The split in the ANC

Paul Trewhela on the extreme divisions within the ruling party

The African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, is now radically split.

"SACP blames ANC Youth League for poll loss" stated the headline of an article in Business Day, Johannesburg, on Monday 31 May, indicating rancorous separation between two major organisational arms of the ANC as the party of government of South Africa of the past 16 years.

The article reported a statement by the general secretary of the South African Communist Party, Dr Blade Nzimande (also Minister for Higher Education and Training in the government), made after a meeting of the party's Central Committee the previous day, to the effect that the SACP blamed the ANCYL "for much of the backlash that led to a Democratic Alliance (DA) victory in a key by-election in the Western Cape last week".

One arm of the ANC now blames the other for its by-election defeat.

Also last week, Gwede Mantashe, the secretary-general of the ANC - who is also chairman of the Communist Party - assured a meeting of investors and others in London that under an ANC government there would be no nationalisation of the mines in South Africa, even after the forthcoming ANC national conference in 2012, the year in which the organisation will celebrate its centenary. The ANCYL, on the other hand, especially in the person of its president, Julius Malema, is a strident advocate of nationalisation.

Mr Mantashe told the meeting in London  that "The ANC has proven that it is a very practical and pragmatic organisation...". Historically this is true. But the rider to his statement does not follow automatically, when he added: "that is why all its policies are balanced. This track record must put investors at ease."

The most extreme division in the ANC in 50 years has opened up, with profound implications for its Tripartite Alliance with the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and for the future of government in the country. A central focus in this division bears on the key organisational post of  ANC secretary-general: the post held by Mr Mantashe.

A list of holders of the post of secretary-general of the ANC since its foundation as the Native National Congress is as follows: 

S.T. Plaatje (1912 - 1915) • R.V.S. Thema (1915 - 1917) •  I. Bud-M'belle (1917 - 1919) • S.Msane (1919 - 1923) • T.D. Mweli-Skota (1923 - 1927) • E.J. Khaile (1927 - 1930) • E. Mdolomba (1930 - 1936) • J.A. Calata (1936 - 1949) • W.M.U. Sisulu (1949 - 1955) • O.R. Tambo (1955 - 1958) • P.P.D. Nokwe (1958 - 1969) • A.B. Nzo (1969 - 1991) •  M.C. Ramaphosa (1991 - 1997) • K. Motlanthe (1997 - 2007) • G. Mantashe (2007 - present).

No ANC secretary-general was a member of the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA) before the banning of the CP in 1950, and for about five years afterwards. A very major change then took place, and for most of the past 50 years the post of ANC secretary-general was held by a member of the SACP under the ANC practice of "dual membership". 

The crucial person with whom this transformation took place was Walter Sisulu (1912-2003), the greatly respected mentor to Nelson Mandela and fellow senior leader of the ANC and Umkhonto we Sizwe at the time of the Rivonia Trial in 1963/64, when he and his colleagues were sentenced to life imprisonment: "a giant and cornerstone of our movement", as Mandela rightly described him.

The political ties of holders of the post of ANC secretary-general from the time of Sisulu are as follows: 

1949-1955: Walter Sisulu

It is possible that Sisulu's formal membership of the SACP did not begin until just after he had relinquished his post as ANC secretary-general.

According to the biographical study by Elinor Sisulu (his daughter-in-law), soon after an official trip in 1953 to Romania, the USSR, China and other countries as ANC secretary-general, "Walter started attending Communist Party political education classes. He was impressed by the discipline, training and methodology of the communists. During 1954, he attended a properly organised Marxist study group. Michael Harmel was given the task of running the group. Walter ultimately joined the SACP in 1955, just before the Congress of the People. In the same year, he attended the SACP conference in Johannesburg , and in 1956, he became a member of the Central Committee of the SACP.

"...membership of the reconstituted SACP had to be a closely guarded secret. Walter had even greater reason to guard the secret of his membership. Confirmation that the ANC Secretary-General was a communist would have been devastatingly divisive." (Elinor Sisulu, Walter and Albertina Sisulu: In our Lifetime, David Philip, 2002, pp.180-182)

Sisulu's attraction to the SACP took place in the years immediately following Stalin's death, when there was still a great deal of public adulation of Stalin, and prior to Khruschev's "secret speech" in 1956 which acknowledged much about Stalin's crimes. The SACP's secret and increasingly strategic role inside the ANC, with Sisulu in a key organisational position, was then a major cause of the break-away of the Africanist wing of the ANC which began in 1958, culminating in the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress the following year.

With its denunication of Stalin, Khrushchev's secret speech was also a massive stimulus to the split between the Soviet and Chinese Communist parties which took place over the following ten years, assuming state form and leading even to low-level military skirmishes on the border between these two huge states. The Chinese party's continued largely uncritical defence of Stalin, as articulated by Mao Zedong and ever since, had major implications for the SACP and the ANC (which cut their ties with China) as well as for the PAC (which then received military and political support from China). 

1955-1958: Oliver Tambo

Tambo was never a member of SACP, though he was a close collaborator with it, especially in the three decades of exile when he was first acting president and then president of the ANC.

1958-1969: Duma Nokwe

The first black advocate in South Africa, Nokwe had accompanied Sisulu on his trip to Romania, the USSR and China  in 1953 and has been described as "a loyal Party member". (Stephen Ellis and Tsepo Sechaba, The ANC and the South African Communist Party in Exile, Indiana University Press/James Currey, 1992. p.60) The statement by the ANC in exile endorsing the Soviet Union 's invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968, with its purpose of crushing the "Prague Spring", was signed by Nokwe as secretary-general.

1969-1991: Alfred Nzo

As ANC secretary-general throughout the greater part of the exile period, subsequently serving as South Africa's first Foreign Minister following the 1994 elections, Nzo was "a Party member who at one time served on the Party's Central Committee." (Ellis and Sechaba, op. cit., p.60)

1991-1996: Cyril Ramaphosa

Secretary-general throughout the negotiation period following the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and into the first years of the presidency of Nelson Mandela, Ramaphosa resigned as ANC Secretary-General and as ANC MP in 1996 under pressure from Thabo Mbeki, then Deputy President of South Africa but the real master of government under Mandela's benign aegis. Ramaphosa appears not to have been an SACP member, though he had worked closely with SACP members during his previous tenure as general secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers (NUM).

1996-1997: Acting Secretary-General, Cheryl Carolus

Ms Carolus was brought into office as acting secretary-general following Ramaphosa's sudden and forced departure. Professor Padraig O'Malley's Heart of Hope archive states that "When the South African Communist Party launched itself as a legal entity on 29 July 1990 , Carolus was elected as a member of its interim leadership group. She remained in this position until December 1991."

1997-2007: Kgalema Motlanthe

Currently Deputy President of the country, and like Ramaphosa a former general secretary of the NUM, Motlanthe was elected secretary-general at the ANC's national conference in Mafikeng. In a profile, "Who is Kgalema Motlanthe?", in September 2008, James Myburgh wrote:  

"After the ANC was unbanned he became chairman of the party's PWV region. He stepped down from that position in September 1991 to devote more time to his work for the National Union of Mineworkers. The Central Executive Committee elected him acting General Secretary in January 1992 over Marcel Golding, the favourite for the position. Newspaper profiles of him described him then as a committed socialist and '120% ANC', but said that he was agonising over whether to join the SACP or not."

There is no reliable evidence that Motlanthe became a member of the SACP, although this is very possible, even probable.

2007 - present: Gwede Mantashe

Mantashe was elected secretary-general of the ANC at its national conference at Polokwane in December 2007, which saw the eviction from office in the ANC and later from government of the entire political support structure of Thabo Mbeki, former president of the ANC and of the country. Mantashe's appointment to the most powerful backroom organisational role in the ANC took place while he was also chairman of the SACP, a crucial organisational force in the destruction of the Mbeki apparatus in the ANC and the state. All-out support by the SACP for Jacob Zuma against Mbeki was a crucial factor in the victory of Zuma at this decisive conference. Support by the ANCYL for Zuma was also important, though much less decisive.

These two organisational blocs in support of the Zuma presidency of the ANC, and of the state, have now become deeply hostile to each other. For the sensitivity of the relation between the SACP and the office of ANC secretary-general in this factional conflict within the ANC, one should see the report by Moipone Malefane, "Malema's 'war' on Mantashe", in the Sunday Times ( 17 January 2010 ).

Sitting ex officio at a meeting of the ANC's National Executive Committee on 15 January in his capacity as president of the Youth League, Malema told the NEC that the ANCYL would nominate its former president, Fikile Mbalula (the current Deputy Minister of Police), to replace Mantashe at the next national conference of the ANC in 2012. This followed extreme irritation on the part of Malema and other leaders of the Youth League when they and ANC colleagues Tony Yengeni and Billy Masetlha were booed at a special conference of the SACP the previous month, leading to their angry withdrawal.

Referring to the SACP as "factionalist" and repeating that it would oppose Mantashe's bid for a second term as secretary-general, the ANCYL later "described him as 'conflicted' by holding senior positions in both parties."

Malema's position and that of the ANCYL leadership here is similar to that of the Africanist wing in the conflict within the ANC in the late 1950s, leading to the formation of the breakaway Pan Africanist Congress in 1959. The PAC at that time viewed the presence of members of the SACP in leading positions in the ANC as involving a conflict of political interest: exactly what is meant by the ANCYL in describing Mantashe as being "conflicted" in his office as secretary-general. The difference today is that the Malema grouping in the ANCYL and its more senior allies can only be seeking to capture leadership of the ANC for themselves, by forcing a breakup of the Tripartite Alliance and the disjunction from the ANC of the "conflicted" SACP, or at least its exclusion from key positions.

This would indeed amount to a revolution inside the ANC. There is no question that the SACP played a key part in the ANC's renunciation of its previous Gandhian doctrine of non-violence following the massacre at Sharpeville in March 1960 and the crushing by force of the ANC's efforts to organise a stay-at-home general strike at the end of May 1961, followed by the formation of the armed wing of the ANC and the SACP, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK).

Joe Slovo - general secretary of the SACP in the 1980s, and founder and later Chief of Staff of MK - put the matter as follows:

"By June 1961 the Central Committee of our Party and the Johannesburg Working Group of the ANC had reached a consensus on the need for a military wing and to prepare for its initial phase of armed action." This specifically did not take place through a formal decision of the NEC of the ANC, which had been banned in 1990 and could only operate illegally. As Slovo continued, "There were many tactical reasons why this military wing was to launch itself without any form of consultation with the Congress movement as a whole". (Joe Slovo, Slovo: The Unfinished Autobiography, Hodder and Stoughton, 1996. p.151)

In general, Slovo stated, "if the issue had been placed before the ANC leadership as a whole, some of them would undoubtedly have rejected the steps which were already being planned." (p.147) A further reason for not consulting the leadership as a whole was to avoid placing ordinary ANC members in a position in which they could be automatically charged with membership of MK, which carried a much heavier penalty in law.

In the event, Slovo writes, "the top working collective of the ANC was situated in Johannesburg and consisted of [Moses] Kotane, [J B] Marks, Mandela, Sisulu, Nokwe and a few others. It was this body, together with the Central Committee of the Party, which took the plunge into the new phase of revolutionary violence." (p.148)

This is to say that every member of the ANC who decided on the formation of MK was a member of the SACP.

There is no question about the Party membership of Kotane, Marks, Sisulu and Nokwe. Concerning Mandela, first-hand confirmation was provided by the late Hilda Bernstein, a member of the Central Committee during the Rivonia Trial, in which her husband, Rusty - a long-standing member of the Central Committee and a founder of MK - was one of the accused. In an interview with Professor Padraig O'Malley towards the end of her life, she stated: "Well, Mandela denies that he was ever a member of the party, but I can tell you that he was a member of the party for a period." (Padraig O'Malley, Shades of Difference: Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa, Viking/Penguin, 2007. Note, p.63).

This and other sources available to O'Malley make a nonsense of the evasions on this subject in the two biographies of Mandela by Anthony Sampson and Martin Meredith. The period in which Mandela was a member of the SACP covered the founding of MK.

By mid-1963, after Mandela had already been imprisoned for leaving the country illegally, the underground leaders of the ANC based at Liliesleaf Farm at Rivonia were Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Raymond Mhlaba, Wilton Mkwayi, Andrew Mlangeni and Elias Motsoaledi, all members of the SACP. Of these, Mhlaba (the first commander of MK), Mkwayi and Mlangeni had been sent by the SACP for military training in China between September 1961 and February 1962, during which their six-man team at Nanjing Military Academy had discussed conditions for guerrilla warfare in South Africa with Mao Zedong himself, who visited them there.

The attitude of this senior grouping towards the military strategy of the PAC was set out in a leaflet "The ANC spearheads revolution. Leballo? No!", published by the ANC in May 1963, and available now on the ANC website.

Arguing that "impatience alone leads to recklessness, and recklessness can lose us the battle", the criticism of the PAC by the leaders of the ANC at Rivonia in 1963 was that its approach was headstrong, unplanned, undisciplined and dangerously racialised. A similar criticism is present now on the part of the SACP towards the Malema grouping.

For his part, Malema has positioned himself in the ANCYL as heir to the tradition by which the ANC old guard of Dr AB Xuma and the Rev J Calata was swept out of office in the ANC in 1949, when Sisulu - representing the rebellious leaders of the ANC Youth League of the war years, among them Mandela, Tambo and Nokwe - was elected secretary-general. This was followed by Sisulu, Nokwe and Mandela in subsequent years joining the SACP, with Tambo becoming for decades a very close ally of the party, though not a member. 

The Malema grouping now treats the present SACP old guard in the ANC - represented by Mantashe and Nzimande - as if it were spirit of the past, just as the Youth League of Mandela's and Sisulu's time treated the generation of venerable professionals and Christian ministers of the time of Dr Xuma and Reverend Calata in the 1940s.

There is a harsh truth in this, in that the Soviet Union, to which the SACP attached its star, has vanished. With it has gone Russian great power interest in southern Africa, while China is now the rising star of world capitalist economy. The Africanist attachment of the PAC to China came to nothing in the half century between the Sixties and the present, but its spirit has revived with redoubled energy in the ANCYL, as represented by Malema.

I discussed this in my article, "Malema, China and the 'Mugabe turn'", on Politicsweb on 17 April this year (see here).

As Malema said in a speech in Colesburg in the Northern Cape two months ago, repeating previously-made threats to white-owned and western property interests in South Africa, if investors were to leave, "the Chinese would come in. 'The Chinese will work with anybody,' he said."

China's build-up of its industrial and trading relationship with Africa - begun 40 years ago with the now bankrupt and decrepit Tazara railway service linking Zambia's copperbelt with the port at Dar es Salaam, and symbolised by Mao's portrait at the centrepiece between those of Nyerere and Kaunda at Tazara's head office - now extends as a central issue into South African politics through Malema's explicit introduction of the option of Chinese replacement for Western investment and influence in South Africa.

The degree to which China now stands as a great power in Africa, poised to make a major advance in South Africa, can be seen from books such as Stefan Halper's The Beijing Consensus: How China's Authoritarian Model will Dominate the 21st Century (Basic Books, 2010).

It might be that social and political unrest across the country - aimed above all at poor quality or absent service delivery, together with resurfaced anger at the inherited racial divisions in the country's economic order as well as at ANC-connected fat cats who have profited from the opportunities set before them since the 1990s - offers prime soil for tilling by the rebel current of the ANCYL, which aims to replicate the Sisulu 'coup' of 1949 at the ANC national conference in 2012.

If so, a late consequence of the Sino-Soviet split could well be the extension of Chinese great power influence in Southern Africa, extending from Mugabe's dictatorship in Zimbabwe via Malema and the ANCYL to the jewel in the crown, South Africa.

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