By Alexander Beresford
April marks the 25th anniversary of the deaths of Oliver Tambo and Chris Hani. While Tambo is often portrayed as an archetypal ANC moderate, Hani is popularly characterised as a revolutionary who bore the flame of a more radical vision for majority government.
Critically, however, both men supported the negotiated path to power and their very co-existence within the liberation movement points to one of the fundamental pillars of its longevity during the struggle period: its capacity to sustain multiple, competing ideological tendencies while crowding out the political space for alternatives to emerge.
This formed part of what I call the ‘sticky’ nationalism of the ANC – its ability to draw in and bind a broad array of social forces to its banner while also making it hard for them to peel away from the movement to mount a challenge to its hegemony.
Sadly, neither Tambo nor Hani lived to experience and confront the contradictions and crises generated by the ANC’s transformation into a party of government. This has profoundly altered the nature of the ANC’s approach to drawing toward it that range of social forces that are essential to its long-term future.
In this blogpost I will briefly outline two elements that contribute to the continued but changing “stickiness” of the ANC’s nationalist politics. First, the establishment of the ANC as a central gateway of resource distribution. Second, its continued effort to sustain a position as the political centre of South African politics through ideological gatekeeping.
The ANC as a centre of resource distribution
While a great deal of our attention is rightly drawn to South Africa’s vibrant civil society and the politics of protest, a great deal less scholarship is dedicated to researching and understanding arguably South Africa’s largest social movement – the ANC – and its position within the complex environment of post-apartheid society.
It might be less sexy to study than the loud politics of protest and resistance, but the reality is that while ‘insurgent’ citizens, movements and unions are an important and prevalent feature of South African politics, so too is the understudied, quiet and unassuming politics which contributes to the everyday acquiescence to ANC rule.
Understanding this quiet politics is critical to understanding the diffuse power of the ANC and the ‘sticky’ nature of its nationalist hegemony.
This quiet politics is to be found in the ways in which the structural violence of capitalism, racism and patriarchy is navigated by ordinary citizens. It can be located in the slow tedium of ANC branch meetings, where members and citizens alike arrive to lobby for the transformation that they and their communities are so dependent upon. This can evoke a personalised politics in which individuals and/or communities access jobs, housing or other vital public goods, not through impersonal state institutions, but through private networks connecting the dependent client to powerful party patrons. Seen in this light, engagement with the party and its local gatekeepers is not necessarily a political choice but a practical necessity for traversing a deeply inequitable society.
However, the ANC’s governance also entails a more formalised type of patronage. It can be found in the ways social grants serve to forge bonds of dependency between desperately deprived citizens and the ANC state. While such grants are often inadequate, and many experience difficulties accessing them, James Ferguson is right to highlight how they offer a tangible output in the absence of structural transformation. As Susan Booysen notes, this affords the ANC a paternalistic aura – an image that the ANC itself propagates through its continuous ideological positioning of the party as a vanguard of popular aspirations.
The bonds of dependency that these forms of patronage augment between citizen and the ANC state therefore contribute to the sticky politics of the ANC’s nationalism: they serve to reify the appearance of the ANC state as the ultimate patron to be petitioned for change. In this context, lobbying a local ANC branch or petitioning a powerful patron within the party are important forms of political agency that are often overlooked amid our fixations on protests and insurgent politics.
This does not make the ANC immune to challengers, however. South Africa is now the most unequal country in the world in terms of income inequality, while unemployment and poverty remain high.
When confronted with resistance, the ANC has in some cases sought to employ a form of political abjection: ‘a sustained political strategy where in response to protests and dissent, sections of civil society are singled out and discursively elevated in their significance—usually well beyond their aspirations or material potential—as attempting to stir up frustrations and launch a broader offensive against the democratic state.’ In such circumstances, this reflects an effort to act as an ideological gatekeeper: striving as best they can to control access to the legitimate political marketplace, mediating which groups can legitimately contend for power and which are to be considered politically abject – a threat to the national interest potentially warranting illiberal sanction.
This can be witnessed in attempts to brand protest movements – such as the #feesmustfall protests – as hostile, foreign-inspired agendas. Government ministers and senior ANC officials lined up to denounce what they argued to be a ‘third force’ leading students astray and promoting a ‘white supremacist’ agenda. Similar accusations have been leveled at striking workers outside of the Alliance fold, with senior ANC figures and ANC discussion documents bemoaning the growth of an ‘anti-majoritarian offensive’ threatening South Africa’s democracy. In the case of the Marikana, ANC discussion documents argued that the police response was a reflection of the way the democratic state was being ‘goaded’ into defending itself.
These kinds of discourses have also been deployed to discredit critical journalists and opposition parties in order to divert political focus away from the shortcomings of the ANC government. For example, business elites allied to former president Jacob Zuma employed public relations firm Bell Pottinger, which launched a controversial social media campaign that aggravated racial tensions by blaming ‘white monopoly capital’ for the country’s ills, while discursively constructing those critical of Zuma and his allies as being symptomatic of a nefarious white minority politics (see Guardian, September 5, 2017).
Significantly, these discourses are also used to try and close down internal dissent by raising the ‘exit’ costs of leaving the liberation movement. For example, during NUMSA’s long exit from COSATU and its emergence as a political challenger to the ANC, union leaders supporting NUMSA were derided as forming part of a ‘counter revolutionary’ or ‘anti-majoritarian’ struggle bent on destabilising South Africa, overthrowing the democratically elected ANC, and disenfranchising ‘the masses.’
As I’ve argued elsewhere, these discourses are significant because ‘they reveal the continued (albeit defensive) potency of post-liberation nationalism: they serve to blur the fault lines between nationalist and class politics by contesting who can speak on behalf of ‘the workers’ and with what authority. In so doing, these discourses seek to render the politics of class and nationalist politics indissoluble, highlighting the ‘sticky’ nature of post-liberation nationalism.’
Could the ANC become unstuck?
Chris Hani and Oliver Tambo held very different visions for what transformation in South Africa ought to look like, but both found accommodation within the ANC’s broad-church ethos and its commitment to forging a democratic society.
However, both men would have found accommodation within ex-president Zuma’s ANC a challenge. Patronage politics and corruption have generated internecine factionalism within the ANC and the wider alliance, compromising the substantive quality of internal ideological contestation within the movement while also undermining its capacity to govern effectively.
Clearly, the use of patrimonial mechanisms of distributing resources, coupled with these forms of ideological gatekeeping, sit uneasily alongside the ANC’s long-standing commitment to democratic institutions and a politics of tolerance and non-racialism.
And yet, these are fiercely contested dynamics within the movement itself, and the ANC’s recent developments offer hope that some of these ‘tendencies’ will now be challenged.
The extent to which the ANC can regenerate the quality of its internal debate will determine its capacity to govern and to renew itself ideologically. This in turn will determine its capacity to draw in and bind to it the social forces it needs to reproduce its hegemony. Despite our scholarly fascination with protests and insurgents, I would argue the reality remains that the ‘stickiness’ of ANC nationalism will, for the foreseeable future, mean that the party’s internal contestation will continue to define the political landscape in South Africa.
Some of the arguments in this blog were first developed in my book, South Africa’s Political Crisis, and in a recent article with Marie Berry and Laura Mann ‘Liberation movements and stalled democratic transitions: Reproducing power in Rwanda and South Africa through productive liminality’ in Democratization’ (forthcoming).
Alexander Beresford is Associate Professor in African politics at the University of Leeds and a Senior Research Associate at the Centre for Social Change at the University of Johannesburg. He is a member of the Editorial Working Group of ROAPE. He has recently published South Africa’s Political Crisis: Unfinished liberation and fractured class struggles Palgrave: Basingstoke.