The ANC's non-racial African nationalism

Jeremy Cronin says the DA misunderstands both Mandela and the Freedom Charter

Our African nationalism, our non-racialism and the question of the so-called "minorities"

The local election campaign gave rise to a debate around non-racialism and so-called "minorities" in SA. In much of the media, it is said that the ANC's African nationalism is putting off minorities electorally, and that the cause of non-racialism, embodied by Nelson Mandela and other icons, was now being defended by the likes of the DA.

The recent ANC NEC agreed that unfortunately space for this kind of delusion has sometimes been provided by indiscipline from within our own ranks. The NEC noted critically, for instance, several misguided recent utterances that bore more resemblance to the narrow Africanism of the PAC of the 1960s, than to the ANC's long-standing, non-racial African nationalism. We need to remain vigilant and disciplined within our own movement, and we need to constantly nurture and reaffirm the principled positions of the ANC.

But how can we (and I include a white communist like myself in this "we") espouse both non-racialism and African Nationalism in our political culture and in our strategic perspectives?

An important part of the answer to this question takes us back to 1912. From the very beginning the ANC's approach to "identity" (how we think about who we are) recognized that identity is not something unchangeable, not something rooted indelibly in the culture or ethnicity into which we happen to be born. The ANC's founding strategic objective was to forge, in political struggle, a new national African identity.

The indigenous people of SA had heroically resisted colonial dispossession, ethnic cleansing, and brutal genocidal military aggression. But they had ultimately been defeated and excluded from citizenship in the post-1910 SA. The founders of the ANC correctly understood that part of the reason for the defeat was that their anti-colonial resistance had been based on separate "tribal" identities. Colonialism had prevailed through a strategy of divide-and-rule. The response had to be the forging of a new identity among the excluded majority.

This new identity would, of course, not be in denial of ethnic diversity, there was nothing problematic about being a mother-tongue IsiZulu or TshiVenda speaker. But to advance the struggle, the ANC would have to be a key instrument in helping to build upon and transcend the specific identities into which people were born and forge a new, unifying national identity.

This understanding of identity as a forward-looking political project to bring together people from different backgrounds into a common struggle also lies at the heart of the ANC's deep-seated non-racialism. Despite the horrors of colonialism and white minority rule, remarkably, the dominant traditions of the ANC have never been anti-white.

This was why in 1955, the Congress Movement declared in the Freedom Charter that "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white". (It was the ANC's endorsement of this opening declaration of the Charter that led to narrow-Africanists breaking away as the PAC in 1959.)

It was the ANC's principled non-racialism that also led to its consistent strategic perspective in the course of the armed struggle that it was the system, and not whites who were the enemy. The system of apartheid was the crime ("a crime against humanity" as the UN declared), and not a particular racial group per se. But if the SYSTEM was the crime, then building a new, non-racial South Africa requires not just a change in identities, but also transformation of the material conditions themselves. And this brings us to the present and to the question of how we should interpret the May 18 election results.

When analyzing election results, tracing the voting behavior of "minorities" can be a relatively useful analytical tool in SA. It is important that we ask ourselves, for instance, why, generally, since 2004 there has been a decline in electoral support for the ANC in many predominantly Indian and Coloured communities. But it would be a mistake for the ANC to now develop a "minorities" policy, or a "minorities commission" (as we once had). In the first place, there are great differences between different so-called "minorities" and many differences within a single "minority".

The Coloured "minority", for instance, is characterized by significant internal class, language, religious and other differences. Some prefer not to think of themselves as "Coloured", but rather as "black South Africans", or just as plain South Africans. Others might regard themselves primarily as Muslim South Africans, and so on. It is precisely the DA that has sought to mobilize so-called "Indian" and "Coloured" "minorities" on the basis of their being "minorities", sharing a common "threat" with whites supposedly emanating from the "majority".

By contrast, the ANC needs to work in all communities, but not on the basis of appealing to separate white, Coloured and Indian minority identities, but rather by appealing to all our compatriots as fellow South Africans. Of course we need to appreciate the particular aspirations and frustrations of, let us say, a predominantly working class community of Indian origin in KZN, or a predominantly Muslim community on the Cape Flats. But our work in all communities must be on a principled basis - that is, on the basis of a common transformational programme aimed at building amore equal and caring society that is in the long-term interests of all South Africans.

But a more egalitarian and solidaristic society may well not chime with the short-term interests of particular groups. Those who are mega-wealthy and who live in elite suburbs may well resist the rolling out of a National Health Insurance, or of having mixed-income housing development on their doorsteps.

Many (but not necessarily all) of those living in these situations will seek to oppose a genuinely transformational programme, and they will seek to disguise their class interests and the legacy of racialised privilege that they seek to defend by presenting their narrow fight-back interests as interests shared with a wider array of forces.

This is exactly the nature of the DA's most recent election campaign. In the first place, notice how the DA's improved electoral result is being hailed by themselves and much of the media as a "maturing of democracy" in SA. They see it as the beginnings of a shift away from "racial identity" voting. But whites in their overwhelming majority haven't shifted away from THEIR "racial identity" voting - on the contrary, the DA's successes have been built on the consolidation of white racial identity voting patterns.

For the media commentators arguing this line, the "maturing of South African democracy" has to involve not whites abandoning their "racial identity", but the African majority sacrificing THEIR sense of a shared historical oppression, of a collective power when united (Amandla Nga'wethu), and of a capacity to prevail despite the odds (Siyanqoba!). In short, according to all these commentators, in the interests of a maturing democracy, the majority should abandon, precisely, their African nationalism.

A few of the more insightful conservative liberal commentators have recognized much of this. Anthony Butler writing in the Business Day ("Ruling party poll success is a national resource", 27 May) notes that:

"While the DA made a great pretence of trying to attract the 'African vote', party strategists must have known there was no prospect of a breakthrough. The DA's 'open opportunity society', after all, is easily decipherable code for the retention and cross-generational transfer of privilege by the historically advantaged. Ostensible DA appeals to African citizens served a quite different purpose, bringing coloured and Indian voters flooding into a purportedly non-racial and so now legitimate party."

Butler, who is not particularly sympathetic to the ANC, goes on to acknowledge the ANC's absolutely critical nation-building role. He notes the ANC's overwhelming electoral success, repeated again on May 18, "has been a national resource. It has allowed its leadership to entrench constitutional government, to defuse racial and ethnic conflict, and to contain potentially anti-democratic elements within the embrace of party politics...Too rapid an erosion of ANC control would be hazardous...Adversarial opposition could be translated into racial or ethnic mobilization. And too fluid a party system could bring co-operative governance to a standstill."

Butler is absolutely right, but notice how his compliments to the ANC are back-handed. Yes, the ANC's overwhelming majority support has been the critical factor in stabilizing a post-apartheid SA and in entrenching a democratic, constitutional order - but Butler then leaves out a critical second dimension.

The ANC's overwhelming majority support is also absolutely essential if we are to drive ongoing systemic transformation. Because he leaves out this critical second dimension, Butler's praise for the ANC amounts to a sophisticated version of the old colonial strategy of stabilization through indirect rule - you need moderate natives to keep their restless kith and kin in order.

And this one-dimensional approach is also at the heart of the DA's rhetorical embrace of Nelson Mandela and the Freedom Charter. Yes, of course, Nelson Mandela and the Freedom Charter are not the exclusive property of the ANC - they are part of a shared national (and indeed global) legacy. But if you embrace a legacy, then you should embrace it honestly, in all of its dimensions. In the early 1990s, Comrade Mandela played an outstanding role as a non-racial, national reconciler.

But he could only play this role because as a young boy he had been inspired by the stories of earlier armed resistance to colonial dispossession, because he had played a leading role in mobilizing people's power in our townships in the 1950s, because he had been a founder of MK, because at his trial he had been prepared to lay down his life in fighting against white oppression.

In short, the role Mandela played in the early 1990s was not disconnected from everything else, and his non-racialism was profoundly connected to his inclusive African nationalism. Likewise, yes, the Freedom Charter says SA belongs to all who live in it. But it also says the wealth shall be shared, and the land shall be owned by those who till it.

The DA wants to turn Mandela and the Freedom Charter into colour-blind, constitutional liberals. But non-racialism in South Africa is not going to be consolidated and entrenched simply on the basis of improved technical management (although we need it),feel-good rainbowism, and tri-racial electoral posters that reassure white voters that, under white tutelage, things can change without having to change.

You can't build a sustainable non-racial society in which unemployment, inequality and poverty are still profoundly skewed by a racialised past. You can't hope for enduring non-racialism when material realities - like the persisting apartheid geography of our towns, cities and countryside - continue to reproduce the same racialised advantages and disadvantages. The DA's local government election campaign slogan was "We deliver for all". There are two related things to note about this slogan. In the first place, the DA is addressing the electorate not as collective agents of change, but as recipients of "delivery".

And who is this "we" that the DA says will deliver? The DA might have secured over one-fifth of the vote, but it is not a mass party (it refuses to divulge its actual membership figures). Ordinary members and supporters have no role in determining the Party's policies and programmes. In reality, the DA's party machine is dominated by white males and not the multi-racial, poster troika - but notice how in the course of the election campaign even the most prolific media attention seeking DA white males were carefully hidden away.

Yes, there are self-critical lessons to be learnt for us in the ANC. But, above all, we need to use our overwhelming electoral victory to press ahead with our transformational agenda with renewed determination and discipline and based on our principled strategic positions.

>> Jeremy Cronin is an ANC NEC member and Deputy Minister of Transport. This article first appeared in ANC Today, the weekly online newsletter of the African National Congress.

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