Who “owns” anti-apartheid heritage?

Submitted by Matthew on 1 August, 2012 - 2:10

Since South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994 and the decisive victory of the African National Congress there have been several scandals involving the ruling party.

But the ANC’s level of electoral success in post-apartheid South Africa has made the country, to all intents and purposes, a one-party state. It is a remote possibility that any other party could succeed to power unless the ANC itself splits into warring factions.

Once perceived as the younger and more radical sister of the ANC, the Pan-Africanist Congress founded by Robert Sobukwe, and led by inspirational thinkers and activists like the martyred Steve Biko, was always politically disorganised and offered little challenge. Its concept of “one settler, one bullet”, the memorialisation of Biko, and the suspicion that many black activists had towards the largely white leadership of the South African Communist Party has not translated into a political stakehold in government.

At the same time demagogues like Julius Mulema (the expelled leader of the ANC’s youth wing) — a product of the new black middle class — have used the rhetoric of black nationalism to secure support amongst a youth which feels dispossessed even now by what is perceived as white, economic rule. Recent scandals involving Mulema have not dampened down an enthusiasm for his politics in townships still riven by dire poverty, health problems, and a rapidly expanding refugee population.

Recent events involving the image of President Jacob Zuma, at first sight quite trivial point to serious issues about the future of South Africa and independent working-class politics.

The Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party (SACP), and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was forged long before the victory of the ANC in the early 1990s. But the trade unions have become increasingly critical of ANC government describing Zuma’s presidency as a “predator society” and decisively differing from the government on the three central problems facing the post-apartheid state.

Firstly, the Zimbabwean refugee problem and the status of the ANC’s relationship to the Mugabe government with two major delegations of COSATU observers being forcibly expelled from the country in recent years.

Secondly, on the AIDS situation which the government, particularly under Thabo Mbeki, largely underestimated, or even made worse with its inability to face the reality of the situation (around six million people, one tenth of the population, have positive status) and to offer much of a treatment programme.

Thirdly, with all of the international aid and development money which supported social grants and aid the emergence of a minimal welfare state and housing programme the ANC has still not made a dent into the mass poverty in the townships, particularly in rural areas, but also in cities where crime is rife.

Most young people still see their way to a better life through an underground economy, by getting to positions of influence in the ANC, or through gangsterism which is a blight on the townships particularly in Gauteng province.

The housing programme is quite extensive in the country but it started from a very low level of development and one which had to grapple with the fact that the townships were profoundly geographically divorced from the old white’s-only city centres — leaving the black workers with huge journeys to work usually by walking, rail, or on the informal taxi buses.

The “white flight” that has been part of the visible change in the cities has led to an even more geographically uneven city structure with many affluent whites either fleeing South Africa entirely, like the novelist JM Coetzee, who left for Australia in protest at the lack of credibility that the ANC had in dealing with crime; or to semi-militarised compounds in the suburbs (often shared by the emerging black middle class) surrounded by razor wire and armed guards.

The critical status of refugees in South Africa is in some ways a telling indicator of the social problems of the state. Many refugees are HIV positive, trafficked into the country across its borders to the north, arriving traumatised and expecting a first world solution to their problems and instead finding themselves in isolated rural townships or in crime-ridden city centres with little support and with widespread violence meted out against them on the streets.

The refugee situation also highlights the massive problem with corruption amongst the police and border officials with financial racketeering playing a large part in how migrants get in to the country and how well they are treated once they get there.

Dissatisfaction with the ANC has also led to the securing of political footholds for the liberals of the Democratic Alliance in places like the Western Cape. They make a fetish of taking a stand against corruption but also point to the role of many of their cadre in the past in the anti-apartheid struggle. Although largely supported by the white affluent classes they are also becoming a pole of support for many black South Africans who have had enough of the evasions and corruption of parts of the ANC.

Corruption is perceived by many to be not just in the lower ranks of the ANC and in the police force but higher up. One of Zuma’s closest colleagues, Schabir Shaik, was jailed for corruption. As a result of hostile press intrusion into Zuma’s personal life and economic dealings the ANC have pushed through the Protection of State Information Bill which many on the left perceive as a further assault on civil liberties and part of the consolidation of the one-party state.

COSATU continues to ally itself with both the SACP and the ANC for want of any other political expression.

The SACP itself stands at the heart of the mythology of the struggle. As East European Stalinism collapsed, the last apartheid leader FW De Klerk, knowing that a fully Stalinised revolutionary state in South Africa wasn’t on the cards (and no longer seen as desirable by leaders such as Joe Slovo and Chris Hani), accepted that a multi-party democracy would come into being.

He became convinced by the “Rainbow Nation” rhetoric of the ANC so that to some extent the maintenance of the Afrikaaner community in post-apartheid South Africa could continue without violence. But this reconciliation also ensured the continued maintenance of the economic power of the ruling elite, to the great frustration of many of the dispossessed black youth in the townships.

The SACP itself never wavered in its commitment to the ANC, with some reservations, but had a less than easy relationship with the administration of Thabo Mbeki. But as an ex-SACP politburo member, Zuma has created a populist ascendancy around his own personality and his clique and fosters the language of anti-imperialism and non-alignment at the same time as supporting an array of fairly dictatorial regimes in Southern Africa.

The left outside of the SACP is fairly diffuse with a myriad of Trotskyist groups and there are many grassroots struggles against the regime with the organisation of unemployed workers in places like Grahamstown in the Eastern Cape who are very hostile to the ANC, its corruption, and its inability to deal with the employment problem.

the future

Neither the image nor the reality of the ANC was pristine even before the democratic elections of 1994.

Widespread accusations of brutality and torture were emerging from ANC camps outside of South Africa in the 1980s and certainly in power it has verged from recklessness to outright stupidity. But part of the reason it remains electorally successful is its ability to point to the absolutely correct notion that it was central to the struggle against apartheid from the birth of the apartheid state onwards.

At the same time there has been the sanctification of Mandela, both by himself and by the media, the heritage industry, and by observers outside of South Africa who have the power to wield opinion is absolutely decisive. Images of Mandela are everywhere and in many ways symbolise a combination of the idea of peaceful transition, justice and reconciliation, and the “rainbow nation” concept. The eleven national languages of South Africa, the plurality of ethnicity, and the commitment to anti-racism in sports such as cricket and rugby are important gains of the post-apartheid state at the same time as the economic dispossession of the mass of the South African working class remains largely what it was prior to 1994.

The political and spiritual crisis that Mandela’s death will undoubtedly bring will be critical to defining the direction of a future South African state — one in which demagogues like Mulema may be victorious. The cliqueism and corruption of the ANC can only be a good thing for the development of this kind of demagogic politics — posing false solutions to very real problems.

This has come to head in the past year with two pictures depicting Zuma causing widespread furore. The first was a picture by the artist Brett Murray of Zuma posing as Lenin with his penis exposed. The second was by the cartoonist Zapiro with Zuma simply represented as a penis.

Arguably both link into racial discourses of African men and obviously point to issues around his previous accusation of rape and his polygamy. But the reaction to these pictures have been hugely instructive, with the ANC as a whole protesting against them, seeing them as part of a disenfranchised white assault on the multi-racial ANC state. The touchiness of the ANC around its image is of course understandable when its whole political presence is dominated by its reliance on the memory of its martyrs and struggles but there are many who lay claim to that legacy of struggle who are deeply unhappy about the direction of the ANC under Zuma.

Oliver Tambo’s own daughter has said of the Zuma cartoons — “Do the poor enjoy poverty? Do the unemployed enjoy hopelessness? Do those who can’t get housing enjoy homelessness? He must get over it. No one is having a good time. He should inspire the reverence he craves.”

Whilst many live in poverty in the townships massive capital projects have been put into place vindicating the ANC and its version of the history of the struggle which, if not particularly reminiscent of totalitarian architecture, have basically the same aim as it.

Red Location museum in New Brighton is a telling example of this. It is a beacon for tourists but has little impact on the local community and is vilified by many young people in the township even though it witnesses to the Langa massacre in nearby Uitenhage.

The monument to justice and reconciliation in Johannesburg — Constitution Hill — is an impressive rendition of the history of the struggle as is the women’s prison and to the famous “Prison number four” where Mandela, Gandhi and Alex La Guma were imprisoned. It focuses on the achievement of democracy and the rule of law, but in the centre of the suburb of Hillbrow, a byword for poverty and urban decline.

South End museum, in Port Elizabeth is more effective, documenting the wholesale elimination of the multi-ethnic working class district to create a whites only housing development. The workers have never forgotten this assault upon their homes — many were forced to separate under the old racial laws of the Afrikaaner state — others found themselves in the torture cellars of the security agencies.

What this points to is the importance of memorialisation struggles which celebrate the memory of the working class, its resistance and its sacrifice and not the consolidation of powerful political elites. And here lies the contradiction. The new heritage projects in South Africa are designed to provide support for a regime which is dying on its feet under the weight of its own contradictions, its abdication of any concept of a workers’ government, its betrayal of a commitment to a truly multi-ethnic state and against the cliqueism of tribalism, and its inability to solve the problem of poverty in the shadows of the Johannesburg stock exchange.

Its abdication of basic political honesty and freedom of expression exemplified by the cartoons controversy goes hand in hand with a particular, saccharine version of the history of the struggle which still leaves the basis of economic exploitation untouched.

As new labour struggles emerge and young South Africans struggle over the terrain of their contested histories new political forces may emerge which can overcome tribalism and violence, challenge the consensus from the left, and break apart the Tripartite Alliance.

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