ANC – A Hundred Years in the Service of Capital

In January 2012 the African National Congress celebrated the hundredth anniversary of its foundation and spent R100 million (£8.2M) on the party. It has now held power continuously for almost 18 years and so its leaders saw this as a great cause for celebration. However, the celebrations were largely for the political elite and the few who have enriched themselves from the ANC’s rule. The working class, the unemployed and the impoverished millions, who have nothing whatsoever to celebrate, were conspicuous by their absence.

The ANC was founded shortly after the creation of the Union of South Africa by a handful of western educated lawyers and journalists at a time when African society still was largely tribal although the tribal economic subsistence system was being destroyed by capitalism. The ANC’s founders turned their backs on tribal society and demanded equal rights for Africans within the emerging capitalist society, rights from which the settlement after the Boer War and the act off Union specifically excluded them. A further century of capitalist development, which has entirely destroyed tribal society, replaced it with capitalist society, and produced a predominantly African working class, has seen the ANC rise to become the dominant bourgeois force in South African politics.

The ANC which has always presented itself as a national movement, in particular one representing the interests of the entire African population, has in reality always been a party representing the rising African bourgeois class. The ANC’s flirtation with the African working class has been a cynical manoeuvre to recruit workers as its foot soldiers with which it has been able to batter down the Apartheid regime and the resistance of Afrikaner nationalism. In its period in power from 1994 the ANC has taken over the management of South African capitalism and carried out this task like any other capitalist government in this period. Privatisations and opening of the country to global competition, while workers living standards have been cut, have been the order of the day. At the same time the power of the state has been used to promote the party elite into the top ranks of the bourgeoisie through the famous Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) programme. This programme has created a handful of black millionaires in positions of power in the mining and industrial corporations, a process which the regime tries to present as compensation for the sins of the past century, and as a demonstration that the position of Africans is improving. However, at the same time as they promote themselves to the ranks of the capitalist class they are creating an ever growing urban underclass dependent on state welfare payments and the gap between rich and poor is getting ever wider. Creating a black bourgeois class was, of course, always the ANC’s programme, but the lie, which it has maintained, is that this would somehow benefit the African working class. This lie is now being cruelly exposed. Although the issues of racial division and racial oppression have always clouded the South African situation, and have been exploited to the hilt by both the Afrikaner nationalists and the African nationalists, the real contradictions in South African society, as in capitalist society the world over, are those of class. The interests of the working class and the capitalist class are diametrically opposed and the ANC cannot reconcile the two. On the one hand the ANC has produced a situation where, according to its own calculations, 9% of the capital of mining corporations is in the hands of black capitalists while on the other hand it has created a situation where:

· 40% of the working age population are unemployed. This represents 6 million workers 2.8 million of whom are between 18 and 24.

· The urban underclass, surviving on welfare payments, has increased from 2.5 million in 1996 to 12 million in 2006[1]

· 50% of the population live below the poverty line

· 7 out of 10 black children grow up in poverty[2]

· Life expectancy has decreased from 65 years in 1994 to 53 years in 2009[3]

Such contradictions are threatening to tear the organisation apart. In the shameless enriching of its top members the ANC government has mired itself in corruption and cronyism which extends right up to the presidential office. At the 100th anniversary of its foundation there is actually little cause to celebrate.

18 Years in Power

Since coming to power the ANC has been in a tripartite alliance with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). This has been designed to shore up its power and provide political cover for its attacks on the working class. Needless to say workers have resisted the erosion of their wages and living standards and the last 2 years have seen massive strikes. In 2010 there was a civil service strike involving 1.3 million workers which lasted 20 days, and in 2011 there have been strikes in the mines, energy, petroleum, metal and paper sectors which have seen hundreds of thousands of workers down tools for pay increases. Although COSATU does its best to control and defuse these strikes, the general deterioration of workers’ conditions is putting pressure on the alliance and opening up fissures in the ANC itself. It was undoubtedly pressures from those feeling dispossessed and betrayed by the ANC which led to the ousting of the previous president Thabo Mbeki in 2008 and his replacement by the more populist Zuma. The ousting of Mbeki has led to his fraction leaving the ANC and forming a new political grouping Congress of the People (COPE).

A further rupture, and a potentially more explosive one, has been opened by the disciplining and suspension of the ANC youth leader Julius Malema. Malema was a key supporter of Zuma during the defenestration of Mbeki, but the continual deterioration of the condition of workers and the poor has led him to turn his fire on the Zuma leadership and call for the nationalisation of the mines and the expropriation of white owned farm land. These issues, which are actually specified in the “Freedom Charter,” adopted as the ANC programme in 1956, are now quite contrary to the demands of South African and international capitalists and, of course the ANC leadership. Consequently they are a great embarrassment to the ANC. His raising of these demands from the past is like the proverbial ghost appearing at the wedding feast to wreck the party. Although he has been silenced and suspended from the ANC for a period of 5 years he is giving voice to widely held grievances and the demonstrations at his trial show he has a strong following which is not going to be placated by the silencing of one man.

The unemployed are also finding a voice. A spokesman for the Unemployed People’s Movement accuses the ANC of betrayal:

“During the struggle our leaders embodied the aspirations of the people. But once they took state power they didn't need us anymore. We were sent home. We are only called out to vote or attend rallies. But all the time our people are evicted from farms, paving way for animals as farms are turned into game reserves under the pretext of tourism. Our people are evicted from cities. Our people are denied decent education.”[4]

In recent demonstrations, the unemployed demanding jobs, housing, running water and electricity have been met with ferocity similar to that of the Apartheid regime. At a demonstration in the town of Ermelo, in one of SA’s poorest provinces, 2 protesters were shot dead by the police. At another demonstration, over precisely the same grievances, in the town of Ficksburg, a protester, Andries Tatane, was beaten to death by police in full view of the television cameras.

An explosive social situation is building up and could detonate if welfare payments are cut back. Certain commentators from within the ANC are looking nervously at the events of the Arab Spring, and seeing them as prefiguring the future for SA[5]. While it is understandable that those in the Unemployed People’s Movement and some in the ANC youth organisation see the ANC as having “betrayed” them is this really true?

Development of the ANC

As mentioned above the ANC developed in a period when African society was in the process of being changed from a tribal economic system with Africans producing their needs directly from the land to a capitalist one in which tribal men and women were converted into wage labourers. However, the enforced separation of tribesmen from their means of production, namely their land[6], and their conversion into wage labourers was accomplished by open violence and a doctrine of racism which tended to obscure the developing class divisions. Marx makes the following observation in regard to the separation of the producers from their means of production in the colonies:

“It is otherwise in the colonies. There the capitalist regime everywhere comes into collision with the resistance of the producer, who, as owner of his own conditions of labour, employs that labour to enrich himself, instead of the capitalist. The contradiction of these two diametrically opposed economic systems, manifests itself here practically in a struggle between them. Where the capitalist has at his back the power of the mother-country, he tries to clear out of his way by force, the modes of production and appropriation, based on the independent labour of the producer. … To this end he proves how the development of the social productive power of labour, co-operation, division of labour, use of machinery on a large scale, &c., are impossible without the expropriation of the labourers, and the corresponding transformation of their means of production into capital. In the interest of so-called national wealth he seeks for artificial means to ensure the poverty of the people.”[7]

The major part of the dirty work of converting Africans into wage labourers was accomplished by the British who were quite clear as to what needed to be done. After the military defeat of the of the various tribes the British authorities started to expropriate their land and impose taxes on them in order to force them into wage labour to get the money to pay the taxes. Even after military defeat, however, this met with resistance just as described by Marx. For example the imposition of a £1 annual poll tax in Natal led to the 1906 Zulu rebellion. Earl Grey the British colonial secretary, writing in 1880, put the issue nearly as clearly as Marx. He wrote:

“The coloured people are generally looked upon by the whites as an inferior race, whose interests ought to be systematically disregarded when they come into competition with their own, and should be governed mainly with a view to the advantage of the superior race. For this advantage two things are considered to be especially necessary: first facilities should be afforded to the white colonists for obtaining the possession of the land theretofore occupied by the Native tribes; secondly, that the Kaffir population should be made to furnish as large and as cheap a supply of labour as possible.”[8]

The process set in motion by the British continued after the creation of the Union of SA and the most significant clearing Africans from the land was accomplished the year after the foundation of the ANC by the 1913 land act. This restricted African occupied land to 7% of the total land, outlawed squatting on white owned land and sharecropping. Africans were forced to become labourers on the white owned farms or workers in industry or the mines. Provision of labour for the mines, however, had been a problem for South African capitalists from the start. In the period after the Boer War the British imported Chinese workers as unskilled labour to work the mines as insufficient African workers could be found. The separation of Africans from their lands was of course the key to the solution of this problem. It allowed the migrant labour system, which was eventually enshrined in Apartheid dogma, to become the norm for the mining industry. The mining houses organised a joint recruitment agency, the Native Recruiting Corporation, which operated from 1912 onwards and recruited from the South African areas reserved for Africans, which were to be reduced to a mere 7% of the country the following year, and from the British protectorates and Mozambique.

The overt racism which accompanied this process obscured the reality of what was really happening, and was of enormous benefit to South African capital since it produced a separation of white and black workers. Enormous pay differentials between blacks and whites existed and strikes on the mines were racially divided and so could be more easily defeated. This was the case for the most significant strikes, the white miners’ strike of 1922 and the black miners’ strike of 1946. The insurrectionary strike of white miners in 1922, actually inscribed on its banner the contradictory slogan “workers of the world unite for a white South Africa.”

This is the historical context in which the ANC emerged, and it was also within this context that African workers imagined that the ANC could represent their interest since both African workers and African bourgeoisie were discriminated against and excluded from political rights. This was, however, a serious mistake as 18 years of ANC power have shown. From its foundation the ANC has represented a westernised elite wanting to have their share of the spoils of capitalism, and has not attempted to disguise this. Mandela speaking about the Freedom Charter’s demand for the nationalisation of the mines and industrial corporations said the following:

“The charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold mining monopolies that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. The breaking up and democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own, in their own name and right, mills and factories and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.”[9]

Mandela again returned to this issue in his famous speech at his trial in 1964 where he said:

“The most important political document ever adopted by the ANC is the Freedom Charter. It is by no means a blueprint for a socialist state. The ANC has never at any period of its history advocated a revolutionary change in the economic structure of the country, nor has it, to the best of my recollection, ever condemned capitalist society.”[10]

It is therefore incorrect to describe the ANC government since 1994 as having “betrayed” the working class as its opponents now do. It has implemented a bourgeois programme and is doing its best to foster an African bourgeois class in broadly the terms described by Mandela above.

Rise to Power

By the mid 1970’s it was clear to the main factions of the South African capitalist class that the migrant labour system in particular and Apartheid in general were leading the country to catastrophe. The increased capital intensity of South African capitalism meant that a skilled stable working class was required. Their strategy was to create an African middle class which they could use as an ally against the working class via the Urban Foundation, and African trade unions which could be used to control the class struggle. Of course, this meant providing political rights to Africans as well as other rights granted to workers in the metropolitan countries. There was only one political force which could implement such a programme and that was the ANC.

As we have shown above the ANC was on the bourgeois side of the class barricades and this made its co-option as a tool of Western and South African capital possible. Before the ANC was unbanned the key sectors of South African capital, particularly the mining corporations, had received assurances that the statist elements of the ANC’s programme, particularly the nationalisation of the mines would not be implemented. These were demands from the 50s which were considered suicidal in the period of globalisation. The slow deterioration of the social situation in the 80’s finally convinced even the Afrikaner nationalists that bringing the ANC into power was the only route by which South African capital could be rescued from the cul-de-sac in which it was trapped.

Since coming to power the ANC has not fundamentally changed the structure of South African capitalism. Having the ANC in power has benefitted South African capital in many ways, particularly in giving it access to the rest of Africa and making the opening up of trade with China, India and Brazil easier. The programme of Black Economic Empowerment which was, in fact, initiated by the South African corporations, not the ANC, has resulted in a few extremely wealthy black men who have no desire to change the present structure of things, and still remain in the top organs of the ANC. Politicians such as Cyril Ramaphosa, one time secretary of the National Mine Workers Union, and Tokyo Sexwale, ex-Robben Island prisoner, have become two of South Africa’s richest men through BEE. Both still retain their seats on the ANC’s national executive committee.[11]

All the above simply describes how the ANC has become the executive arm of South African capital. It is small wonder that the interests of the working class are ignored. The question which must be asked, however, is this “was the working class correct to ally itself with the ANC.” Our answer is emphatically “NO.”

Workers and the National Struggle

Today it is a Marxist axiom that the working class should not subordinate its political forces to those of the bourgeoisie, which, of course, includes the bourgeois nationalist forces. As far as South Africa is concerned we have written many texts pointing out the danger of subordinating the class struggle to the demands of the national struggle. The events since 1994 have certainly born out our predictions. Many of these texts, written largely during the 80s retain their immediacy and a certain prophetic quality and we intend to republish them in pamphlet form within the next few months. An example of this is a text published in April 1990 in our paper Workers Voice. We wrote:

Many black workers look to Mandela as the man who will free them from exploitation and hardship. They are greatly deceived. ….In fact the ANC’s objectives have nothing to do with the working class’s interests, they are to use the power of the state to foster a black capitalist class. …South African workers have no interest in placing themselves in the infantry of the African nationalists.[12]

Instead we advocated that workers should pursue their own interests independently of the bourgeois nationalists. This would have allowed the class issues involved to be clearly seen. Instead these issues have been obscured by a smokescreen of liberalism and moral outrage at racism. The result is a great confusion with talk of betrayal and projects to change the leadership of the ANC which can only be a great waste of time.

Much of the argument for supporting the national struggle, made by the Stalinists and Trotskyists, started from the view that Apartheid was essential to South African capitalism and hence ending it would bring South African capitalism crashing down. This would weaken western capitalism and produce a crisis in the developed capitalist countries etc. This has been shown to be complete nonsense. If anything South African capitalism is stronger as a result of the abolition of Apartheid, western imperialism has been strengthened and the class issues more confused than before.

Behind these arguments lies the theoretical debate between Lenin and other communists including Bukharin, Piatakov and Rosa Luxemburg on support for the national struggle. This argument was fought out in the period before and during the First World War. Those who argued like Luxemburg, that in the epoch of imperialism the national question is now a thing of the past, have been vindicated by the 100 years of history which have elapsed since these exchanges. However, in the Third International the Theses on the National and Colonial Question were a confused compromise between the views of Lenin, who saw cooperation with the local bourgeoisie as desirable and those (like M N Roy) who argued for an outright independent communist struggle in the colonies. This confusion was to have dire consequences for the revolutionary movement. The most tragic illustration of this confusion came in China 1926-27 when Stalin, following the original Theses but forgetting that they had called for an independent working class movement, instructed the Chinese Communist Party to place itself at the disposal of the bourgeois Koumintang of Chiang Kai Shek. This resulted in the brutal massacre of Chinese workers in Shanghai and Canton[13].

Lenin’s positions were developed in the period before World War 1 when he considered the bourgeois democratic revolution was on the historical agenda for Russia. He changed his position on nature of the future Russian revolution in April 1917 but never followed through the consequences of this. If the communist revolution is on the historical agenda, and this revolution needs to be international, as the Bolsheviks openly admitted, bourgeois nationalist revolutions can only obstruct and weaken the struggle for communism.

Lenin’s support for movements for national self determination in Europe undermined the programme for working class emancipation. This became more confused in the debates in the Third International with Lenin arguing that national movements in the colonies should be supported as they weakened the imperialism of the colonising nations. In this he was following his earlier work Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism where he had argued that;

Colonial possession alone gives the monopolies complete guarantee against all contingencies in the struggle with competitors.[14]

He argued that the colonies were a key source of the “super profits” with which the imperialist powers bribed their workers to maintain social peace.

Out of such enormous super profits (since they are obtained over and above the profits which capitalists squeeze out of the workers of their own country) it is possible to bribe the labour leaders in the advanced countries in a thousand different ways.[15]

Cutting off this source of super profits, he argued, would precipitate a crisis and make revolution in the capitalist heartlands easier. In the event, decolonisation did not produce the crisis in the capitalist heartlands which Lenin had so confidently predicted. This is because the capitalist system is a global system, extracting and distributing surplus value globally, and the replacement of colonial bourgeois regimes by local bourgeois regimes does not alter the system as a whole in any essential way.

Lenin also maintained that national bourgeois revolutions in the colonies could occur at the same time as communist revolution in the capitalist heartlands and in some way support this revolution.

The social revolution can come only in the form of an epoch in which are combined civil war by the proletariat against the bourgeoisie in the advanced countries and a whole series of democratic revolutionary movements, including national liberation movements, in the undeveloped, backward oppressed nations.[16]

On the contrary the communist revolution must be a world revolution and the bourgeois nationalist revolution could never support the world revolution. The world revolution would have to overthrow bourgeois nationalist revolutions if they occurred at the same time.

The mistakes of Lenin and the Third International have bequeathed a poisonous legacy which has been taken up by the left wing of the bourgeoisie, namely the counter revolution, with a vengeance. In the case of South Africa the arguments of a white workers aristocracy of labour, the theory of super profits going to the workers in the capitalist heartlands and the idea that the bourgeois nationalist revolution in the underdeveloped countries supporting workers struggle in the metropolitan countries have all been trotted out in order to justify subsuming workers struggles under the nationalist struggle.

Today the increasing globalisation of capital has made the national state national only in the sense that it is dominated by the bourgeoisie of a certain nationality. In its key aspects it exists as an agent of international capital and the imperialist alliances in which it finds itself. This can be seen in the fact that the coming to power of the ANC was facilitated by US and European capital via financial sanctions and pressure. After the removal of the threat of Russian advances in South Africa in 1989 this pressure became irresistible.

The ANC and African Nationalism in general stand completely discredited after 18 years of power. What is needed now is a clean break from the forces of nationalism and their allies COSATU and the SACP. These forces must be recognised as part of the bourgeois front opposing the emancipation of the working class. Future struggles should be outside and against these organisations. They need to be united across racial divisions and pursue class demands. Ultimately they need to be united with workers struggles worldwide and directed to the overthrow of capitalist social relations and the establishment of a communist[17] world. CP


[1] See Financial Times 5/9/2011 and 28/10/11

[2] Financial Times 12/11/11


4 See Ayanda Kota quoted in Counterfire

5 See for example M. Mbeki “South Africa. Only a matter of time before the bomb explodes” Mbeki is media consultant to the ANC. see

6 Under the Bantu tribal system land was occupied by the tribe. Individual ownership of land did not exist before it was instituted by the colonial authorities.

7 K Marx Capital Volume 1 Chapter 33

8 Quoted in The Political Economy of Race and Class in South Africa, B M Magubane, Monthly Review Press.

9 Mandela authorised biography, Anthony Sampson 1999

10- Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela p. 435

11 See M Mbeki Architects of Poverty p. 158.

12 See Workers Voice No 51

13 For a description of these events see H. Isaacs The Tragedy of the Chinese Revolution.

14 Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. Peking Foreign Language Press p. 98

15 Ibid, Preface to the French and German editions.

16 Lenin Collected Works Volume 23 p. 60.

17 By communism we mean a system of global production for human needs controlled by workers through workers councils. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the state capitalist systems, incorrectly called communism, which existed in Russia and China.

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