ANC is ideologically handicapped

William Saunderson-Meyer says our liberation movement has failed to adapt to the world as it actually works


The African National Congress has painted South Africa into a disastrous corner. It’s not malice but stupidity. It stems from a failure to adapt to how the world actually works, rather than how one wants it to work. 

Successful democratic governments all function in the same basic way. The governing party has the ability, once in power, to adapt its ideals to reality. That means compromises and a willingness to relax passionately held ideological convictions if they fail to deliver the necessary results. 

In contrast, almost every failure of this government can be traced to its choosing form over substance, posturing over results, and ignoring pressing issues rather than sweating the hard yards. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Take the successive violent waves of xenophobia that periodically sweep the country and are right now simmering close to an explosion. The newest trigger has been the gang rape on the West Rand of eight women, allegedly by a group of men from Lesotho.

 These zama zamas illegally enter South Africa to mine metal and mineral seams that are no longer economically viable for commercial operations. They are controlled by powerful criminal syndicates and the Institute of Security Studies estimates that the approximately 30,000 illegal miners produce R14bn worth of gold per annum.

In response, starting in Gauteng and spreading to other provinces, residents in these communities have formed vigilante gangs to hunt down the zama zamas. At least one has been killed and this week the police rescued another 19 from an angry mob. 

The problem can be traced back to 1994 when the ANC won power. One of its first actions was to switch off the electric fences that discouraged illegal border crossings and deliberately allowed a once-daunting barrier to fall into disrepair. This, it explained, was an act of African solidarity, payback for the sacrifices made by South Africa’s neighbours in hosting ANC guerrilla forces during the liberation struggle.

The result was an explosion in illegal immigration, or “undocumented migrants” as the academics prefer to call them. Many are perfectly decent skilled workers, entrepreneurs and professionals. A large number, however, are criminals, moving with impunity across the borders to commit crimes in South Africa and then escaping with the loot to home sanctuaries.

No one truly knows the numbers involved. In 2011, Stats SA estimated that there were 6.2m foreigners in South Africa. In 2021, it revised this down to 3.95m. Since the total population in 2011 was less than 52m and it is now more than 60m, there’s a lot of justifiable scepticism about the official figures.

While the numbers may be in dispute, the results aren’t. Our poorly trained and abominably led police force, already tripping over its bootstraps trying to deal with homegrown criminality, simply can’t cope. Africa’s criminals know it and are queueing for their share of the loot.

And following the West Rand rape outrage, the zama zamas have not simply fled across the border in the face of community anger, as one might have expected. Well armed, including often with automatic weapons, they are instead standing their ground against helicopter-supported raids mounted by the police.

This week, the SA National Defence Force was readied for deployment because “South Africa is gradually deteriorating into unrest due to criminality”, announced Major-General Patrick Dube. In terms of the order, 100 drivers of Mamba light armoured vehicles have been placed on standby at 21 SA Infantry Battalion’s Johannesburg base, as well as an initial 200 infantry troops, “in anticipation of deploying in co-operation with the SA Police Service”.

This is a situation primed for disaster but was entirely predictable and avoidable. It’s a problem of the ANC’s own making.

The ANC has at every turn pursued ideology above practicality, the interests of the party above the country, and the avoidance of problems rather than the discomfort of addressing them and alienating key constituencies.

Over almost three decades in power, one thing has always been a consistent point of ANC pride. It is not a mere political party. It is a national liberation movement. 

Indeed, that is how the ANC defines itself in the opening sentence of the Who Are We? section of its website. This is a semantic difference that has big implications. It’s an important emotional distinction, very much part of the mythology that the ANC tries to shroud itself in. 

Political parties that thrive, no matter how lofty their goals and storied their past, are usually pragmatic entities. They’re organised around goals that are constantly adapted in the face of changing circumstances. They wax and wane in influence and power. They may split or form coalitions and change their names each time along the way. They are instruments of change, not an end in themselves.

Not so the ANC’s national liberation movement. It truly believes that it has a historically ordained mission to lead “the people”, kicking and screaming if necessary, to a Utopian promised land, in this case the National Democratic Revolution.

The stone tablets containing the ANC’s chiselled commandments come straight from Marx via Lenin. The party may have to, for now, tolerate competing political groupings but at heart, it views differing opinions as inherently illegitimate.

This egotism can sometimes manifest itself in hilarious ways. 

The ANC — apparently the world’s anointed reliquary of progressive ideals, rituals and forms of address — was enraged when ActionSA’s leader, Herman Mashaba, recently ridiculed the use of the term “comrade”, which he said had developed a new meaning.  In SA it now meant “thugs and thieves” and would henceforth be banned as a form of address in ActionSA.

As self-styled owners of the “comrade” copyright, the ANC issued a pompous statement, saying that this demonstrated the “fascist tendencies” in ActionSA.  It was the “unfortunate danger” of such “populist manoeuvres” that they would “deliberately mislead society and this must be rejected with the contempt it deserves”. 

Of course, political parties and politicians everywhere are selfish, vain creatures. But in functional democracies, the need to deliver on their promises keeps them vaguely honest. They know that if they too blatantly feather their nests, or kick too many cans down the road without resolution, the electorate will turf them out. 

That is a reality that the ANC is only beginning to face, since until now the electorate has largely accepted the ANC’s liberation myth at face value. The party’s plunging popularity at the polls is a welcome sign that voters may be moving beyond ideology to pragmatism.

Perhaps, at last, they want not liberation movement fantasies, but political parties that do things.

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