by Richard Pithouse, SACSIS
The distance between the stated aspirations of a protagonist on the political stage and the realities of its actual practices can sometimes mark a genuine attempt at internal contestation. It would, for instance, be a good thing if a group of people in the ANC insisted that the party was seriously committed to the principle that every child has a full, equal and immediate right to an education that could nurture their talents and then backed this affirmation up with real action, including effective action against the people and interests within the party that are responsible for, and even profiting from, the education crisis. But when there is no real acknowledgement that stated aspirations mark out values and goals that are clearly different to those guiding the actions that are actually taken we are dealing with ideologies - ideas that legitimate rather than guide or question the exercise of power.
The ANC tells us that it is committed to selfless struggle for a just society. It constantly seeks to affirm this by evoking the moral grandeur of its history which, although it carries its own shadows, certainly does have some impressive personalities and moments. It also, and again this is the case across its increasingly bitter divisions, likes to speak of grand futures to come in which there will be a decisive resolution of our pressing social questions. When forced to confront the altogether more compromising realities of the present it cannot deny the realities of enduring inequality, increasing political violence, much from it within the party and the state, entrenched corruption and escalating popular protest.
Its responses to these realities take a number of forms. One is to point to the delivery of certain services as well as various laws, institutions and pronouncements that, in principle, are designed to translate its public aspirations into action. Another is to point to the constraints imposed on it by the legacy of apartheid and the nature of the deal struck at the end of apartheid. This line of defence is often dragged more firmly into the present via the use of paranoid conspiracy theories to explain away popular discontent as being consequent to the machinations of 'sinister forces' aiming to restore white domination. It's also often asserted that corruption and thuggery within the party are 'alien tendencies' which it is determined to root out.
But the way that services are delivered, laws are used and institutions function is, albeit with important regional differences, systemically different in practice from principle. If you can't get access to housing without a party card; if laws, like those rendering evictions without an order of the court illegal and in fact criminal actions, are systemically and blatantly violated by the state and if the police act as if their obligation is to local political elites rather than to the law then it is clear that our public conversations need to take the actuality of how things really work a lot more seriously than the more typical conflation of principle with practice.
And while it is perfectly true that all of our lives, and those of generations to come, will be shaped by the history of apartheid and colonialism, and that the will to deny this is often a self-serving form of white denialism, there's no question that this reality is habitually abused by the ANC to legitimate its own failures. The plain fact of the matter is that the ANC simply has no real plan to redeem the aspirations of either the rural or the urban poor to share in substantive access to meaningful citizenship. The plans that it has been coming up with since Jacob Zuma came to power are often, like the attempts to reinforce the power of traditional authority in the former Bantustans and to criminalise squatting in urban areas, more about attempts at popular containment than the popular political empowerment that is the necessary foundation of any genuine way out of our crisis. Unless this changes, political patience cannot be a virtue and faith in the redemptive power of time will remain a dangerous illusion.
There's no question that there are people of principle in the ANC and that, in the trade unions, this is sometimes translated into open and effective political contestation within the party. But we can't go on pretending that corruption and authoritarianism are 'alien tendencies' in today's ANC. The power that strongmen like David Mabuza and John Block continue to wield is central to the ANC as it works in practice. The Durban case is particularly sobering and it’s particularly important given that it is the most powerful region in the ANC.
The Durban ANC was central to Jacob Zuma's rise to power and is likely to be central to the attempt to keep him in power. The late John Mchunu, was the central figure in the mobilisation in and through the Durban ANC in support of Zuma in the lead up to Polokwane. Mchunu, who was the chairperson of the ANC in the eThekwini region from its formation until his death in 2010, has been described as a former Inkatha warlord and, in his role as chairperson of the ANC in Durban, a 'Chicago-mob kind of character'. Under Mchunu the municipal budget become a tool for cementing the control of the party over the city. From the kind of tenders that turn people into millionaires down to the crumbs that are thrown to the poor through projects like paying people to clean toilets in shack settlements money flowed, via the party, to its supporters. The housing budget became a particular source of wealth and this became the party's central concern with regard to housing. The result was that many of the houses that were built were, as well as often being on peripheral land originally reserved for housing under apartheid, and often distributed through local party structures as part of the system of patronage, so badly constructed that they now need to be rebuilt.
Both political parties and independent popular organisations saw Mchunu as deeply authoritarian and hostile to political freedom. He was certainly no democrat. In late 2009 the shack dweller's movement Abahlali baseMjondolo was, in a manner that replicated key aspects of the violence that Inkatha had used against the ANC in the dying years of apartheid, attacked in the Kennedy Road settlement by people identifying as both ANC members and Zulus and enjoying impunity from the police. Two weeks before the attack Mchunu had told the ANC's regional council that the movement was a conspiracy by “Counter revolutionaries…colluding with one mission to weaken the ANC and its Alliance.” For months after the attack the homes of activists were openly destroyed in the settlement by ANC supporters while the police refused all requests to intervene. But at the same time the police were using torture and fabricating witness statements to try and concoct a case against a group of young Pondo men who were allied to the movement. The machinations of the police were backed up by local ANC supporters who used death threats and violence to intimate witnesses. But the case was so clearly fraudulent that it was thrown out of court as soon as the prosecution rested its case.
A new regime came into power in the Durban ANC after Mchunu's death. They have never responded to the request to organise an independent investigation into the 2009 violence in the Kennedy Road shack settlement, and the police response to it. They have shown no real commitment to taking serious action against all of the people named in a report on the massive corruption in the city. In October last year Abahlali baseMjondolo issued a statement claiming that Nigel Gumede, chairperson of housing committee in the eThekwini Municipality, had introduced himself as a killer at a meeting with the movement, said that the ANC was at war with the movement and threatened violence against the movement. There has been no denial, condemnation or action from the ANC. And things are so fraught within the party that it has recently been reported that senior ANC members feel the need to carry guns to ANC meetings.
Corruption and authoritarianism are alien to the ANC as it has existed at certain moments in history and to some ideas about what it should be. But they are not alien to the ANC as it actually exists and as it brought Jacob Zuma to the Presidency. To continue with the pretence that predatory forces are by definition alien to the party when in fact they have inserted themselves at its heart is to legitimate those forces. We need to take full measure of what the ANC has become.