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A Time for Renewal and Regeneration of the African National Congress: Unmandated Reflections
Time : 2024-06-06
Author : Busani Ngcaweni

During this moment of reckoning for the ANC which has lost its electoral majority in the parliament of South Africa, there are many things to consider. However, I think we should proceed and act with scientific caution, not emotion and nostalgia. Wheels of history rarely turn in reverse. It is the future we must invest in prospecting. 

It might be necessary for the ANC and other progressive forces to immediately study recent trends in Brazil and what happened to the Social Democratic Party of Sweden and from that emerge with some practical steps forward. These cases matter because their combination is what brought us here - the sins of incumbency. 

There is also the case of the Labour Party (in the UK) that we can look at. In their instance, they are struggling to return let alone emerge with a cogent counter to the right-wing onslaught consolidated by Brexit, as has been the case with many other progressive forces in the continent and in Latin America. There are cases in Asia too, that are worth looking at, especially what has happened in Malaysia in recent years. 

The options are many, but they narrow down as we answer the principal questions: for whom do we exist as a movement, what is our purpose and how can it be best served? 

From the latter we can then proceed to decide whether we form a coalition government (the options are few there also) or allow the right-wing moonshot pact (by the way, EFF is part of the pact in body and spirit!) to govern whilst we focus on rebuilding like President Lula in Brazil and the social democrats in Sweden. 

In the latter scenario, we will call the next 5 years an interregnum period in which we do a complete overhaul of the movement, re-imagine structures and operating procedures and define a clear long-term national development agenda informed by national and international realities. Was it Rosa Luxemburg who said to us: "Those who do not move, do not notice their chains." 

The worst that could happen to us is what has happened on the continent and in Latin America where losing state powers banishes progressive movements into the archive. That is highly possible as some among us are already searching for scapegoats, gas-lighting the public, as we have seen the National Chair abandon all tools of analysis at his disposal to reduce our KwaZulu-Natal misfortunes (of losing the majority) to tribalism. Lenin warned us: "a revolution is impossible without a revolutionary situation; furthermore, not every revolutionary situation leads to revolution."

We need deep dives to understand the contemporary moment, and from that answer, appropriately, Lenin's question: "what is to be done." If there is tribalism in KZN, we bred it as the movement through unchecked factionalism and taught it through the education curriculum we designed and implemented over 30 years (we can’t exonerate ourselves from our failures and resort to scapegoating voters for not choosing us). Instead, we should be asking, on what scientific basis did we expect the people of eThekwini, the biggest city in KwaZulu-Natal, to vote for us given the dramatic decline of the city’s economy and its public services, overlooked by the leadership for factional reasons instead of service delivery considerations? Tools of analysis must be married with facts in order to help fashion appropriate responses against the prevailing counter-revolution. 

But I doubt, I am still pondering the crossroads metaphor that some Comrades have put forward, made worse by our inability to harvest the political capital we have cultivated in the Western Cape province since January when we embarked on the International Course of Justice mission. The majority Muslim voters in the province’s city of Cape Town couldn’t trust us with governance yet they celebrate our heroic stance on the genocide in Gaza. Again, I doubt.

There are further examples from the global south that can serve as valuable lessons for us at this critical historical moment of reflection and rebuilding. 

As I have said above, in Brazil the Workers' Party under the leadership of Comrade Lula managed to regain the trust of the people after years of political struggle and scandals. By focusing on social programmes, anti-poverty initiatives and coalition-building, Lula's presidency, like his previous term, is marking a period of significant social and economic revival for Brazil. 

I can also quote a case I am less familiar with (excuse me if I get the facts wrong): Bolivia. There, the Movement for Socialism successfully returned to power with Luis Arce after Evo Morales. This comeback was facilitated by a renewed focus on grassroots mobilization and addressing the needs of the indigenous population. There are scholars who are studying the situation closely, picking up trends and indicators pointing towards a trajectory of a renaissance. 

In Tanzania, the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) has remained relevant by continuously adapting to the changing political landscape while maintaining its foundational principles of socialism and self-reliance. By focusing on economic development, anti-corruption measures, and maintaining strong connections with rural communities, the CCM has managed to retain its position as the dominant political force in Tanzania. And they remain the most reliable ally of the global south. 

In Malaysia, the Pakatan Harapan coalition, which includes the Democratic Action Party, has shown resilience by emphasising governance reforms, anti-corruption measures, and promoting a multicultural and inclusive society. Their victory in the 2018 elections was a significant milestone, though subsequent political turbulence has posed challenges. They mobilise grassroots. A former president faced the full mighty of the law there in recent times. Building state capacity of a preoccupation of the Comrades there. They are obsessed about getting things done. 

The Communist Party of Vietnam is our most relevant case study too. The party has been successful in its renewal efforts, retaining its hegemony whilst driving economic reforms. Sorry I can get this wrong but there is something like  Đổi Mới  or renovation in English that they are implementing as a way of driving structural reforms for well over 30 years now. Like in China, they have a socialist-oriented market economy where the both the state sector and the private sector are big players, leading to FDI flows (fixed investment, not the inflows that we often obsess about). Just recently, they have done some serious political changes after allegations were raised about very senior politicians and officials. Vietnam under the communist party is a country on the move.

Back to the Sweden case (I recall some of their leaders saying we need to learn hard lessons from them), the SDP were able to rebuild and win back power through a combination of pragmatic policy adjustments and coalition-building. After losing support due to complacency in the early 2000s, they reoriented addressed the concerns of the people over inequality and stagnation. By forming alliances with other progressive forces and green parties, the SDP successfully returned to power, emphasizing a commitment to social justice, environmental sustainability and inclusive economic growth. 

A short trip to Singapore will teach us a lot about 3 things from the People's Action Party there: building a meritocratic and innovative state, building a vibrant economy and regaining hegemony in society why dealing harshly with all acts of corruption regardless of who is accused. Mere allegations of wrongdoing in Singapore are enough to end your political career. They once held a two-week lekgotla to reflect on public values and ethical leadership after their married public representatives got entangled in a romantic relationship. 

Most of what the Community Party of China (CPC) has achieved is thanks to the lessons learnt from the island nation (Singapore). The CPC has a rolling programme of reforms that permeates the whole of society. They deal with rogues promptly and factionalism is regarded as the enemy of the people. The CPC measures its performance not by slogans and ideology but by socioeconomic outcomes - growth and moderate prosperity. They have done to China in just over 40 years what it took America over 400 years to achieve, including exploiting African slaves and a civil war. 

These May elections have brought us closer, together, as many have observed. Rogues left and those committed to the movement stayed and campaigned for victory. The campaign by former leaders of the movement was a significant moment from which we should strive to close ranks, bury old rivalries and build into the future. That is the basis upon which we must proceed and keep the people at the centre of all our considerations, and of course the state and capital. 

Yes, I said it: capital. We are after all a movement that claims to believe in the mixed economy model and our policies have seen a dramatic increase in capital in this country. A strong state achieves its key objectives by working closely with capital, enabling it to create value and disciplining it through the rules and transparent processes where necessary. We have to factor in what will happen to business in our calculations, as much as we must think hard about the rupture that might happen to the already fragile state. 

We are being watched globally, by progressive and reactionary forces alike. For some, this moment collapses the South African exceptionalism theory - we are like everyone else, and we will return into the sharp jaws of neoliberalism. We might soon have a President who swings in the POTUS chair at the White House, abandon Palestine and turn our backs on the global south. As inequality continues bites, the country might slide further into chaos and new racial conflicts arise. And it will be us, the movement, who will have to take responsibility if this scenario materialises because when we had a chance to bury factionalism, build state capacity and focus exclusively on serving the people, we got entangled in moral temptations and ethical dilemmas because, kumnandi kwi power! Che warned us: "The revolution is not an apple that falls when it is ripe. You have to make it fall." We prayed for growth to happen and for crime to end when we should be decisively intervened. We created a distance between ourselves and those we are elected to represent. As Xi Jinping once wrote, the basic proficiency of officials is "to be at one with the people". 

I will be dishonest to the democratic project if I fail to emphasise that this is a moment of growth for all of us, calling for maturity and divorcing personal interests for national good. As other fraternal parties have done elsewhere in the world, if the final outcomes of coalition negotiations disfavour the movement, we must not become a rebel movement like this new counter-revolutionary party is. We must allow our patronage networks to collapse, find alternative livelihoods for members and accept that political life is about delicate management of contradictions, even if they result in the subordination of desires in the best interest of the nation. 

Our path forward Comrades must be guided by the lessons from our international friends, the wisdom of our revolutionary forebears and the wishes of the people we exist to serve. We must ensure that our struggle for justice and equality continues with renewed vigour and clarity. We must accept being part of the global south programme of renewal which should include building capacity to effectively govern economies and galvanise societies to be socially cohesive and fully committee to the project of national reconstruction. 


About the author: Busani Ngcaweni is Director-General of the National School of Government of South Africa since March 2020. Prior to that he was Head of Policy and Research Services in The Presidency, where he previously served as Deputy Director-General for the Offices of the current President and the previous four Deputy Presidents. He is the Visiting Adjunct Professor at Wits School of Governance of South Africa and at Fudan University of China. He has several edited books including the latest titled: Liberation Diaries: Reflections on 30 Years of Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Press). He contributes articles in academic journals and news outlets like China Daily, Sunday Times, City Press and Guancha.  


This article first appeared in the Sunday Times (South Africa), 2 June 2024. 





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