Further Developments in South Africa ANC Crisis and the Rise of COPE [1]

Raymond Suttner is a scholar, former African National Congress (ANC) and South African Communist Party (SACP) leader and political prisoner. He is the author of the recent book, The ANC Underground.


We all feel that there is something very different about the forthcoming April elections, about the current political situation and the ANC. What is this? Why am I feeling sufficiently confident to make such a generalisation?


For almost four years the ANC has undergone turmoil of a character that is unprecedented in its history and this has shaken the organisation, led to the formation of a breakaway political party, Congress of the People (COPE) and raised questions about the potential or already existing spill over between an ANC crisis and a systemic one, affecting the constitutional order as a whole.


There is a widespread sense amongst many who have been involved in the liberation struggle and the ANC itself, not only those who have joined COPE, that the organisation has certain features that are incompatible with the ethical basis that was attributed to it or was part of its identity in the past.


There is a sense of fear generated by certain statements that are not always suppressed or subject to organisational criticism. This evokes a feeling amongst many who have grown up in the ANC and members of the public that sections of the ANC, are creating an atmosphere of lawlessness and potential warlordism, with impunity.


There is a sense of deviation from ANC principles concerning ethnic identities and nonracialism, whether through expressions of racism, ethnic chauvinism or anti-Semitism running against other traditional tenets that members associated with their organisation.


While it may not be in the forefront of the public’s mind the question of gender and gender violence also features, insofar as Zuma is linked in the public’s eye with his rape trial, where it was found that the state had not proved his guilt beyond reasonable doubt, different from proving `innocence’. Statements of his followers (from which no member of leadership disassociated themselves) devaluing the dignity of the complainant and apparent indifference to gender issues on the part of most ANC leaders and incidentally, COPE as well, apart from their recent complaint against ANC youth leader Julius Malema to the Commission on Gender Equality, add to this sense of disquiet.


Overview of recent history[2]


The ANC has a long and varied history and in its own accounts depicts itself as continuing a chain of resistance started from the earliest Khoisan and Xhosa speaking people’s battles against conquest by British and Dutch colonialism, followed by fierce resistance of the baSotho, baPedi and other peoples. The battles on the Eastern frontier raged for one hundred years.


The resistance passed through various phases before defeat and the establishment of Union in 1910. The ANC was established as the SANNC (South African Native National Congress), then open to African men only, in 1912. This was followed by a series of delegations petitioning the Crown and Union government, meeting mainly as an annual assembly modelled on the British parliament, and generally not having a thriving organisation. From the 1940s, however, when Dr AB Xuma became president, following earlier work of Rev (later Canon) James Calata, they built an ANC with a system of accounting and organisation and membership base of about 5,000.


In the mid 1940s the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) was formed under the leadership of Anton Lembede, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, and AP Mda. They wanted a change of direction and a more militant organisation and this required structures and they were able to build on what preceded them. They criticised the previous leadership for not wanting to get their hands dirty (Ruth First, CD, 1982). All of this would have remained mere words and slogans had the patient foundations of Xuma and Calata not been in place. Also, if you look at the dress of the old petitioners and that of the new rising leadership, there are similarities as well as differences, in modes of self-representation.


At the ANC 1949 conference, the YL programme of action including plans for a defiance campaign was accepted by the ANC as a whole. Sisulu was elected Secretary-General and Dr J.S. Moroka replaced Xuma as president, because Xuma resented the direction that the youth were giving to the organisation and their apparent disregard for his status.


Sisulu as Secretary-General, in the `engine room’, changed the mode of operation of the ANC from one of delegates meeting on annual or other occasions and relying on charismatic leadership to one with collective decision-making. (First, 1982, CD). He built the organisation and they prepared for the Defiance Campaign, where selected laws of apartheid would be disobeyed. (See Karis and Carter, 1973). This was preceded by relatively courteous letters to the prime minister, but these were ignored.


The Defiance campaign, initiated shortly after Chief Albert John Mvumbi Luthuli entered politics and was dismissed as a chief, represented a break in the chain of legality that had charcterised previous ANC politics. Sisulu indicated that they specifically chose the word `defiance’ rather than `passive resistance’ used in the 1946-8 Indian campaigns, to raise the level of struggle, even to a revolutionary level, where people would be prepared to give their lives. That is why the volunteers were called `defiers of death’. (Sisulu, 2001) But it should be noted that Gandhi himself also did not like that word, saying that non violent resistance was `active’ resistance, even the `moral equivalent of war’. (Chatterjee, 2007).


The Defiance campaign is full of nuance and ambiguity, especially around figures like Chief Luthuli. For the first time in ANC history a specific uniform was adopted for a category of members, the volontiyas (volunteers), and they swore an oath. Hierarchy was emphasised, with the stress on obedience to commands. All of these actions signify a level of discipline associated with embryonic militarisation. At the same time, the cap that the volunteers wore is a Gandhian cap, originating in Kashmir and stretching back thousands of years in Indian peasant history. Its association with Gandhi again mutes the potentiality for violence in the other elements of the construction of a volunteer defier. It has been suggested (personal communication, Luli Callincios) that the uniform is derived from the Nehru shirt, but that shirt was multi-coloured and the fabric was generally soft, unlike that of the volunteers, which was made of stiff, thick material and only in khaki, in fact something in between a shirt and a jacket.


The campaign had a substantial impact on the organisation, with its membership rising to 100,000 paid-up members. The increasing militancy had its negative effects. In one of the trials that resulted, Dr Moroka dissociated himself from his comrades, acquiring separate legal representation and attacking alleged or actual Communists, including in the defence team.


The moment of Luthuli’s leadership now began. Luthuli had been a chief from one of the amaKholwa (Christian) communities and was elected to office, a practice initiated before his time. He however introduced reforms which ensured participation of women in community affairs. Luthuli was steeped in American Congregationalism and was a lay preacher. His Christian ethic informed his life, but he was always open to other influences. What his leadership brought to the fore, along with the youth leaders already mentioned was the ethical canon that distinguished the best of the ANC, the notion of a leader who sought nothing for him or herself, who was prepared to lose all and prayed that he would resist any temptation not to do what was his moral duty to his people. Whatever he advised others to do he prepared himself to do himself, in this respect echoing Gandhi and later Mandela. (Sampson, 1999). In his famous statement in 1952 after having been deposed as a chief for his ANC activities, Luthuli remarked:


What the future has in store for me I do not know. It might be ridicule, imprisonment, concentration camp, flogging, banishment and even death. I only pray to the Almighty to strengthen my resolve so that none of these grim possibilities may deter me from striving for the sake of the good name of our beloved country, the Union of South Africa, to make it a true democracy and a true union in form and spirit of all the communities in the land.


My only painful concern at times is that of the welfare of my family but I try even in this regard, in a spirit of trust and surrender to God’s will as I see it, to say `God will provide’.


It is inevitable that in working for Freedom some individuals and families must take the lead and suffer: The Road to Freedom is via the cross.’ [3] (Luthuli in Pillay, 1993, 50.).


I am very consciously drawing on Chief Luthuli because his life and its meaning, his integrity and modesty and willingness to sacrifice, rather than to gain wealth or power, are particularly salient in this time. The very interesting intersection between his theological intervention and his ANC convictions will be further investigated (within my capabilities and assistance I am receiving) in a later paper.


The Defiance campaign was an essentially negative or reactive campaign in the sense that it showed the power of the masses to resist what was anti-popular. What was then required was to articulate a vision for the future and Professor ZK Matthews of Fort Hare, at the 1953 Cape ANC Congress, suggested a Congress of the People which would gather popular demands and develop a Freedom Charter, which would serve as guidelines for a future democratic state. This was not the first such venture, since the African claims, modelled on the Atlantic Charter had been prepared in 1944, but that was work of a committee and not intended as the Charter was, to derive from actual voices of the ordinary people.


The Congress of the People which drew up the Freedom Charter was not a single event but a campaign intended to draw from people throughout the country their grievances and demands for a future democratic South Africa. Demands flowed in and were collected on scraps of paper, backs of school exercise books, cigarette packs and recorded in other ways. Despite elements of e

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