There is no doubt that the outcome of the ANC’s 54th National Conference will shape the future of the party, and the country, in profound ways. The principal candidates for the leadership of the party, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa, have made very different alliances, and offer very different routes into the future. But neither of the candidates has been able to make anything close to an adequate appraisal of the crisis into which we have descended, or to propose anything like a credible or compelling national vision, let alone an emancipatory project.
Our crisis is complex and has many dimensions. But the failure of the ANC to address mass impoverishment, an intensely racialized reality, sits at its heart. This not a matter of a well-intentioned political class confronting the objective limits of history, global power relations and the aftermath of the financial crisis. On the contrary, the state, and the party that manages it, are so contemptuous of the lives of the oppressed that everything from relentless shack fires, to an education system that permanently condemns millions to the margins of the global economy, and terrifying levels of violence are implicitly treated as ordinary and acceptable features of everyday life. Contempt renders crisis banal. Contempt means that the lives of impoverished black people continue to be disposable. The massacre of striking workers at Marikana, the slaughter at the Glebelands Hostel in Durban and the grim details of the Life Esidimeni scandal mark out a deep chasm between what the ANC claims to be and what it actually is.
In a global moment in which populism and charisma, from the left and the right, have often emerged in response to crises far less harrowing than ours it is striking that both Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa share a pronounced lack of charisma, and an inability to generate any meaningful popular excitement outside of the party. It has been said that Dlamini-Zuma represents a continuation of the populist politics associated with Jacob Zuma, while Ramaphosa represents a return to the technocratic mode of politics associated with Thabo Mbeki. But Dlamini-Zuma’s final rally at the Sugar Ray Xulu stadium in Claremont, in Durban, was a dismal affair. It attracted significantly less support and enthusiasm, and was much less effectively organised, than the rallies organised by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), Abahlali baseMjondolo and the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) in the same city earlier this year.
Although the ANC is rapidly losing electoral support the party elite, bitterly divided as it is, has kept firm control over the processes through which its leadership is decided. As with recent events in Zimbabwe the battle for the control of the party is a fight between two factions of the party elite and not, not at all, a matter of popular contestation with that elite. There is no Donald Trump or Jeremy Corbyn in this battle.
The ANC cloaks even its most reactionary ideas and practices in radical rhetoric. Given this, and the challenge that the party faces from escalating popular protest in the streets, and the EFF in parliament, it is hardly surprising that Dlamini-Zuma and Ramaphosa both make rhetorical gestures towards the crisis of racialized impoverishment. Ramaphosa has felt compelled to adopt the phrase ‘radical economic transformation’ with which Dlamini-Zuma has branded her campaign.
Dlamini-Zuma has not given much substantive content to her vision. But she has chosen to ally herself with a form of accumulation primarily organised via patronage mediated through the party, and frequently extending to outright looting from the state. In some parts of the country this form of accumulation has been associated with forms of political gangsterism that present a clear and present danger to democratic practices. In KwaZulu-Natal, where Dlamini-Zuma draws much of her support, murder has become a routine feature of political life.
The subordination of the state to the interests of a predatory political class is at the direct expense of the majority of the oppressed. Dlamini-Zuma’s choice to associate her campaign with some of the crudest opportunists in our public life – people like Carl Niehaus and ANC Youth League president Collen Maine – inspires no confidence that she is in fact a stalking horse for a real alternative to President Jacob Zuma’s ruinous mode of rule. If her own political desires do secretly diverge from those of the people backing and organising her campaign it is highly unlikely that, if she were to triumph at Nasrec, she would have the political support to chart a genuinely new course.
Ramaphosa’s ‘New Deal’, farcically dressed up, in typical ANC style, with lines from The Freedom Charter and Amílcar Cabral, offers a programme that declares that “An immediate priority is to restore confidence among investors”. We inhabit a moment in which the credibility of the rapacious economic ideology presented as disinterested science after the Cold War has collapsed. Figures like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn have expanded the field of political possibility in the imperialist powers. Dissident economists like Thomas Piketty and Yanis Varoufakis have become global celebrities. But Ramaphosa offers no new ideas. He has given more detail to his vision than his rival and his project is explicitly predicated on the ruinous idea that the interests of capital coincide with those of society.
Neither Dlamini-Zuma nor Ramaphosa propose to restore political confidence to the people. Neither candidate proposes a democratic resolution of our crisis in which the power of the oppressed is built through democratic popular organisation with the aim of ensuring that party elites, the state, civil society and the market are subordinated to popular interests. It is telling that while Dlamini-Zumu and Ramaphosa both like to burnish their credentials by speaking about land neither candidate has offered solidarity to oppressed people who are struggling for land, often against violence from armed men in the employ of the state, and sometimes at the real risk of death at the hands of party structures. Radical abstractions mask concrete forms of complicit with increasingly brutal forms of oppression.
MainPhoto: The ANC elite is dancing, in the shadow of people like OR Tambo, and the crushed aspirations of South Africans – By Delwyn Verasamy
If we are to find a path out of our escalating crisis we will have to find a way out of the rule of the ANC. It is a predatory and increasingly authoritarian excrescence on society that would rather risk destruction and defeat than open itself to the possibility of becoming an expression of society.
The time when the ANC carried the hopes of millions of people, and was widely, although of course never universally, understood as a national liberation movement, has passed. It seems unlikely that it well ever return.