The ANC’s Second Transition: Another Dead-End? | by Vishwas Satgar

by Jun 28, 2012All Articles

ancs-second-transitionThe ANC heads to its policy conference in June, after being South Africa’s ruling party for almost two decades.  There are many ideas and policy perspectives up for discussion but the ‘big idea’ framing the discussion is the notion of a ‘second transition’. A whole document (47 pages long) is dedicated to this proposition entitled: ‘The Second Transition? Building a National Democratic Society and the Balance of Forces in 2012’.
For many militants of the ANC (including its ‘socialist desk’ called the SACP) this confirms the ‘Polokwane left shift’ of the ANC, the big leap beyond the first stage of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) and suggests that everything is on track in the NDR as we move to a National Democratic Society. This is both a superficial, self serving and propagandistic reading of a very ambitious document and proposition. At the same time, all of us as South Africans are meant to be captivated and inspired to join the big leap; the ANC once more has it all worked out and we should just follow. 
Almost twenty years into post-apartheid democracy, the degeneration of the ANC prompts us to ask deeper questions about what the ANC is really about. Can it still be a vehicle for emancipation of South Africa, for a ‘second transition’?  Despite the ANC’s history, does the politics of the ANC today really inspire confidence and belief?  To use its own discourse, does the ANC believe that its leadership of the ‘first transition’ was such a great success? Does the ANC really believe it inspires confidence amongst a substantial majority and key strata such that it has the moral authority and legitimacy to take South Africa forward for another 30-50 years? Or is talk of a second transition a desperate rhetorical move to confront a deepening crisis of internal cohesion and wider political legitimacy? Are the pieties of ANC national liberation orthodoxy in trouble?
Critical thinking South Africans need to ask these questions.  This contribution seeks to situate the ANC’s conversation of a ‘second transition’ in the context of what the ANC is today. It does not provide a narrow reading of the ANC’s document but rather seeks to give meaning to the ANC document and the conversation about a second transition by bringing into view the limits, crisis and the dangers of ANC politics.
Does the ANC Have All the Answers for South Africa?
Behind the schizophrenia of the ANC, being a political party and liberation movement at the same time, is a crucial self conception at work inside the ANC political machine. The ANC does believe, despite the existence of the SACP and given its own Marxist-Leninist schooling, that it is the real vanguard of the people and the ‘working class’; it leads the ‘motive forces of change’. By implication it has the monopoly of answers on the way forward, and as an extension of this Leninist faith, the state is a crucial instrument for bringing about change. Well, 18 years of neoliberal rule confirms a poverty in the ANC’s understanding of transformation but, moreover, state control has not turned out to be the ‘magic wand’ of change.  Actually, ANC control and monopoly over state power has proven to be an insufficient condition to transform South Africa.  Ironically, the ANC has engaged in deep globalisation of the South African economy, thus self imposing limits on state power. Its argument for a second transition does not bring these issues into view and how the ANC oversaw the restructuring of the state in the interests of global capital. The underlying conditions that have given rise to a ‘disciplined state’ serving the interests of global capitalism are not in question. The only way forward and around this challenge is to bring the people genuinely into the transformation process from below to change these conditions. There is a critical role for people’s power and grassroots knowledge to change South Africa.  However, this not a central dimension of the politics envisaged in the second transition. Moreover, the distance between the ANC and the grassroots has widened such that the ANC branch is not necessarily the expression of grassroots politics.
There is a common sense understanding in South Africa that one of the strengths of the tri-partite Alliance is that it assists in enhancing debate, sharpening policy perspectives and supplying answers. The ANC is meant to embody the collective and rational wisdom of this creature. Unfortunately, this is a naïve, romantic and orthodox understanding of the tri-partite alliance. Moreover, it tends to suggest the tri-partite alliance is locked into a division of political roles: ANC governs/rules, SACP is the conscience, COSATU has mass power.  The reality today is that the tri-partite alliance is a battle ground for personal and factional interests that spill over into the state. When the SACP’s leaders declare ‘the 1996 class project’ is alive and well in the ANC, whose interests does this serve? When COSATU calls on its members to ‘swell the ranks of the ANC’ whose interests does this serve? Political debate is highly politicised, serves material interests and is instrumentalised.  Today, overlapping membership in the tri-partite Alliance  has become the greatest weakness of the ANC given that it creates confusion, uncertainty and instability; it is increasingly a cacophony of self-interested noise. It seems the ANC’s second transition will continue this noise and instability because there is no conception of the ANC remaking its political relations over the next 30-50 years in its document and conversation.
While the ANC still talks about resolving the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, there is something more immediate.  South Africa’s economy (and society) is in the grip of a deepening crisis that is exacerbating race, class and gender divisions.  This is a direct result of the ANC choosing, as part of its strategic calculation, to play the ‘globalisation game’; a game it has been overwhelmed by. Ironically, more than the National Party the ANC has gone all out to ensure South Africa embraces global neoliberal restructuring as the way forward for post-apartheid South Africa.  Hence the global crisis facing the world, registers in South Africa as well. However, the crisis we face today on a global scale is complex, worsening and interlocking. It has now become a financial  crisis, a spatial and sectoral crisis as it spreads, a conjunctural crisis of neoliberalism (although the world’s ruling elites are not willing to surrender market based policies favouring transnational capital) and a deeper civilizational crisis (inter-locking of systemic factors preventing the reproduction of human and non-human life). It is a total crisis of capitalism which the ANC does not recognise and in terms of its policy document it does not even come close to addressing. While it eludes to ‘civilisational crisis’ and ‘multiple dimensions of the crisis’ the most it calls for is ‘shared growth’ and ‘regulated markets’; social democracy redux!  Is social democracy today viable and a left wing response to the total crisis of capitalism?  More precisely, is a Southern variant of globalised fossil fuel driven state capitalism the way forward? I should add, the ANC wants us to believe that this is all meant to add up to the ANC being a ‘disciplined force of the left’, in the 21st century!
The Growing Legitimacy Deficit: Why the NDR is not the Direct Route to Emancipation?
For many South Africans our unfinished political transition was the first dead-end brought about by ANC leadership; it has not consolidated democracy and a democratic culture as the basis for a non-racial society. A crucial crisis of legitimacy factor in this regard relates to the gap between policy promises and delivery. Instead of implementing policies it was elected to implement and for which many South Africans sacrificed,  the ANC chose to implement policies that secure the confidence of capital and Black Economic Empowerment to serve elite formation. Moreover, social protests in South Africa, whether indicative of the ‘rebellion of the poor’ or not, are about profound discontent with state failure, rampant corruption and lack of service delivery. Such social protests are widening and becoming increasingly violent in their expression of grassroots anger. The split in the ANC after the Polokwane conference and the formation of COPE, further undermined the legitimacy of the ANC. As a newcomer to the political scene and with serious limitations COPE secured a dramatic foothold in the political system with 7.4% of the national vote in 2009.  In the same election the ANC lauded its near two-thirds vote, but a closer look reveals that those voting for it have declined from 53,8% in 1994 to 38,8% in 2009. Moreover 12,1 million (40.3% of eligible voters) did not vote at all.
In the 2011 local government elections the DA experienced a general increase in support across the country, while the ANC lost support across the country except for Kwazulu-Natal. With the DA’s demand for a youth wage subsidy, it challenges one of the most important policy planks of ANC legitimacy amongst the working class: 15 million South Africans on social grants. With the ANC failing to create jobs the role of social grants in feeding the material roots of ANC legitimacy cannot be underestimated. However, as the DA makes inroads amongst unemployed sections of the working class with the youth wage subsidy proposition (given 1 in 2 young South Africans are jobless), political re-alignments are sure to take place amongst the working class. This is not to suggest that the youth wage subsidy is the way forward to address youth unemployment.
Another crucial legitimacy crisis factor facing the ANC is its failure to deepen democracy during the ‘first transition’ to political freedom. South Africa today has an arrested process of democratisation. The authoritarian populism of the ANC, associated with Jacob Zuma’s ascendancy, has raised deep concerns about the ANC’s commitment to a popular democratic political order. Attacks on the judiciary’s independence, staffing the upper echelons of the police and intelligence agencies with Zuma cronies, attacks on the media through the infamous ‘secrecy bill’ and the proposed media tribunal, the traditional leaders bill and so on raise profound concerns about the ANC’s commitment to democracy. The street politics accompanying this displays an authoritarian face of the ANC while also exposing a shallow commitment to non-racialism. This is simply because the non-racial tradition in South Africa is umbilically linked to democracy. You turn your back on democracy, including democratic criticism by and of art and artists, you also turn your back on non-racialism.
Finally, another crucial legitimacy crisis factor relates to how the ANC is controlling the union movement in South Africa today. COSATU has an impeccable and independent national and international record of defending and advancing democratisation. However, the increasing populist authoritarianism of the ANC is also undermining the credibility of COSATU’s commitment to democratisation; increasingly COSATU is called upon to defend the indefensible in the eyes of the people. Moreover, the political independence of COSATU is also being undermined as union leaders are being drawn into cabinet positions in government, union investment companies are locked into BEE deals, as the ANC government responds violently to civil society protest action and as unions themselves undermine traditions of worker control. COSATU is at a crucial cross-roads and internal union battles, both at the recent NUM Congress and most likely at the next COSATU elective conference, will reveal how the ANC (working in cahoots with the SACP) finds it absolutely necessary to control COSATU to safeguard its influence and legitimacy over the organised working class. These are moves of desperation and COSATU would do well to heed the following caution, before it is to late: do not let ANC vanguardism substitute for independent working class leadership and worker control of unions.
Second Transition To What?
When squared up with reality of what the ANC is about today, the noble sounding rhetoric of the second transition document comes unstuck or its narrative really rings hollow. The ANC does not have the answers to confront the challenges of a crisis-ridden global capitalism, its legitimacy crisis is deepening and it is showing signs of growing authoritarianism. This prompts a crucial question: ‘second transition’ to what? If the first transition is floundering and faltering, is this the basis for the great leap into the second transition? Is the ‘second transition’ merely about another dead-end? If the ANC genuinely believes that the content of the second transition is to address economic transformation then it is rather remarkable how its document does not provide an honest starting point to assess where South Africa has come to. It is a document bereft of a serious analysis of the neoliberalisation of South Africa and its implications for the state, the accumulation model, class formation, civil society and international relations. It skirts social realities that the ANC was responsible for constituting and merely reduces 18 years of neoliberalisation to a tactical difference amongst Alliance partners. Such an understanding of ANC rule might work for the ideologues who are desperate to project internal ANC cohesion, within an Alliance riddled with deep divisions, but the fact of the matter is that workers and the poor have born the brunt of ANC policy choices; they are the losers of a fundamental strategic choice that placed capital in the driving seat and which enhanced the power of capital.  Without such a critical understanding of South Africa’s political economy one can only conclude that the ANC’s transition to a National Democratic Society is one in which the ‘spectre of capital’ looms large.
This is further confirmed by formulations on the dimensions of what constitute a ‘national democratic society’. These are shot through with a narrow liberal understanding of freedom and representative democracy, a conception of social capital emptied of an understanding of power relations, a state that hovers above class contradictions to regulate class conflict and a productivist conception of economic change; more growth and industrial jobs.  All of this rather outdated, overtaken by globalising capital and the total crisis of capitalism today and certainly not the ‘best that human civilisation has to offer’.  The ANC today is not the place where new Left thinking, imaginings and propositions are developing. All the luck with the second transition!
Author: Dr. Vishwas Satgar is a senior lecturer in International Relations at WITS University. He is also a member of the national steering committee of the Democratic Left Front.
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