From Polokwane to Mangaung : Class and class conflict in the ANC


Oupa Lehulere* argues that the fracturing within the ANC has little to do with personality clashes, hidden agendas or Zuma’s lack of vision; but rather the class configuration that underpinned the cohesion of the Mbeki group.

Since the centenary celebrations of the ANC in Mangaung in January this year the country has been treated to a continuous political soap opera played out in the ANC, as well as in the alliance partners of the ANC –the SACP and Cosatu. Even at moments when this soap opera went down to the level of the ridiculous, it has proved impossible to ignore it, or at times to even skip an episode. The main reason for this focus is that many ‘political analysts’ repeatedly argue that the future of the country depends on this soap opera, and that the outcome of the ‘battle of Mangaung’ will change the direction of the country’s policy. Already, the country was treated to a heated discussion about the ‘second transition ’and whether or not this marked a radical shift in ANC policy and the future of the Zuma presidency depended on this ‘new concept’. The policy conference turned out to be more of a molehill than the earth-shattering event we had been promised.

How significant is the struggle for Mangaung? What are we to make of the forever shifting alignment of personalities that we have seen and will continue to see as we move towards Mangaung? Are there deeper social forces at play in these ‘shifting sands of illusions, evasions and opportunism’?

The Mbeki leadership group and black bourgeois oligarchy

The most significant development about the current state of things in the ANC is the break up of the Polokwane bloc –the alignment of personalities and forces that came together to defeat Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane in 2007; which later drove him out of the presidency in September 2008. It is important to remember that if we date the break-up of this bloc to the prosecution of Julius Malema by the ANC in August 2011, then the Polokwane bloc had been ‘united’ at the head of the party for just over three and a half years. When this is compared to the leadership of the Mbeki bloc at the head of the party post 1994 –covering a period of about 13 years –then the rapidity of the fracturing becomes clear for all to see. For us to understand the sources of the instability of this bloc, we have to go back to social forces at play in the struggle against the Thabo Mbeki leadership in the ANC.

The leading group that presided over the ANC, and by extension the South African state during the Mbeki years was held together by two interrelated factors: on the one hand, by a consistent ideological vision that can be called a ‘neoliberalism of a special type’, and on the other hand, by a political and class programme that derived from this vision, and that I will describe as a programme of a black bourgeois oligarchy. Let us briefly explore these two axes of the Mbeki leadership.

Neoliberalism of a special type and black bourgeois oligarchy

The Mbeki leadership represented a unity of of two currents of the liberation movement. These were the ex-nationalist communists coming out of the ANC and the SACP, on the one hand, and the ex-Euro Communists coming out of the labour movement (in particular its Fosatu lineage). Both these currents reacted to the collapse of Stalinism in 1989 with a sharp turn to the right, and began to craft a development path that was based on a ‘vision’ of harnessing neoliberalism and its underlying philosophical assumptions to the development of Africa in general and South Africa in particular. With the Mbeki leadership group’s focus on a continent-wide programme of capitalist development, it is no accident that its founding testament can be found in the NEPAD platform. A few lines among many captured the philosophy of this group: “At [Africa’s] independence, virtually all the new states were characterised by a shortage of skilled professionals and a weak capitalist class, resulting in a weakening of the accumulation process. Post-colonial Africa inherited weak states and dysfunctional economies that were further aggravated by poor leadership, corruption and bad governance in many countries. These two factors hampered the development of accountable government across the continent.

Indeed, Africa’s experience shows that the rate of accumulation in the post-colonial period has not been sufficient to rebuild societies in the wake of colonial underdevelopment, or to sustain improvement in the standard of living. This has had deleterious consequences on the political process and led to sustained patronage and corruption.” The philosophy of this group therefore linked the need for a strong capitalist class, capital accumulation and skilled professionals to a strong state and democratic governance. Competitive economies in the neoliberal mode were seen as the key to Africa’s development.

Linked to this was a whole neoliberal economic programme, which began with the GEAR in 1996 in South Africa, and found continuity in the NEPAD in 2001. Of equal importance, and consistent with its ideological framework, the Mbeki leadership placed the creation of a black capitalist oligarchy at the center of its strategy. For the Mbeki leadership the project of Africa’s renewal could not be carried by small capitals and less so by an ‘amorphous’ working class: what was needed was a strong capitalist class, a class of black big capitalists. During the Mbeki period we thus saw the emergence of a small, powerful and very rich group of black capitalists. Moreover, this group was created through state intervention; from above. Its creation required a process of legalised corruption as a group that had nothing was parachuted into the ranks of the big bourgeoisie in a very short space of time.


This process, in turn, required a strong state that is able to undertake the kinds of leadership required by a project of the scale contemplated in the Gear and in Nepad. The centralising tendencies of the Mbeki years were therefore

a result of this vision. Further, the vision also required a process of convening Africa’s elite under the leadership of the South African state and the South African bourgeoisie. The process of liberalisation that this project required consisted to two opposite movements. First, the South African bourgeoisie required a liberalised continental economy in order to advance its project of hegemony on the continent. Secondly, masses of people from various parts of the continent followed the movement of wealth generated by South Africa’s hegemony, and migrated to South Africa for both jobs and trade. The scene was therefore set for both the accusation of a yankee-type imperialism from the continent and a rabid xenophobia at home.

The Mbeki project, the Polokwane bloc and the crisis of the black petty-Bourgeoisie

The formal inauguration of Mbeki’s neoliberalism of a special type was to have catastrophic consequences for entire sections of the dominated classes in South Africa–the working class and the petty-bourgeoisie or middle classes. The working class has been on the receiving end of neoliberalism since the late 1980s, through the early 1990s, and this accelerated by the time that Gear formally did away with the illusion of a social democratic RDP and inaugurated the neoliberal project in South Africa. Large- scale unemployment, declining wages, impoverishment, and the collapse of social infrastructure became the lot of the working class.

The black petty-bourgeoisie, on the other hand, had imagined that the dawn of democracy in 1994 represented ‘its time to eat’, and that they would henceforth be in the driving seat if not of the production of wealth, then certainly of its consumption. After a short honeymoon period, the neoliberal project made itself felt among this section of the dominated classes. It soon became increasingly clear that for the different strata of this class life under Gear would represent a major threat to its aspirations. In particular, it was the regime of high interest rates that proved to be the noose that would choke this class. For a class whose entire existence, whose ‘time to eat’, was financed by credit, the long run period of high interest rates was to prove catastrophic. For a class that had just come out of the working class, that had just emerged from poverty, the prospect of going back to the working class was too ghastly to contemplate.

And so various strata of the black petty-bourgeoisie came together in an alliance against the Mbeki leadership. First, there was the aspiring bureaucratic black petty- bourgeoisie that mainly fed on the local state. These were the local councilors that resented Mbeki’s policy of anti- corruption at the local level and legalised corruption at the top. Secondly, there was the petty-bourgeoisie of the township –the emerging shop owner, spaza owner, tavern owner and others like them –whose mantra of existence was to consume, consume and consume. Thirdly, there were the white-collar workers aspiring to ‘bigger things’ –and now crucially organised in the country’s largest federation: Cosatu. Their natural career path was to go up the state’s ladder, and Mbeki’s themes of a strong but lean state threatened to pull the ladder from under its feet. Lastly, there were those who felt that they belonged to the big black bourgeoisie, but who felt excluded for personal or factional reasons from this group: they felt unjustly accused of being corrupt instead of being seen, like the others, to be honestly involved in the primitive accumulation of capital like everybody else. For this group, the rhetoric of the SACP notwithstanding, the real discourse was one of hatred: hatred of Mbeki; hatred of ‘white capital’; hatred (and envy) of rich people; hatred of the media; hatred of women; hatred of intellectuals; hatred of debate; hatred of people of different sexual orientations; hatred of foreigners, in particular of African descent.

Indeed, we saw the classic response of a petty-bourgeoisie under siege from a capitalism in crisis. The very divergent interests of this group were covered up in the Stalinist rhetoric supplied by the SACP and its adherents in Cosatu. Irrespective of this rhetoric, however, the social history of the ANC as a party made up largely of the working class and the small petty-bourgeoisie worked in its favour. The attempts by Mbeki and his leading group to neutralise the potential power of this constituency within the party was to prove futile: what Mbeki could do within the state he could not do within the party. In the party the petty-bourgeoisie and the working class were king, and the class recomposition of the ANC was definitely not on the horizon. Mbeki’s defeat at Polokwane was therefore written in the ANC’s stars. The project of creating a black bourgeois oligarchy and its related projects of a strong capitalism and a” clean” bourgeois state cannot be realised within the ANC; it can only be realised by breaking up the ANC. This latter outcome, however, could only be realized by the petty-bourgeoisie at the helm of the ANC, and the road to Mangaung is beginning to give us a glimpse of this historical dynamic.

Victory and fracture: the Polokwane bloc under the shadow of monopoly Capital

As Nelson Mandela had occasion to write in another context, the alliance of all these strata of the petty- bourgeoisie was built on the“ shifting sands of illusion, deception and opportunism”. As soon as the bloc won in Polokwane it was clear that the seeds of rapture were very much alive. It was however not the personality clashes, the hidden agendas or the lack of vision of Zuma (as we are led to believe), but rather the class configuration that underpinned the cohesion of the Mbeki group rule.

Unlike the motely collection of petty-bourgeois factions blinded by Stalinist rhetoric, the Mbeki leadership understood their historical limitations. Notwithstanding the fact that he was“ an African”, or the fact that he proclaimed the ‘African century’, or even the fact that he was ‘touchy’ about white domination, Mbeki understood that his entire project was subordinated to the historical big bourgeoisie in South Africa. The white bourgeois oligarchy that had ruled South African for about 120 years had restructured not only the terrain of capital accumulation through transforming itself into a globalising bourgeoisie and through erecting insurmountable barriers to entry into the economy, but it also restructured the terrain of national politics by ensuring a liberalised exchange rate regime. Henceforth, any ill-discipline on the part of the ANC in power would be punished by an exchange rate collapse and massive capital flight. The Mbeki leadership dealt with the situation by embracing and loving its prisoners and its imprisonment –it embraced the neoliberalism that held Africa in chains. In its platform statement, Nepad, this group argued that “[W]hile globalisation has increased the cost of Africa’s ability to compete, we hold that the advantages of an effectively managed integration (emphasis, ours) present the best prospects for future economic prosperity and poverty reduction.”The concept was therefore to launch the ‘African century’on the basis on the hegemony of an imperialism that had denied Africa not just its ‘century’ but even a day in the sun. Polokwane was proof of the insoluble contradictions of this position: poverty reduction cannot be achieved through a process of impoverishing a people. This contradiction notwithstanding, this position of the Mbeki group ensured a certain measure of stability, a certain measure of ‘recognition’in Western capitals, a certain measure of neo-liberal style, economic growth: a growth of a special type –jobless, with no wealth creation for the nation, with falling living standards for the majority, with deindustrialisation; and with massive capital flight.

The Polokwane bloc, however, had no intention of confronting imperialism or the hegemony of the bourgeois white oligarchy. As soon as Zuma assumed the presidency he came face to face with the power of monopoly capital, both global and local. The process of the fusion of the global and local monopoly capital made its power even more formidable, and like the petty-bourgeoisie he represented, Zuma capitulated to this power. We therefore, saw how as soon as Zuma was in power, rumour went around that the ‘class of 1996’was back in power! Zuma and his group in government found that there was no room to manoeuvre and that they could not change policy in any significant way. With no space for movement what was left was the group’s trademark: more and more Stalinist rhetoric. And so we are treated to words after words, pseudo-concepts after pseudo-concepts –the developmental state; the new growth path; the second transition; (old ones like) beneficiation; renewal of the party; and so on.

The mission of the black petty-bourgeoisie, however, is to ‘eat’–for this class production is a foreign concept. With no capacity for leadership (exemplified most graphically by The Leader himself) this class turned to a noisy and fractious dismembering of the state, especially at the local level: the age of the tenderpreneur had arrived. All processes of the formation of capitalist classes require corruption (legal and illegal) on a massive scale. The difference between whether the particular social formation subjects to this corruption disintegrates or ‘prospers,’ lies in what is done with the fruits of corruption: if the fruits are used for consumption, disintegration follows; and if they are used for investment in production and accumulation, bourgeois prosperity follows.

The road to Mangaung is no historical tragedy. Here we have no great men and women, no great ideas or titanic struggles, no life and death struggle, no questions of destiny posed and resolved. Here we have farce and comedy: a communist party brandishing rhetoric it does not believe in; and a party spiraling out of control as it is consumed by its consumption. The only tragedy is that of a working class looking on in horror as the fruits of its struggle rot before its own eyes. It was Rosa Luxemburg who wrote that only the working class marches to victory through a series of defeats, but against the descent of the ANC even her words sound like cold comfort.

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