Liberating in poetry but governing in prose - Karen MacGregor

The African National Congress is viewed as a beacon of hope for those facing human rights abuses around the world. But has it remained true to Nelson Mandela’s ‘cherished ideal of a democratic and free society’?

South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) celebrated its centenary on 8 January this year, as Africa’s oldest surviving political movement and with no end in sight to its 18-year rule. This is no mean feat, given the party’s formation under duress following the defeat of African resistance to colonial rule in the early 20th century, and its long liberation struggle against an apartheid government that banned the ANC and jailed its supporters, forcing many into exile.

Because of its unusual and challenging history, the ANC is far more a product of its past than most political parties elsewhere in Africa and the world. This has turned out to be a strength and a weakness. When thousands of supporters flocked to celebrations held in Mangaung (aka Bloemfontein) in central South Africa, where the ANC was born in 1912, there were good reasons to party but also much to be sober about.

Related links

One strength lies in the overwhelming popularity the ANC enjoys among voters in a South Africa still smarting from apartheid. The ANC has the moral gravitas of an untiring warrior for freedom that no other party can muster and which it has exploited fully at home, among apartheid’s oppressed and abroad, by drawing on an extraordinary cache of goodwill.

The struggle gave rise to iconic leaders such as Nobel Peace Prize-winning Nelson Mandela and Chief Albert Luthuli, and the thousands of liberation activists who people the ANC’s rich history. On coming to power in 1994, the party bolstered its moral standing with solid policies and programmes that remained true to Mandela’s ‘cherished ideal of a democratic and free society’, which he had told a court 30 years earlier he was prepared to die for.

Weakness in popularity

But there are weaknesses in such popularity, infamously highlighted by current President Jacob Zuma’s statement that the party would rule until Jesus returned. The ANC’s election majority is slowly eroding, but in fourth democratic elections in 2009 it won 66 per cent of the vote against 17 per cent for the official Opposition, the Democratic Alliance. There are too many examples of havoc wreaked by hegemonic rule, including in neighbouring Zimbabwe, not to be worried about lack of political alternatives.

Lack of contest at the polls provided the ANC with the power to tackle South Africa’s huge problems of inequality, unemployment, poverty and crime. There have been considerable delivery achievements in areas such as housing, electricity, water and rural health care, and social grants now benefit 15 million of the country’s 50 million people, but not in key sectors such as education and policing. A progressive constitution is supported by a legal system that is strong though overwhelmed, and undoubtedly South Africa is free.

Political strength, however, has not translated into sufficient solutions and has provided little incentive for the ANC to be accountable or to rein in corruption. Citizens are bombarded daily by reports of the lavish lifestyles of ANC leaders, dubious fortunes gleaned from public money by the politically connected, and poor governance.

Unassailability has also tempted the party to stack the civil service and state institutions with ‘comrades’, undermining its once-impeccable democratic credentials.

Writing for the New York Times in January, Eusebius McKaiser, a political scientist at the University of the Witwatersrand, blamed South Africa’s explosive cocktail of socio-economic problems on under-developed state institutions, ‘themselves the product of the ANC’s failure to redefine itself from liberation movement to ruling party with a mandate to deliver services to the population. The ANC still hogs and holds on to political power as if for dear life and in so doing neglects the essential task of developing independent state institutions.’

Another key characteristic of South Africa’s Government, flowing from its history, is diversity – the broad church of backgrounds and ideologies that make up the ruling ‘tripartite alliance’ led by the nationalist ANC and also comprising the South African Communist Party and the umbrella labour body, the Congress of South African Trade Unions.


Regional, pan-African and global forces are all at work to see the continent through its socio-political transitions. There is good reason to be cautiously optimistic that this critical element of the development process will mostly continue to change positively


The liberation struggle bundled into one movement the many groups that opposed apartheid. This broad base grew in the 1970s and 1980s as the banned ANC was led from exile, with the anti-apartheid struggle at home taken up by unions and still-legal groups that gathered into the Mass Democratic Movement.

Unity in diversity

After the minority-white government announced reform in 1990 and the ANC was unbanned, there were two distinct ‘camps’ with different approaches – exiles (inclined to direct, as necessary during the global anti-apartheid campaign) and locals (inclined to ground-up democratic debate, the product of the all-encompassing Mass Democratic Movement).

The slogan of the ANC is ‘unity in diversity’, and indeed today within South Africa’s leaders there are conservative African nationalists and hard-line communists and unionists and social democrats, among others, ostensibly united in the goal of national development and uplift of the poor but with conflicting political agendas.

The strength in this diversity is vigorous debate and, potentially, ideological enrichment. The weaknesses are that the debate takes place within the hegemonic ruling alliance rather than between political parties and in the public domain – although internal battles are regularly waged through the media – a sometimes incoherent national agenda, and cut-throat power struggles of the type currently being waged between Jacob Zuma and the populist (currently suspended) president of the ANC Youth League, Julius Malema, ahead of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung later this year.

The leaders elected, or re-elected, in Manguang will speak volumes about the ANC as it enters its second century. But for many, the moral mantle of South Africa’s liberation party has become tarnished and it has transmogrified into any old government. As the Guardian wrote in an assessment of the ANC on its centenary: ‘South Africa’s governing party found that it could liberate in poetry but had to govern in prose.’

For a movement that takes justifiable pride in an illustrious history, the challenge for the ANC is going to be to deliver a record in the coming years that is at least in prose that is eloquent, restrained and empathetic.


Karen MacGregor is a freelance journalist. She can be contacted at

Back to top