The ANC and the legacy of the liberation struggle

“What [the ANC] have done to put the economy on a right footing, is, I think, almost miraculous,” Pamela Cox, former head of the South Africa Division at the World Bank.1At every turn the ANC government has embraced neo-liberal policies, and followed or gone beyond the advice of the IMF and the World Bank.2

There was huge hope and faith placed in the promised land of ‘democracy’ and ‘black rule’ during the struggle against apartheid. Now ex-activist officials complain about a prevailing ‘culture of non-payment’ as a redundant legacy from the anti-apartheid struggle, calling critics ‘counterrevolutionaries’, ‘agitators’ or ‘radicals’ – even as they cut off water and slip eviction notices under doors. But “there [is] simply no income in these areas. What had taken root was an economics of non-payment”. Much of South Africa's liberation struggle had a near-religious faith in a small group of leaders, but now there is widespread disillusionment with party politics and the whole parliamentary system. In April 2002, hundreds of people from Soweto burned their ANC membership cards at a protest over those arrested at an action against water cut-offs.

Those politicians who try to use or influence the new community struggles are faced with laughter and derision. In Chatsworth, Durban, where Desai focuses his book, the election turn-out in the year 2000 was 20 per cent. (It was 15 per cent during the hated tricameral system.)3 “People came to see that lobbying and due process was a futile fob-off when live ammunition was fired at them while they were begging for just thirty minutes more to obtain a court order preventing their eviction. Although tragedy constantly haunts those who operate in Chatsworth, the heavy handed response of the authorities has been a blessing. It has founded a politics that is unrepentant and unusually clear.”

These very people who every Saturday attended three or four funerals of comrades who died in struggle, those whose families and friends lie in the huge, stretching landscape that is the Soweto graveyard, the people who were convinced that “the blood of the martyrs waters the tree of freedom”, now pick themselves up and fight again.

  • 1. Alistair Sparks, Beyond the Miracle (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2002), page 16.
  • 2. Under UN law, a democratic government that takes over from a dictatorship is not responsible for paying any international debts incurred by that government. The ANC, however, chose to pay the apartheid government’s international debts voluntarily. The ANC voluntarily imposed its own Structural Adjustment Programme on South Africa. Taxes on the rich were cut, exchange controls dropped, and tariffs protecting unionised South African workers from imports were dropped. Water, electricity, housing and healthcare were taken from those who couldn’t pay. Or another example; when the WTO gave the South African government twelve years to phase out protections for its national garment industry, the ANC chose to complete the project in eight years. In the first six months of 1999 alone, 10,000 jobs were axed in and around Durban.
  • 3. In 1984, a new constitution was enacted which provided for a tricameral parliament. The new parliament included the House of Representatives, comprised of coloureds; the House of Delegates, comprised of indians; and the House of Assembly, comprised of whites. This system left the whites with more seats in the Parliament than the indians and coloureds combined. Blacks violently protested at being shut out of the system, and the ANC, which had traditionally used nonviolent means to protest inequality, began to advocate more extreme measures as well.