South Africa: ANC in unprecedented crisis ahead of the local government elections

Just slightly more than six weeks ahead of the 2016 Local government elections, the ANC is to battling on many fronts to contain the fallout from a deep political crisis. The party is deeply divided and in its weakest state ever. It is not only struggling to contain the wider social, economic and political crisis, but it is also forced to fight to manage the internal factional battles which is threatening to tear it apart.

The campaigning for the elections have been marred by infighting and allegations of heavy fraud in the councillor candidate list processes. In some cases this factionalism has even led to the dangerous situation of political assassinations.

Tensions boil over

In the politically sensitive province of Kwazulu-Natal tensions are boiling over. After a bruising leadership battle, the former premier Senzo Mchunu has been recalled by the National Working Committee and the provincial leadership. Mchunu, who was part of the big business faction of Cyril Ramaphosa, has been replaced by Sihle Zikalala who is close to president Zuma. In line with the practice of recent years, the entire losing faction is now being marginalised. A complete purge of the losing faction is now on the cards. Already four members from the losing faction have been recalled from the provincial government and replaced by the members from the pro-Zuma faction.

Branches in the province are openly divided. In eThekwini (Durban), the ANC’s biggest region, the divisions are so deep that every attempt to hold a regional congress has failed. On the fifth occasion of trying, the congress imploded as delegates from only half of the number of branches in the region attended the congress with the others boycotting the process. On the night that the new leadership were elected in this deeply undemocratic process, the losing faction clashed with police outside the conference stadium. Now many councillors in the region have walked out of the party and is contesting the upcoming elections as independent candidates. Independent Newspapers (3 June 2016) quoted an ANC official expressing alarm at the situation:

“There are too many people contesting independently. It’s unprecedented; almost all the wards have an independent candidate, These are serious ANC loyalists. This says the ANC is in a leadership crisis - people are seeking alternative options.”

According to the same official others have joined the Economic Freedom Fighters.

The decision to recall Mchunu led to an open public spat between the ANC and its alliance partner, the SACP in the province. The SACP provincial secretary, Themba Mthembu said that the decision will sow divisions ahead of the elections and that the the ANC will “pay the price for destabilising Kwazulu-Natal,” (Mail & Guardian, 24/05/2016).

The infighting in the ANC in the province has assumed such serious dimensions that it has led to political assassinations. Since April at least six leading party members have been killed in Kwazulu-Natal. According to ANC provincial spokesman, Mdumiseni Ntuli, these assassinations were the result of party members hiring hitmen to eliminate internal political rivals over access to positions and resources.

In the City of Tshwane (which includes Pretoria) the ANC faces mounting protests against the region’s process to select candidates to act as councillors in the metro. In Mamelodi, ANC members blocked the roads to protest against the nominated councillor. The infighting was so severe that the ANC later confirmed that it would bring in Thoko Didiza from the national parliament as a compromise candidate. However, this backfired as disgruntled members clashed with metro police and rioted in the streets of Pretoria. Protests then spread to the townships surrounding Pretoria with ANC members blocking roads with burning tyres in Atteridgeville and Mamelodi. In hammanskraal and  Soshanguve cars and buses were stoned. Protests then spread to Ga-Rankuwa and Mabopane.

On Tuesday the National Joint Operational and Intelligence Structure was prepared to put an army unit on standby as government workers were sent home early as the unrest spread to the Central Business District of Pretoria. The national leadership was clearly alarmed at the situation. The National Executive Committee is now scheduled to meet with the provincial leadership and the branches in an attempt to put out the flames which is now engulfing the capital city.

In Nelson Mandela Bay (which includes Port Elizabeth) the ANC is facing a deep revolt from its members. At least 19 wards have vowed to protest against the outcome of the list process. Furious members have vowed not to allow campaign posters to be set up unless their preferred candidates are allowed to stand. On 14 June members from numerous wards in the metro protested at the ANC’s regional offices in Port Elizabeth. Members complained that the provincial leadership do not take the views of members into account, as one member from ward 44 explains:

“This provincial leadership can even field a dog as a candidate against a human being, as long as the dog will do as they say.” (City Press. 19/06/2016).

In the Cape Town police clashed with ANC members at its Sahara House headquarters after members, who were aggrieved about the list process, held party officials hostage for hours on June 1.

Finally, on 8 June, hundreds of members took the unprecedented step of marching on Luthuli House, the ANC headquarters. Members from the Johannesburg Metro police had to prevent party members from barricading the busy streets in the city centre. ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe conceded that there were “challenges” with the process and vowed to take action. This was in contradiction to president Zuma. At a rally to launch the provincial elections manifesto in Johannesburg on 4 June, Zuma appealed to party member to to accept the candidate list. This is no surprise since the fraudulent process largely favours the Zuma faction. As with the national launch in Port Elizabeth, large sections of the crowd walked out as he was speaking.

These incidents graphically indicates the extent to which the once proud internal democratic processes have degenerated. In the past, such incidents would have been unheard of in the ANC - even under the tyrannical era of Apartheid, in conditions of illegality and severe repression. Now, after two decades in government under capitalism, the party is barely recognisable to many of its own members. Over the last two decades the bourgeoisie have managed to chain a big layer of its leading members to capitalism with competing factions fighting for the spoils of high political office.

Precarious state

For decades the African National Congress have held a near monopoly on the support from the black working masses. Now 22 years after it became South Africa’s governing party, the ANC is facing an unprecedented situation. The collapse of the its moral authority has plunged it into its deepest ever crisis. To be sure, there have been numerous crises in the history of the 104-year old liberation movement, but none have ever involved the questioning of the very legitimacy of the ANC to be the country’s leading political party.

Ahead of this year’s elections the party is in a lamentable state. The 2015 National General Council of the party painted a bleak picture. Delegates at the NGC learned that the party has lost as much as 450 000 members in the three years prior to the congress. Membership dropped from 1.2 million to just above 769 000. In the province of Kwazulu-Natal, which has been the only province where the ANC saw an increase in support in the 2014 national elections, the membership drop from 331 800 to 158 199 and in the Free State province, membership dropped from 121 074 to 51 088.

Inspite of the full backing of state structures there were many empty seats at the recent inauguration of the ANC election manifesto in the former ANC stronghold of Nelson Mandela Bay are:


In his organisational report, secretary-general, Mantashe described the branches as “polluted by factional politics.” He said that these factions were fundamentally fighting for the resources which comes with attaining political power: “Fundamentally they support a particular line-up to conferences with an expectation to be favoured and serviced for the whole term of the line-up, by being given tenders and contracts or getting deployed ahead of deserving cadres of the movement.”, he said.

The political report of the NGC describes how this is affecting the support for the ANC: “Some of our traditional voters have in recent years become dissatisfied and some have chosen to abstain during elections, demonstrating their displeasure while still remaining loyal to the ANC. We must not take this support and loyalty for granted nor think it will be there forever.”

The NGC reports gives numerous reasons for the massive drop in membership like factionalism, ill-discipline and the practices of “bulk-buying” and “gatekeeping” at branch level where branch leaders sign up members en masse ahead of conferences to boost the numbers of certain factions to give an artificial impression of real growth in the organisation. These members then exist on paper only. But while this is true, the real reason for the sudden drop in membership has more to do with the outcome of the class struggle over the last three years.

During the same period there were developments to the left of the ANC which completely changed the situation. The political and organisational independence of the big metalworkers’ union NUMSA from the ruling alliance and the emergence of the Economic Freedom Fighters has had an enormous impact on the ANC. Ultimately this is the real reason for the drop in ANC membership and support. Now, whereas the ANC faced the problem of voters abstaining from elections, they now face the additional problem of a mass alternative in the form of the EFF.

From “broad church” to bourgeois rule

The failure of the South African Communist Party to build a party of the working class opened up a vacuum which was filled by the ANC in the late 1940s. Under the dictates of the Stalinist Comintern, the SACP followed the theory of “two stages’’ of the revolution. According to this theory, before the South African working class could fight for socialism, it needed to fight for the bourgeois-democratic tasks for the revolution. Once it has achieved these tasks, then the working class can fight for socialism in the distance future.

This was a completely mechanical way of approaching the issue. The mistake of this theory was that it did not take into account the way capitalism developed historically. Capitalism does not develop as a series of national markets which are governed each by their own conditions isolated from the other. Rather, Capitalism develops as a global system as the bourgeois in more advanced countries, having saturated their own markets, turn outwards in search for new markets. By their dominance of less advanced economies and integrating them into the world market however, they also impose their mode of production and accelerate the development of a modern working class. Thus, economically backward countries do not have to go through the same period of incremental capitalist development as the most advanced capitalist countries did, but develops through a process of combined and uneven development.

South Africa is a good example of this. Although Capitalism came late to the country, the productive forces were developed so fast that by the time the ANC Youth League moved the ANC to mass struggle in the 1950s, large sections of the population were already from the working class. Under the brutal system of Apartheid over the following 30 years, the productive forces were developed so fast that an enormous working class had developed in the 1980s. This was the prior condition for the revolutionary events in the 1980s and the formal overthrow of Apartheid in the 1990s.

During all this time the SACP played second fiddle to the petty-bourgeois nationalist leadership of the ANC. Had the SACP put forward a bold socialist programme in the 1980s when the working class was clearly fighting for Socialism, the transfer of power to the working class could have proceeded relatively smoothly. Unfortunately the SACP did not see things in this way. Instead, during the CODESA negotiations, the party conceded the “sunset clauses” which protects the property rights of the bourgeoisie. This meant that while the bourgeoisie conceded direct state power to the black elite, the economy would still be in the hands of its white owners. In effect, the ANC government accepted responsibility for managing capitalism on behalf of the ruling class.

This “elite pact” which has been the basis the basis on which the ruling class has run society for the last two decades has been completely undermined. Under the impact of the rising class struggle deep divisions have surfaced amongst the ruling class. The divisions are a sign of an approaching revolutionary crisis.

A revolutionary storm

The ruling class is faced with a serious conundrum. Due to the particular development of the class struggle and the development political forces in South Africa historically, they do not have a second party through which they can intervene in the situation. The Democratic Alliance is even more discredited than the ANC. During the last national elections it received only 6% support from the Black vote. The bourgeois class does not have direct control over the EFF. The strategy for the ruling class now seems to be to try to shackle the EFF to some sort of coalition of opposition parties. Should the EFF agree to this, it will do serious damage to the three-year old party.

But  fate of the ruling class is ultimately intertwined with that of the ANC. This explains why the big business faction can’t simply kick out the more openly corrupt Zuma faction. The danger they face is that it could split and disintegrate the ANC. This would be a disaster for the them. A split in the ANC would mean that the ruling class would face an imminent revolutionary crisis because there would not be a force to hold back the masses. They are like a man desperately hanging on to the wreckage of a sinking ship which is dragged into the deep waters by the currents. But the current state of affairs will inevitably result in a split in the party at some time. This could even happen as early as the upcoming elections, especially if the ANC does poorly.

The fate of the ANC is bound to have a profound effect on all classes in society. We have already seen that the upsurge in the class struggle have resulted in big developments to the left of the ANC. The general rise in strikes, protests, demonstrations and marches of workers and poor communities against the attacks on the living standards over the last decade together with the crystallisation of big movements and organisations like the EFF, NUMSA and the student movement, indicates a massive shift to the left in society.

Between 2005 and 2007 there was a massive rank-and-file revolt in the ANC where a clear left wing developed. This culminated in the Polokwane conference where the capitalist wing of Thabo Mbeki was defeated by a left-wing alliance of the COSATU trade unions and the SACP.

But there is a difference between the the situation now and the situation which existed in the runup to Polokwane.The fierce class struggle over the last decade have transformed the political situation fundamentally. The advanced layers of the workers and youth which spearheaded the Polokwane revolt like NUMSA and the leadership of the ANC Youth League are now outside of the ANC. On the other hand, the authority of the SACP has been undermined by its complicity to participate in the Zuma capitalist assault against the working class over the last seven years and the COSATU unions are paralyzed after the splits over the last three years. The current conflict in the ANC is not a right/left split. The clashes are between two rival factions of the ruling class none of whom are strong enough to defeat the other. While the big business faction cannot get rid of the Zuma faction without destroying the ANC, the Zuma faction is too weak to seriously challenge big business at this stage. This process is accelerated by the local election and the the struggle for positions to plunder the state apparatus. In this process they risk pulling the entire organisation down with them.

The upcoming local government elections will be the most heavily contested in the last 22 years.  In itself, local government elections do not hold any special significance. The significance, however, with this elections is that it comes on the back of  ferocious class struggles over the last period which have drastically altered the entire situation. The resultant emergence of political forces to the left of the ANC, like the Economic Freedom Fighters in particular, and other political developments in general, have transformed the consciousness of large layers of the working class and the youth. The bourgeoisie is in unchartered waters.They are desperate to hold the ANC together. In the process they are merely delaying the inevitable. All indications are that the elections will open up a new period of struggle in the form of a revolutionary crisis.

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