South African’s National Liberation Movement

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ANC - People`s Movement and Agent for Change

15 July 2000


Experience over the past six years has thrown up many challenges regarding the ANC’s role as an agent for change in the current phase.

The movement has succeeded in setting South African society on a course of transformation. It has defined the main tasks of society and particularly the motive forces of change.

However, the current wide front of struggle has had the potential of dissipating focus. As such, some of the detailed actions undertaken may not clearly reflect internal consistency and a relation to the strategic objective.

While decisive progress has been made, the questions remain: have there been missed opportunities; have the constraints been fully understood and confronted; does the movement have the cadreship to carry out its objectives on all fronts?!

In this regard, the issue of maintaining and deepening the revolutionary traditions of the organisation has frequently been raised. What are these attributes? What are the conditions under which they evolved, and how do these compare to the conditions today?

Unique character of the ANC

Given the nature of the struggle waged in South Africa, the kind of adversary that we faced and the links it enjoyed with powerful forces internationally: what are the ingredients that sustained the ANC and ensured its survival and organisational integrity? Can this be sustained in the current phase?

The ANC emerged as a product of a historical moment in the evolution of resistance against colonialism, a subjective expression of an objective historical movement for change. At each stage of the development of this historical movement, the ANC’s leadership and cadreship were able to adapt to the demands of the moment, mobilise the people and place the organisation at the head of popular resistance. Thus the organisation developed as a people’s movement in theory and in practice, recognising that a leadership role is earned, and not decreed. In its approach to the country’s problems, the ANC has striven to identify those issues that would result in sustainable solutions. In this regard, it sought to distil the essence: for instance through the policy of non-racialism, it eschewed the temptation to posit one form of racial domination as a solution to another form of such domination; and it developed, especially over the past two decades, to integrate the policy and practice of non-sexism into its approach to the NDR.

The organisational forms and practices of the ANC have always been based on democratic centralism, the balance depending on concrete conditions of struggle. This allowed for wide-ranging internal debate on the most critical questions facing society. The organisation was therefore able to evolve with changing times, with drawn-out as well as sudden acts of internal renewal and redefinition when the situation so demanded.

As a national liberation movement, the ANC developed the capacity to manage the ideological struggle within its own ranks, developing theoretical clarity on the NDR, and ensuring unity in action among all the motive forces. In the development of its cadres, the ANC discouraged dogmatic approaches, encouraged questioning minds, and sought to maintain a continuous link between theory and practice.

Steadfastness to principle has been one of the defining characteristics of the ANC. It has shunned short-cuts to the solution of complex social issues: to pursue what it considered correct even when such ideas were not popular. It consistently sought to win over society to its point of view, evolving into a genuine vanguard of the NDR.

The ANC also learnt to identify and seize decisive moments. Thus it had to temper impatience during periods of quantitative accumulation of conditions and factors, and to impel decisive action when the combined elements of qualitative movement forward were evident.

In the process of building an international support network, the ANC interacted with a wide variety of forces united in their opposition to apartheid. This reinforced the universal character of the ANC-led struggle, and enabled the organisation to learn from what was relevant in international best practice regarding policy frameworks, methodology and revolutionary strategy and tactics.

From its foundation as “a parliament of the African people”, the ANC developed to pursue the widest possible unity among those struggling for a better life. Over the years, it did its utmost to forge unity among South Africans irrespective of race, colour or creed; it sought to build unity across the African continent and indeed the unity of humanity as a whole against racism. In this sense, the movement matured into ‘a great unifier’ for the common good.

These qualities evolved over time, and they accumulated into a capacity for internal all-round renewal. Their maturing depended also on the ability of the ANC to learn from its mistakes: often acknowledging them publicly and changing approaches after intense and thorough-going debate within the ranks.

Comparative analysis – phases of resistance

Objective conditions under which the ANC operated in the pre-1994 phase, were characterised, among others, by the following factors and tensions:

  • a powerful state with the capacity to co-opt and intimidate whole sections of the population, and yet a people who developed the strength and militancy to stand up to brute force and enticement;
  • strong international allies ranged in support of the regime, both within the context of Cold War calculations and the state of racist ideology in developed countries, and yet a growing mass of opposition to apartheid in these countries, finally impacting on the public policies of their governments;
  • an economic base that over many decades had the possibility of rapid expansion, creating limited possibilities for the advancement even of the oppressed, and yet growing pauperisation among the majority and intensified class contradictions, in an industrial society underpinned by the racial divide;
  • a cohesive ruling class with a strong interest in the survival of the system, and yet increasingly wrought by internal contradictions and unable to sustain a conflict that would result in a scorched earth.

Under these conditions, the following subjective factors, among others, played themselves out:

  • especially during the period of its banning, the ANC faced a consistent danger of being divorced from its mass base, and yet this engendered the quality to patiently build structures and value them;
  • physical distance from the centre and isolation of units or individuals created the possibility of disjuncture, and yet this motivated cadres to master the policies of the movement and their application to concrete conditions;
  • in many of the fronts where the cadres found themselves, principally exile, internal mass and underground structures and prison, various machinations were at play to co-opt them into an outlook that would compromise the struggle, and yet commitment to the ideals of struggle, the actions of the people in political motion and other factors kept such temptations at bay;
  • varying experiences and the difficulties of the conditions under which cadres operated always created possibilities for divisions, and yet these were resolved through debate and mutual influence – and where these divisions derived from profound political differences that could not be resolved, a firm but gentle way was found to shed those who fundamentally disagreed with its principles or strategy without seriously impacting on the unity of the movement as a whole;
  • the fact of being a liberation movement lent the ANC to internal ideological debates and quests for sectoral influence; and yet this encouraged widespread theoretical development of cadres leading to the development of a common methodology, the combination of theory and practice, and the maturing of cadres through the ranks in a manner that discouraged opportunism and careerism;
  • Cadres faced the propensity to consider their individual area of work – such as international work, underground, armed units and mass mobilisation – as the most important, and yet this was tempered by means of debate and creative but sensitive integration of experiences, which resulted in balanced all-encompassing strategy and tactics.
Comparative analysis – early phase of governance

In the current phase, a number of previous objective conditions prevail, but there are qualitatively new ones, which impact on the movement and its cadres. These are, among others:

  • the democratic movement has attained elements of political power and it seeks to deepen this, but it has to do so under conditions of relative compromise such that the speed of transformation has to take into account the power of forces opposed to change;
  • the state controls huge resources and has the power to regulate operations of the market to improve the lives of the poor, and yet it has to operate in such a way that at least the major actors in the market are not antagonised but are won over as partners in long-term socio-economic development;
  • the attainment of democracy and new socio-economic programmes do have an impact on the class composition of South Africa society, with, for instance, large numbers of blacks moving into the ranks of the middle strata and a widening gap between the rich and the poor – this pattern of class formation within the context of the capitalist system will have long-term effects on the outlook of society as a whole;
  • because the inherited state (being transformed) is a mammoth machinery with its own dynamics and inertia, the danger of being co-opted into its rhythm, style and idiosyncrasies looms quite large;
  • the collapse of existing socialism has created an international void in terms of powerful, consistent and profound critique of the capitalist system, yet millions are uniting across the globe to challenge at least the most vulgar manifestations of the exploitative system;
  • related to the above is the skewed ownership and control of means of public discourse, a shallowness deriving from a poor understanding of the complex challenges of social transformation and pursuit of agendas which are opposed to transformation;
  • possibilities exist for national consensus around major questions facing the country, and yet if this is not properly defined, it can conceal deep-seated contradictions and encourage co-option of the transformative agenda by the status quo ante.

Similarly, some of the previous subjective factors still prevail, but there are new qualitative ones, among others:

  • successes attained thus far are a result of profound synergy between policies and actions of the ANC on the one hand, and, on the other, the aspirations of the mass of the people who have been active participants at least during decisive moments; however we have not as yet mastered the art of mass involvement in the process of governance and social transformation;
  • since its unbanning, the movement has built itself as a mass formation, recruiting into its ranks all South Africans who support the cause of social transformation; but we have not as yet resolved the question of the balance, in this expansion, between quality and quantity in terms of membership;
  • a society steeped in a competitive and self-centred mode and oriented towards individual wealth commands a huge gravitational pull which can suck in even those who seek to transform it – in terms of ideological paradigm, life-style, and notions of success, well-being and fulfilment;
  • in the same vein, within the ANC, the tendency is developing in which positions in government (and the ANC itself) are seen as platforms for acquiring resources and power, and divisions based on this perspective of self-enrichment can be bitter;
  • the state and government as a whole command powerful possibilities as instruments of transformation, but the very presence of cadres in these structures raises more than ever before the spectre of social distance – for instance, where the movement as a governing party relates to the people as the all-knowing, formal behemoth and where especially senior cadres in government as a rule are removed from the primary constituencies that the state is meant to serve;
  • ANC cadres are developing new skills and capacity in various strategic areas at an impressive pace; and yet these cadres as well as those in various sectors of the mass movement are thinly dispersed, rarely interact as cadres of change (except, in some instances, as employer and employed), and do not have a readily accessible centre to which they can defer;
  • The wide front of struggle in the current phase does not only result in diffusion of ANC cadres’ impact and their isolation, but also in the attendant weakness to consider one’s segment of the front as the all-important one, accompanied by a narrow technocratic approach to strategic questions.
Main challenges in the current phase

According to the Strategy and Tactics document,

“Our strategy is the creation of a united, non-racial, non-sexist and democratic society. In pursuit of this objective, we shall, at each given moment, creatively adopt tactics that advance that objective. Our fundamental point of departure is that South Africans have it in their power, as a people and as part of progressive humankind, to continually change the environment in which we operate in the interest of a better future.

“In this phase of transformation, we seek to expand and deepen the power of democratic forces in all centres critical to the NDR, at the same time as we improve the people’s quality of life. Our efforts, which are people-centred, people-driven and gender-sensitive, are founded on five basic pillars:

  • to build and strengthen the ANC as a movement that organises and leads the people in the task of social transformation;
  • to deepen our democracy and culture of human rights and mobilise the people to take active part in changing their lives for the better;
  • to strengthen the hold of the democratic movement on state power, and transform the state machinery to serve the cause of social change;
  • to pursue economic growth, development and redistribution in such a way as to improve the people’s quality of life; and
  • To work with progressive forces throughout the world to promote and defend our transformation, advance Africa’s renaissance and build a new world order.”

Arising from the above, there are a number of critical actions that need to be taken in order to raise the intervention of the ANC to a qualitatively higher level. Identified here are not the general priorities for the whole phase, but practical steps in the period leading up to National Conference in 2002/3. Each relevant Committee/Department can work out specific programmes with targets and time-frames and proper systems of accountability to the NWC/ NEC.

What are these priorities in respect of ANC organisational work and the tasks of governance?

Immediate ‘organisational’ priorities

Activation of branches and members to serve as a vanguard of their communities: ensure accountability by branches based on political activity reflected in the programme of action. Major programmes of governance should be translated into practical programmes for the ANC to mobilise for mass involvement and ensure that the programme of transformation is rooted among the masses, in line with the principle that the people are their own liberators.

Strengthen the Tri-partite Alliance and build an active broad front for transformation: improve joint strategising, consultations and action among the tripartite allies; build a broad front including organs of civil society with a common broad programme for transformation; and ensure progressive leadership of campaigns and structures of civil society. In this regard, special and urgent emphasis also needs to be placed on the matter of gender equality both in terms of broad mobilisation and organisation and internal practices within our organisations and society as a whole. A similar challenge pertains to the organisation and mobilisation of the youth.

Involve the membership in the resolution of critical questions facing the organisation: in instances where decisive action is required to introduce new approaches, or to deal with such problems as divisions, opportunism, corruption and so on, members should be involved in finding solutions – this is critical not only in terms of democratic principles, but it is an important instrument of practical political education.

Provide resources for, and ensure participation in, the cadre school programme: the political school programme should now be brought to the higher level of a physical location and standing programmes, with formal recognition in the assessment of cadres, without seeking to create a political elite and recognising that branch and other practical activities are the best school for cadre development. This should be combined with strengthening the culture of debating critical questions within the ranks; as well as affording fora for senior cadres (in legislatures, the executive, the public service, civil society and the private sector) to develop perspectives broader than their areas of specialisation, and to test their own work against these broad perspectives.

Improve ideological intervention by the ANC at all levels of discourse and formulation of policy: rationalise and integrate the research capacity of the ANC – a Policy Institute possibly attached to the political school – all of which should help inform strategic policy determination by the ANC, as well as long-term planning. Consolidate the “ideological departments” into an NEC Committee to examine and engage on matters of social consciousness, including such issues as social mores, gender and racism. This should include conceptualisation of dynamics in the balance of forces, interpretation of strategic and tactical postures of the movement as well as effective communication of compromises in the implementation of policy.

The issue of material conditions of cadres should be discussed openly in general terms (and in respect of such matters as deployment and divisions): this will lift the veil off the supposedly hidden causes of some of the ructions within our ranks and expose opportunism, tendencies towards corruption and careerism where they exist.

Examine the challenge of “modernisation” of the ANC both as a concept and in its practical application, in a manner that sustains and deepens the revolutionary character of the movement.

  1. This would range from such issues as adaptation to the information society and related technological challenges such as usage of the Internet and opening of cyber-cafes within communities; to mastery of PR work and regular opinion research and application of findings.
  2. This includes targeted strategic recruitment so that, besides its reflection of the working class and the poor as the core motive forces, the ANC becomes the repository of “the best in society”: including the best students, business leaders, sports-people, musicians, film-makers, academics, scientists, professionals, respected community leaders and so on – either as members or active supporters committed to the cause of social transformation. The need for dedicated teams for sectoral work also needs to be examined.
  3. The questions thrown up by our presence in government should also feature in this: mastery of work in legislatures as part of instruments of transformation, oversight of government implementation of policies, mass mobilisation and accountability. In this context, the issue of the ANC’s role in “delivery” also arises.
  4. On the part of progressive mass formations and the motive forces of the NDR, challenges that need to be addressed include: how to utilise the state creatively to pursue sectoral and general interests; net-working among revolutionaries at all levels; lobbying; relations with progressive business people and the attendant problem of corruption that may arise.

Continue the process of building international alliances and strengthening our interaction and intervention as an organisation in developments on the African continent, the developing world and in developed countries.

Immediate ‘governance’ priorities

Improving the capacity of the state to meet its obligations to the citizens: among the urgent challenges is to address the issue of the structuring of government to ensure integrated planning and implementation of programmes; ensure orientation at all levels towards meeting the priority objectives set out by the executive, as distinct from considering such immediate priorities as add-ons to on-going chores; continuing and targeted training and deployment in strategic areas within the state; transformation at middle management levels; revival of the campaign visibly to improve service to the people (Batho Pele).

Giving a spur to the drivers of economic growth and job-creation: take decisive steps to address the issue of allocation of public and private capital for productive purposes and launch the savings campaign in this context; resolve as a matter of urgency the blockages around promotion of SMME’s; systematically implement the programme of restructuring of state assets; and complete the process towards a comprehensive industrial strategy.

Broaden access to social services and improve their quality: start visible implementation of the Integrated Rural Development Strategy (including a comprehensive land reform programme) and the multi-disciplinary approach to urban renewal; develop and start implementing, on a massive scale, a human resource development strategy; carry out the AIDS/HIV campaign at a new qualitative level; and develop a new social safety net approach.

Build national identity and a new morality: this should entail, first and foremost, encouraging a culture of mass participation, building of partnerships and spirit of voluntary service; secondly, a continuing struggle needs to be waged to redefine the meaning of self-fulfilment and achievement versus wealth-accumulation; and thirdly, develop national pride and patriotism – to ensure united action on critical national matters. In this regard, it is necessary to examine the role of culture and national symbols and utilise them as a critical dynamic in the development of national identity.

Improve international solidarity and contribute to building a better Africa and a better world: this includes the integrated promotion of SA abroad in order to mobilise support for reconstruction and development; decisive interventions in areas of conflict such as the Great Lakes Region and Angola and helping prevent any expressions of instability particularly on the sub-continent; and building strategic partnerships in Africa and elsewhere.


To conclude: two issues, which may require a fundamental shift of mind-set, deserve strong emphasis:

To succeed in meeting the objectives we set ourselves requires that central attention should be paid to building a corps of cadres capable of implementing required programmes:

  1. In broad terms, socio-economic processes such as the national democratic revolution – which require strategic subjective interventions to shape unique social relations – differ from the ordinary capitalist system and its predecessors in that they do not rely solely on the “animal spirits” of voluntarism, relations of production that evolve on their own. They either stand or fall on the basis of whether a New Person has been shaped in turn to reshape the existing social relations.
  2. Our programme is not only about transformation of material conditions, but also about engendering new social values. Failure to build a New Person, among revolutionaries themselves and, in a more diffuse manner, in broader society, will result in a critical mass of the vanguard movement being swallowed in the vortex of the arrogance of power and attendant social distance and corruption, and, ultimately, themselves being transformed by the very system they seek to change. An important challenge, among others, is to ensure a systematic intervention by the ideological centres and institutions of society, as well as women as mothers and the family as a whole in shaping social values and a new morality.

Changing South African society in a manner that decisively improves people’s quality of life requires boldness in thinking that shakes up convenient comfort zones:

  1. For instance, in dealing with matters of the allocation of capital for investments, to look at the balance between bank-based and Stock Exchange systems of raising capital; incentivised and enforced savings; assistance to SMME’s; fostering of the co-operative sector and so on, should we be satisfied with merely maintaining and tinkering with the so-called “modern sophisticated economy and infrastructure that the white man bequeathed us” or should we search for bold and creative solutions? Related to this is the question of the size of the budget deficit and departments’capacity to spend.
  2. The same question can be raised with regard to the issue of settlement patterns, both in the narrow context of de-racialising residential areas and building integrated development hubs; and in the broader sense of migration between urban areas and the country-side and the issue of optimal clustered locations for communities, which make meaningful, cost-effective and sustainable development possible – recognising that the current reality is a product of deliberate and ruthless planning by the architects of apartheid.

These questions are critical not only as a backdrop to the implementation of the movement’s programmes; but also because opportunities lost at the very early stages of change can impact on the success of the whole project.