Fuelling the fight for a free nation

April 5, 2002

Raymond Suttner looks at intellectuals' role in the growth of the 90-year-old ANC.

Although the African National Congress has not thrown up one dominant thinker - no Mao or Ho Chi Minh - over its 90-year history, intellectuals have played a leading role in its development. At every stage when it has changed course or confronted new conditions they have made their mark - from dealing with apartheid supporters and Africanist opponents of white South Africans' right to play a role in the South African nation, to confronting leftist groups who deny the significance of national liberation and stress instead the importance of class.

Yet there has been no systematic analysis of this role, perhaps in part because of a fear that acknowledgement might be seen as "elitist" and undermine the organisation's popular character.

A large proportion of the ANC's leaders have been intellectuals - people who are mainly concerned with the articulation and dissemination of ideas whether they have formal qualifications, were self-taught or trained while serving terms of political imprisonment or in political education conducted in ANC structures and allied organisations.

At the Robben Island prison, there was formal training to teach inmates about the organisation and its policies. Because the classes were illegal, various ruses had to be developed to conduct them in secret. Some people learnt how to read as a result of the courses, while others developed as political thinkers.

In the camps of the ANC's guerrilla army, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), many people received political instruction and debated strategy.

Some intellectuals have worked directly within the organisation. Others, while supportive of the ANC, have worked outside it, in universities or other organisations. Their contribution has not been limited to theory. They have had to negotiate how to influence the organisation's thinking on future problems and to make sometimes controversial points about existing policies in order to change or enrich them.

Often their contributions have been conditioned by particular circumstances and, when these changed, some have become less relevant. For instance, when the organisation moved from armed struggle to negotiation and the entire terrain altered with the legalisation of the ANC, theorists of guerrilla warfare had to adapt or lose their prominence.

The ANC was formed in Bloemfontein on January 8 1912. Its initial structure combined elements of continuity as well as rupture with what had preceded it. It included, for instance, a House of Chiefs, modelled on the House of Lords, recognising the continuing authority of traditional leaders who had led the tribal resistance against Boer and British conquest in the 19th century. But its founders were faced with a completely new situation. Britain had handed the fate of black South Africans to the local white settlers through the formation of the Union of South Africa. Military resistance had been defeated.

For decades after the Act of Union, appeals to the authorities via deputations and petitions dominated the organisation's methods. In order to conduct this type of strategy, a different type of leadership was required. The first executive was composed entirely of mission-trained professionals - lawyers, priests, teachers and self-taught intellectual and writer Sol Plaatje.

Leaders of this period are often criticised for naivety in their appeals to British morality and Christianity, the values with which most of them had grown up. But there was also an element of irony in their use of British idioms. The appeal to Britain was also a way of trying to pit one force - the former colonial power - against what was perceived as the main enemy, white South African settlers.

Over the first three decades of the ANC's existence it gradually became apparent that this constitutionalist tack was not working. A new approach began to emerge from the youth ranks. The leading figures were lawyers Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, a largely self-taught intellectual who also celebrates his 90th birthday this year. They established the ANC Youth League in 1944, which stressed the need for African people to be their own liberators. It also sought to mobilise the masses. In that sense it represented a break with the organisation's founders, who supported the approach of leaders acting on behalf of the people. The reconciling of these two views of democracy - leaders representing the people and people themselves acting - remains an issue in the ANC today.

The mass approach of the Youth League was soon adopted by the organisation as a whole and broadened. People from different organisations and communities worked together and consolidated non-racialism as a principle of the ANC. This was concretised in the adoption of the Freedom Charter in 1955, which begins with an affirmation of the unity of all South Africa's peoples: "South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white."

The charter showed the broad range of influences on the ANC - from western democracy and international principles of self-determination to African nationalism. For the first time a comprehensive alternative vision to apartheid South Africa was spelt out, a different social order developed through a range of popular processes.

Following the 1960 Sharpeville massacre, the ANC was banned. Shortly afterwards, the organisation turned to armed struggle, only to see its leadership arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment or driven into exile. Widespread demoralisation set in and it became necessary to chart a new way forward. How was a government as strong and with as advanced an army and infrastructure as the apartheid regime to be defeated? In the 1960s it seemed that the ANC had been smashed and that apartheid was insurmountable.

Many ANC and South African Communist Party intellectuals transformed themselves into the kind of theoreticians needed for the new era - with expertise in guerrilla warfare and international relations in particular demand. A strategic perspective was developed that insisted that the apartheid state, far from being invincible, was in fact vulnerable. It took many years, however, to prove this.

But the ANC had difficulty getting support outside the then socialist states. As a result, much political thinking was conditioned by Soviet training and exposure to life in the former socialist states. The impact of this period can still be seen in many of the patterns of analysis used by ANC leaders today. It is interesting, for example, that the Communist Party eschews "democratic centralism", which is a principle of organisation within the ANC.

With the prospect of negotiations emerging in the 1980s, intellectual activity became focused on the character of the negotiation process that would be required for a democratic outcome. Increasing attention was also paid to the development of constitutional and other policies in a post-apartheid nation. While the country has one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, it is not so long ago that instruments such as a bill of rights were viewed with suspicion and such ideas had to be intensively discussed before the membership appreciated their value.

When the opportunity for negotiations arrived, many of the ANC's leaders and members were not prepared. A large number considered that the compromises inherent in negotiations held dangers for liberation. There was heated debate and demands for a change in thinking. Among the most important were controversial concessions made to guarantee the tenure of white civil servants. Joe Slovo, leader of the Communist Party, argued that such changes were necessary to ward off rightwing threats to the democratic transition process.

Today the organisation and the country are headed by Thabo Mbeki, an intellectual who for many decades has played a crucial role in the development of the organisation's programme, strategy and tactics. Paradoxically, however, it is intellectuals who are arguably the most disaffected, who feel that a growing trend towards centralisation has limited debate and created an atmosphere that can be intolerant of criticism. In a recent issue of an ANC journal, one leading member reports on feedback at ANC branch level. "As a policy, the ANC allows for criticism but its leadership tends to be defensive when responding to criticism. One is afraid to criticise for fear of being labelled a member of this or that group, probably bent on destroying a leader or the organisation itself."

But the ANC membership does not generally view itself as passive in the face of policies or ideas with which it disagrees. It is likely that, at the December 2002 national congress, there will be lively debate. It may be that the tendency towards intolerance will not be immediately reversed, but that does not mean it is irreversible in the long run.

Raymond Suttner is an ANC member and visiting research fellow at the Centre for Policy Studies, Johannesburg, and affiliated to the Nordic Africa Institute in Uppsala. He is author of Inside Apartheid's Prison (Ocean and Natal University Press, 2001) and editor of Africa in the New Millennium (Nordic Africa Institute, 2001).

You've reached your article limit.

Register to continue

Registration is free and only takes a moment. Once registered you can read a total of 3 articles each month, plus:

  • Sign up for the editor's highlights
  • Receive World University Rankings news first
  • Get job alerts, shortlist jobs and save job searches
  • Participate in reader discussions and post comments
Register

Have your say

Log in or register to post comments