/ 10 January 2024

Can the ANC’s stance on Palestine help it rediscover its radical roots?

South Africa has instituted proceedings at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) against Israel over alleged genocide in its retaliatory strikes against Hamas in Gaza since early October
Supporters during the ANC KZN Palestinian Solidarity March on October 26, 2023 in Durban, South Africa. The group is standing in solidarity with the Palestinian resistance against Israeli and over the war in the Gaza Strip. (Photo by Darren Stewart/Gallo Images via Getty Images)

Could the ANC’s courageous stance on Palestinian liberation be its Morogoro moment?  For that to occur the leadership must be as assertive, courageous and single-minded in tackling rampant corruption, deepening poverty, deteriorating socio-economic conditions, disintegration of government institutions and state-owned enterprises as it is when supporting the struggle of the Palestinian people.  

But it is not clear that the ANC has learnt from the plaudits it has received for its brave decision on Palestine and changed tack. Many ANC supporters are probably secretly hoping that the decision on Palestine will result in the party refusing to kowtow to the fears of the West and big business — and be as clinical in managing its own internal problems, especially when dealing with leaders who are facing questions about their integrity and morality.

The ANC can take comfort from the experience and history of its first national consultative conference, the Morogoro Conference, held Morogoro, Tanzania, in 1969, when the party was banned in South Africa. Just as it is today, the ANC was at one of its weakest points and facing a possible existential threat. When going into the conference, Oliver Tambo was the only elected senior leader not in prison or under house arrest in South Africa. Tambo was reluctant to be elected as the party’s president, holding the view that an elective conference could only be convened in South Africa. 

And although it did not seem that the Pan-Africanist Congress’s message of driving white people into the sea was gaining traction, with the establishment of the PAC, the ANC could not claim exclusivity in representing the working class and poor South Africans.  

The Morogoro moment delivered the fillip and ideological integrity the ANC required. In it’s strategy and tactics document, the party resolved on apartheid South Africa being a colony of a special type, and cleared ideological confusion by formulating a two-stage theory of struggle. This enabled the ANC to retain the national liberation of South Africa as its main objective while remaining in alliance with the South African Communist Party without needing to either believe in the country becoming a communist state or to be liberal and anti-communist. Furthermore, despite the threat or possible attraction of the PAC, the ANC opened up its membership to white and coloured people and persons of Indian-origin.

In essence, the ANC in Morogoro countered its existential threat by returning to its roots of an unwavering belief in the principles of non-racialism, non-sexism and a united South Africa.   

The decision by the South African government to support Palestinian liberation has had a huge effect on the ANC. It reminds many of the ANC of old. It has drawn applause from both left-wing detractors and internal critics.

The ANC’s stance on Palestine, especially its recent decision to take Israel to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), has literally had ANC supporters dancing in the streets. For instance, British left-wing political analyst, commentator and leader of the Workers Party of Britain George Galloway has been wearing an ANC jumper while exclaiming “viva ANC” and “viva South Africa” on social media platforms.  

But, for this decision to support the Palestinian people to benefit South Africans and the difficulties they face daily, the ANC and its leadership will have to incorporate the same thinking when dealing with acts of corruption, unemployment as well as the mismanagement and disintegration of state-owned enterprises and other government institutions. If it does not, the decision to take Israel to the ICJ over genocide in Gaza will be regarded as an aberration from the norm of the ANC suffering from bureaucratic inertia, where administrative processes are seemingly more important, and the organisation only really becoming alive during election periods, either the party’s or the country’s elections.  

Ever since the unbanning of the ANC in 1990, it, together with other members of what is referred to as the Congress movement, have found it difficult to adjust to the new normal. It has seemingly found it difficult to transform into a movement of reconstruction, cooperation and partnership. The result is that very often it seems to have had its soul ripped out. But it has also lost many social and political activists and instead attracted those being good at transactional politics and devoid of heart in their understanding of politics.  

In fairness though, the ANC has not been alone in the world struggling with this dialectical challenge of balancing revolution and social activism with good pragmatic governance. When the Soviet Union fell — and with it the Cold War — many equated that with the overall failure of left-wing activism and ideology. The leaders of left-wing political parties therefore felt compelled to transform their ideologically-based parties into ones of pragmatism and devoid of politics. British pop star George Michael of all people, in an interview on the BBC show Hard Talk on 25 February 2003, hits the nail on the head, when criticising British Labour Party leader and prime minister, Tony Blair: “I think he’s removed the idealism from politics … taking a left-of-centre party … and then basically saying … we have to be pragmatic.”  

Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbek,i in their efforts to modernise the ANC and look good enough to the West, sucked the idealism out of the ANC and South Africa’s politics. It’s on the margins of civil society, and not in ANC branches, that one finds more politics and discussion. And this is why the government’s courageous act of taking Israel to the World Court is so noble and why many are hoping that it signals a new ANC — or rather the old ANC, where idealism and revolutionary morality mattered more than pragmatism and bureaucratic processes. 

Many critics of President Cyril Ramaphosa have tried to paint him as a tool of Big Business, and a friend to Israeli business interests. Many of the president’s business partners are probably supporters of Israel but none of that mattered to him, when it came to him giving the green light for South Africa to take Israel to the ICJ.  He seemingly relied more on principle than pragmatism. We can only hope that the president and the leadership of the ANC exercise similar courage and commitment when dealing with local problems. 

This could signal a genuine correction of the ANC, a correction that South Africans are crying out for because even though they may be disappointed in the party, they also know that an ANC committed to idealism, principles and good values will be better at eradicating corruption, bad governance, joblessness, and poverty.   

Donovan E Williams, a social commentator