANC for 24 years since its Stellenbosch conference?

It is deeply and revealingly ironic that, to the contrary, things got much worse in the ANC, almost in inverse proportion to talk of its renewal. This was the trend even before the deluge of corruption we witnessed over the past decade. It is abundantly clear that the party’s recent talk of its renewal is related to damage-control over the recent spree of chaotic and widespread looting in Kwa-Zulu Natal and Gauteng, especially in light of the local government elections that were set to take place in October, but will in all likelihood be postponed to early next year.  

But the most striking feature of the ANC’s renewal discourse is that it never focuses on policy matters, which I argue should be the heart of any serious renewal in the party. In this pivotal regard the ANC needs to go back and ask itself why the progressive social-democratic Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP) office closed in April 1996 and was replaced two months later with the explicitly neoliberal Growth, Employment and Redistribution strategy and pretend that there was no contradiction in doing so. It was meant to continue the implementation of the RDP, not signal its abandonment, especially when all available evidence for maintaining it pointed to the contrary.

The ANC must also ask itself why, after it took office, it effectively abandoned several key and critical demands in the Freedom Charter, such as nationalisation of strategic sectors of the economy and that “The doors of learning and culture shall be open to all”, which was made a cruel mockery of by the demands of the FeesMustFall movement of 2015.

Likewise, the ANC must ask itself why it has failed to use the available legislation in section 25 of the constitution to implement the redistribution of land. It was only after the Economic Freedom Fighters raised this combustible matter in parliament in 2018 that it reactively turned its attention to it.

And why did the ANC government adopt and implement the Municipal Systems Act of 2000, which for the first time made provision for the commercialisation, corporatisation and commodification of basic services in townships? Any study of the unstoppable avalanche of protests in this country since June 2004, which has notoriously made us both the protest capital of the world and its most unequal country (causal factors that are related), will make it clear that we have seen a rapid rise in township protests since the early 2000s.

Naturally, given the widespread and devastating poverty and unemployment of the apartheid period, and its bitter legacy after 1994, it was the black masses who would find it hardest to pay for municipal services. The passing of the Municipal Systems Act led to the installation and imposition of prepaid water meters from 2001 onwards in many black townships. Significantly, the ANC imposed them here even after prepaid water meters had been banned in Britain. 

It is against such a background that I have argued for the introduction of a basic income grant, which reports indicate Ramaphosa and his cabinet are considering, in the wake of the widespread destruction of the riots of last week. Were that to happen, perhaps then we will have concrete evidence of a genuine renewal and welcome return to the more social-democratic character of both the RDP and the Freedom Charter the ANC abandoned in the late 1990s.

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Ebrahim Harvey
Ebrahim Harvey is a political writer and author of The Great Pretenders: Race & Class under ANC Rule (Jacana)

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