Is the ANC a nationalist party?

RW Johnson says not really, because African nationalism itself does not really exist

In South Africa the consensus narrative - shared both by many ANC members and critics of the ANC - is that the party enjoyed a sort of golden age under Mandela when it proudly stood for non-racialism. Under Mbeki, however, this was abandoned for a much narrower Africanism and this trend has continued unabated under Zuma to such an extent that Jimmy Manyi, the chief government spokesman, could openly support plans to throw Indians and Coloureds out of their jobs to make way for Africans - and still keep his job.

But this narrative is wrong. Start with Mandela's famous speech from the dock in which he famously argued that the ANC, having opposed white domination, would be equally opposed to black domination. Given what ANC rule has actually been like the question is, was Mandela deliberately lying or did he simply fail to understand the nature of his own movement?

The latter is surely the case. Mandela had emerged as a leader when the ANC was still relatively weak, when it had failed to mobilize the bulk of the African population, and when it was powerfully opposed by the PAC. All of which gave old mission boys like Mandela considerable latitude as leaders.

By the time he emerged from jail almost three decades later the party was a completely different animal: it had won mass support, the PAC had been overwhelmed and its support base won over, and Mandela as leader now had little latitude. No sooner had he won power than the murmuring began that he was devoting far too much time to soothing the whites - and he had to pay attention.

Similarly, he was roughly told to stop preaching about Aids because it was not popular among ANC supporters, so he stopped.

Moreover, the great lynchpin of Africanism, affirmative action, was launched under Mandela's presidency and with his full support. Mandela himself reflected the shift, initially pleading for whites not to emigrate but then, when it became clear he was being ignored, he gave the classic Africanist response of "Well then, good riddance to bad rubbish". But he was still deeply naïve about the nature of the movement, saying gravely that he had assumed ANC people were all incorruptible but, sadly, this had not proved to be true. In fact, of course, it was the incorruptible who were the exceptions to the rule.

The point is that by 1994 the ANC had incorporated the bulk of African society and thus reflected that society, warts and all. Yet rather than strengthening its virtues ‘transformation' fed its vices - its prejudices, its desperate hunger for social advancement, its greed. Very quickly one saw the movement taken over by the "African big man" style of authority with rampant corruption of every kind and at every level and, increasingly, the criminalization of the movement and the state.

By 2008 one highly-placed ANC insider told me "You have to realise that Mandela's ANC is long dead. Today the party is really a federation of warlords." No one who knows anything of the realities of life in townships or squatter camps can be in the least bit surprised for the big men, the corruption and criminalization have long been major features there. Now that the ANC fully represents that society it also mirrors it. It was only the accident of history which kept its leadership monastically apart, in jail or exile, which prevented this from being clear much sooner.

The resulting party is not really nationalist. It has no ideal of the South African nation, merely a partial and racialized version of it and it is certainly not much concerned with the good of the country in any general sense. After all, both British jingo nationalism and Afrikaner nationalism built the state up, but the ANC has built it down - to the point of state failure. But in this it is merely the same as all the other "African nationalist" parties in Africa.

None of them had any specific vision of building the Malawian, the Tanzanian or Congolese nation - or any notion as to what made these nations different: indeed, the ease with which utopian pan-Africanist schemes drew support suggested that such separate identities were always very weak.

The typical activity of "African nationalist" elites throughout the continent has been the looting of the state and the public sector, though it is obvious that no patriotism and no state can be built on that. This is, after all, why so many African states have failed and why so many more are at the point of failure.

It makes more sense to categorize African nationalism as a movement of racial populism - anti-colonial, anti-apartheid, and often anti-white. Perhaps a truer term would be nativism but that could be misunderstood. Such movements achieved their apogee while combating colonial rule but they have almost all imploded since, torn apart by factionalism, corruption, tribalism and the lack of any superordinate patriotism.

In many cases those original nationalist parties have disappeared, though only to be replaced by other populist parties which, necessarily, still mirror the vices and virtues of societies which remain unsophisticated and, at best, semi-educated.

Hence the populist campaigns against witchcraft and against gays and hence the ease with which tribalism has made inroads even in the most developed states, such as Kenya and Nigeria. There is absolutely no reason why South Africa should prove to be any different. Now that colonialism and white rule are gone, the heroic age of resistance is over and with it any unifying vision capable of overcoming the Hobbesian struggle of each against all.

Disillusioned ANC cadres like Andrew Feinstein and many naïfs on the Left like to talk about the revolution betrayed, but it is important to say that this is not so: rather, it is the revolution fulfilled. The development of the ANC into the sort of movement it is today was always immanent within it and our society. This is not some sort of betrayal of liberation; it is liberation. The fact that it may not reflect - indeed, that it contradicts - many of the high ideals of those struggled for liberation, is merely a sign that, as happens so commonly in history, that many of those who struggled did not understand their own history or their place within it.

Scott Fitzgerald understood this. Gatsby is entranced by the ideal of his great love for Daisy. But Daisy is only human, is married now to Tom Buchanan, has all the typical weaknesses of her type and class. She is bound to "betray" Gatsby, not by doing anything out of the ordinary but simply by being what she is - which he, in his love, has entirely failed to notice.

"Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that's no matter - tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther.....

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past."

RW Johnson

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich Naumann Stiftung.

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