Reflections on Nelson Mandela and the ANC

Since Nelson Mandela’s death, thousands of articles and millions of people have paid tribute to him. They have rightly praised him for his stance against the apartheid state, which saw him spend 27 years in prison, his non-racialism, and his contribution to the struggle in South Africa. For much of his life Nelson Mandela was indeed the most prominent figure in the liberation struggles in Africa that were waged in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.


For the millions of people that were involved in the struggle against apartheid – and specifically large sections of the black working class that spearheaded it – Nelson Mandela, therefore, became a symbol that they drew inspiration from, particularly in the 1980s. As a matter of fact, it was the black working class through struggle that tore down many features of apartheid by the late 1980s, such as the pass law system, Group Areas and other odious laws, and for many of the comrades involved Nelson Mandela was very much a hero. It was through the energy of large sections of the working class that Mandela too was eventually freed: indeed, by 1990 mass mobilisation by millions of workers and the poor ensured that the anti-apartheid veteran was released. 



It was because of Nelson Mandela’s stature too that large sections of the black working class placed faith in the African National Congress (ANC) to embark on negotiations with white sections of the ruling class to bring an end to apartheid. Although Mandela played a huge role in these negotiations, the ANC undertook them as a leadership collective with people like Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa taking the lead at various stages. Out of this, many within the working class hoped that the ANC, under the leadership of the likes of Mandela, would implement socialism once the National Party was out of state power; and for once-and-for-all end inequalities based on class and racial oppression. 


While formal apartheid was ended through negotiations – for instance everyone was granted the right to vote in parliamentary elections and freedom of speech was legally recognised - unfortunately, these deeper hopes for socialism and genuine equality did not materialise. While we should salute Nelson Mandela for his contribution in the fight against apartheid; it is also therefore vital to look at how and why the hopes of millions of people for socialism in South Africa were dashed and why South Africa today remains the most unequal country in the world. Through this we can draw lessons about how it is vital to base struggles on direct democracy – and not to cede power to a leadership (even if they are the calibre of Mandela) and how embracing capitalism and taking state power cannot bring genuine freedom and equality (even if that state is headed by someone like Mandela). 


The ANC and the struggle against apartheid 


At various points in history, other political ideas, ideologies, and groupings other than the ANC were at the forefront of the struggle against segregation and apartheid. For example, in the 1920s the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) - influenced by a variety of ideas including revolutionary syndicalism - were in the forefront of the fight against racism and capitalism in South Africa. Likewise, in the 1970s Black Consciousness played a large role in the struggles during that decade.


However, in the 1950s and more importantly from the mid 1980s to 1994 the ANC and its ideas were central. It was Mandela and others, like Walter Sisulu and Govan Mbeki, that played a key in the ANC’s rise to prominence in the 1950s. They pushed for more radical tactics in the fight against the apartheid state, when compared to the tactics of lobbying the ANC used prior to this, and attracted a whole new generation to the ANC. It was also largely ‘graduates’ of the 1950s generation that also played a key role in winning large sections of the black working class to the ANC in the 1980s.


Despite this though, the ANC was never a socialist organisation. Indeed, Mandela himself was explicit that he was not a socialist and nor was the ANC. The ANC rather was for most of its history a nationalist organisation that believed a cross-class alliance was needed to defeat apartheid. It had large numbers of working class people as members and supporters, but its leadership was largely drawn from an elite section of the black population. This black elite was frustrated in its attempts to become genuine capitalists and join the ruling class by apartheid; hence sections of the black elite had a real interest in overthrowing apartheid; but not in ending capitalism.  


The seminal document that guided the ANC in its struggles against the apartheid state from the 1950s to the early 1990s was the Freedom Charter. In tune with its times, the Freedom Charter (written in 1955) proposed a form of capitalism that was popular with emerging independent states in Africa and Asia in the 1950s and 1960s. It called for a strong state to direct the economy though nationalisation of key industries, including mining. This, however, was not socialist. The ANC’s Freedom Charter never intended to change the profit motive of capitalism, nor did it intend to change the relations of production that define this system, or in fact alter the class system. Rather it called for state ownership of key industries; around which a black section of the ruling class could be built. In the rest of the economy private capital would be welcome. Through this, the ANC leadership hoped that black capitalists too would be created and fostered. Indeed, it was a priority for the ANC to create a black section of the ruling class and a strong black middle class and this was its main goal throughout most of its existence. Mandela was overtly honest about this point even in the 1950s. Along with developing capitalism and nurturing a black section of the ruling class, the Freedom Charter however also envisioned strong welfare delivery for the working class, again reflecting the times it was written in, but also the commitment that the likes of Mandela and Sisulu had at the time to a social democratic form of capitalism that was relevant to Africa.


The ANC’s allies – the South African Communist Party (SACP) – fully supported the Freedom Charter and key SACP members played important roles in its drafting. This was fully consistent with the SACP’s two-stage theory of revolution. The clauses on nationalisation too were consistent with the parties desire to create state capitalism (which they called wrongly ‘socialism’) and thus they had a large degree of convergence with the ANC around the Freedom Charter. Like the ANC, much of the leadership of the SACP was also drawn from the ranks of professionals and intellectuals; and ideologically they wanted to develop capitalism and the means of production as a stepping stone to their ‘socialism’.  By the 1980s the ANC and SACP leadership had played a key role in winning over the top layers of organisations such as the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) to the Freedom Charter and its vision.


The deal


By the 1990s, struggles of the working class had made apartheid unworkable. South African capital wanted neo-liberalism imposed in a bid to restore the profits that they had seen declining since the 1970s. The apartheid state, due to resistance and its complete lack of legitimacy, could not deliver this. Added to this, the very real spectre of a social revolution, which could have gone in the direction of a form of socialism based on direct democracy, also loomed in the background. With the days of apartheid clearly numbered, and seeking solutions to the economic crisis they were experiencing, the white ruling class began to look to the elite in the ANC as potential allies and already in the 1980s they were sending out feelers to try and make a deal. This involved both open and secret meetings between sections of the white ruling class and the elite in the ANC to discuss a possible deal and a capitalist future for South Africa post apartheid. The cross class nature of the ANC – with a black elite dominating the leadership – would come back to haunt the working class as these discussions went forward; and the fact that the leadership was not accountable in the sense of direct democracy amplified this.


The release of Mandela, due to the massive struggles taking place in the country, became a key moment when the momentum that would lead to concrete deal between the elite in the ANC – including Mandela – and the white ruling class gained pace. Within 4 years, a deal had in fact been reached. This deal would see white capitalists keeping their wealth and corporations, in exchange the black elite in the ANC would have state power and some would be given shares within corporations, including Mandela and his family. In fact, the Mandela family have come to hold interests in over 100 companies – held through various trusts – in South Africa alone. For the black working class promises of jobs, decent housing and a better life were made. Besides the Reconstruction and Development (RDP) houses, which unfortunately were and are of appalling quality, little of this was actually delivered. Part of the reason why, is that the leadership of the ANC even ditched the Freedom Charter. With this, the Freedom Charter’s form of capitalism, which also promised strong welfarism, was tossed aside, let alone socialism, by the ANC leadership when it began to increasingly flirt with neoliberalism in the run up to 1994. 


The ANC under Mandela drove through neoliberalism    


This shift to outright neoliberalism happened as soon as the ANC, under Mandela’s Presidency, gained state power in 1994. A slew of overtly anti-working class policies soon followed. The reason why the elite within the ANC could so easily shelve the Freedom Charter was because the main goal of the ANC was to create and foster black capitalists and a black middle class. Many within the top ranks of the ANC had come to realise by the 1990s this could in fact be achieved through neoliberalism, including through various forms of privatisation, such as outright privatisation, public private partnerships and tenders. For the capitalism that existed in the 1990s, from a ruling class perspective (which the ANC elite had joined), the Freedom Charter was out of date – indeed the type of capitalism it promoted already went into a crisis in the 1970s and to restore profits neoliberalism had already replaced it in most countries.  


The first of the economic policies that included important elements of neoliberalism was the RDP White Paper, which was presented to Parliament in 1994. It promoted financial, investment and trade liberalisation. Growth of the economy and profits – instead of the needs of the working class - was also deemed as all important. In fact, it was a continuation of the neoliberal policies the apartheid state had attempted to drive through during its last few years in power. In 1996, the commitment to anti-working class policies deepened with the adoption of the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) policy. This witnessed a wholesale attack on the working class, including an attempt to privatise and commercialise basic services. Corporations received massive tax cuts under GEAR; while state spending on services for the working class was slashed. Linked to the fact that from day one the ANC headed state had a neoliberal housing policy (similar to the one proposed when P.W. Botha was heading the state), the consequences were devastating. Townships remained ghettos and the spatial dynamics of apartheid were left solidly in place. Workers too were attacked through GEAR. It promoted greater labour ‘flexibility’, increased productivity, but limited or no real wage increases. At the time of GEAR, Mandela also unfortunately showed the more authoritarian side of his personality. He stated flat out that GEAR and its implementation was non-negotiable, after it was drawn up by a handful of neoliberal economists and state officials with no public participation.


Under these policies the working class reeled. Inequality based on class lines in fact increased even when compared to the appalling heydays of apartheid. Millions of people were cut off from basic services and hundreds of thousands of black working class families were evicted from their houses. Unemployment rose beyond 30% and has never come down. Indeed, inequality was never addressed. In many ways this was always going to be a problem due to ANC leaderships’ commitment to some form of capitalism; but their implementation of the neoliberal form of capitalism made the situation even worse. 


In fact, the ANC headed state never addressed the apartheid legacy whereby a deliberately low paid black working class was the source of the huge profits for the ruling class in the country. In reality, the ANC headed state from the earliest days entrenched and deepened this by its adoption of neoliberalism. Through cutting spending on social services to the working class it even ensured that the reproduction of the working class cost the state, and ruling class, as little as possible. This meant the systemic source of the huge profits that the ruling class reaps was kept in place by the post-apartheid state. In fact, the wealth of the black section of the ruling class that was created through state policies and positions from 1994 onwards was based on the very system of cheap black labour. For the black section of the ruling class, therefore, their wealth too came and comes from this and is based on this. To create a rich black elite, therefore, the black working class were and are ruthlessly exploited under the ANC state.  


The fact that the structure of South Africa’s economy never fundamentally changed in 1994 meant that the relations with neighbouring states too remained imperialist – even though Mandela and others in the ANC wanted a more united Africa. For most of its history South Africa has dominated southern Africa; it has extracted wealth from it and to do so it had to politically and militarily dominate the region. South African capital essentially owns vast tracts of the economy in the region and is the largest foreign investor – exploiting labour and extracting profits. Under the ANC state and Mandela’s presidency this situation even deepened and to keep this going the South Africa state had to continue to dominate the region after 1994. Indeed, the South African states’ adoption of neoliberalism in 1994 saw the role of South African capitalism and the state expand in the southern Africa. South African capital from 1994 could move anywhere in southern Africa and extract profits; and to do so the South African state had and has to back it up. As part of this, in 1997 the South African state even invaded Lesotho. This was explicitly done to protect South African investments in the Lesotho Highlands Water Project and to ensure the flow of vital water to South Africa’s industries from that country was not jeopardised. Likewise, the system of cheap migrant labour from across the sub-continent, which is central to South African mines, was never addressed under the ANC and Mandela. If it had been, profits within South African mining would have declined, impacting on the white section of the ruling class badly, but also potentially undermining the ANC’s goal of fostering a black section of the ruling class.


Co-opting and attacking working class struggles 


As a new black section of the ruling class emerged, centred around the state and under Mandela’s leadership, attempts were made to co-opt black working class struggles, and where this was not possible, state violence was used to intimidate. The co-option of struggles in fact saw the ANC disbanding organisations such as the UDF and incorporating leaders into the state – essentially co-opting them into the ruling class. COSATU was drawn deeper and deeper into corporatism and institutionalised social dialogue and its leaders too were given positions in the state. When co-option did not work, such as the student protests in 1995, the police were sent in to deal with protestors using tear gas, batons and even buckshot. During this period, Mandela unfortunately – and despite his earlier and strong commitment to struggles against injustice – said such ‘unruly’ protests could not be tolerated under the post-apartheid state.  


The libertarian or anti-state socialist Mikhael Bakunin foresaw the possibility of such a situation arising in cases where supposed national liberation was based on capturing state power. The reason for this is because the tactic of gaining state power does not abolish the class system, inequalities nor capitalism – and consequently it has failed to end exploitation and racial oppression in South Africa. Capturing state power simply changes the make-up and some of the faces of the ruling class; but it does not end inequality both in material terms and in terms of power. Due to the centralised nature of states, only a few can rule: a majority of people can never be involved in decision making under a state system. Hence, when former liberation fighters or activists enter into the state, because of its top down structure, they become rulers and get used to the privileges and the exercise of top down power their new positions entail. They literally become governors and gradually begin to rule in their own interests. To keep this going they have to exploit and oppress the vast majority of the people. Even a great man like Mandela could not escape the logic of this. As committed and perhaps even as sincere as he was; because he and the entire ANC leadership never truly wanted to end capitalism and later entered into state power; by definition they could never implement true freedom and equality, even if they wanted to. 



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