New elite triumphs at ANC conference



New elite triumphs at ANC conference

By Oupa Lehulere

The 50th conference of the African National Congress, held in December in the North West Province capital of Mafikeng, has been hailed as a "changing of the guard" in the movement that governs South Africa.

Nelson Mandela stepped down as ANC president in favour of his deputy, Thabo Mbeki. While Mbeki will formally replace Mandela as the country's president after the 1999 general election, to all intents and purposes he already has been running the country.

This was the first ANC conference since the ANC government adopted its controversial neo-liberal economic policy, known as Growth, Employment and Redistribution, or GEAR. In 1996 GEAR was presented as a fait accompli to the ANC organisation by cabinet. The ANC's highest decision-making body was convened to endorse GEAR only after the government announced its adoption.

Public interest in the GEAR debate was high in the run-up to the conference.


Three months earlier, the country's largest trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), published a report which called GEAR a program of "financial capital". At its September congress, COSATU leaders and members had a heated exchange with Mandela and rejected GEAR.

The South African Non-Governmental Organisation Coalition also rejected GEAR, and a leading anti-apartheid cleric accused the government of "unleashing a rampant capitalism on an unsuspecting population".

As it turned out, the mountain brought forth a molehill. GEAR was adopted by the conference without any serious debate. The leadership's claim that GEAR was merely a tool to implement the goals of the Reconstruction and Development Program played a part in smoothing the adoption.

After hearing presentations by the ministers of finance, trade and industry, and labour, a request by delegates to hear COSATU explain its rejection of GEAR was turned down. Without a clear counter-position, finance minister Trevor Manuel's view that delegates should not pass judgment on GEAR because they could not grasp the policy's "level of technical detail" became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Ironically, it was Jeremy Cronin, GEAR opponent and South African Communist Party deputy general secretary, in his capacity as chair of the conference's economic policy commission, who turned down the request.

These manoeuvres, however, tell only part of the story behind GEAR's adoption. The ANC of 1997 is a much changed organisation from the ANC of April 1994.

Changing composition

Before the conference, there was a determined attempt by the cabinet-dominated national leadership to fashion the incoming party leadership after its own image. In three provinces — Free State, Northern Province and Gauteng — the national leadership tried to impose its choice of leader over the resistance of rank and file members. Picture

In Gauteng, this led to a long battle between the provincial cabinet ministers supported by the national leadership on the one hand, and the overwhelming majority of the provincial membership on the other. After postponing elections, rewriting party election rules and orchestrating character assassinations in the press, the national leadership's candidate for premier lost by a large margin.

Organisational weaknesses, falling membership and non-functioning branches also conspired to help smooth the victory of the ANC right at Mafikeng. The Eastern Cape delegation, once the strongest ANC region, was only half its 1994 strength due to falling membership.

Clearly evident was the changing social composition of the ANC. When the ANC went to conference in 1991, it had no access to bureaucratic power and privilege. The 1994 conference came too soon after the April elections to reflect membership changes. The base of the organisation still had no access to the machinery of state, and local government elections came only in 1995.

At Mafikeng, the number of cell phones and fancy cars told a very different story. At one point the air-conditioning system in the conference hall failed because the power was overloaded by delegates charging their cell phones!

Members of national and provincial parliaments, and municipal councillors, formed a significant part of delegates. With the parliamentary system based on party lists, the positions of ANC representatives at all levels are dependent on the party tops.

This close synchronisation of the ANC with the state apparatus was taken a step further by an amendment to the ANC constitution to hold conferences and re-elect the national leadership every five years. The cycle of ANC conferences will now coincide with that of parliamentary elections.

The fusion with, and dependence upon, the state will be taken further by proposed state funding of political parties. Financial independence from its traditional mass base will ensure that the ANC will be even less responsive to the needs of the working class.

As an organisation of aspirant middle classes and chiefs in the early part of this century, the ANC dedicated itself in policy and practice to pleading with white authority to admit educated Africans into the world of the white capitalist "randlords".

This phase ended with the massacre of 69 Africans at Sharpeville in 1960, which led to the ANC being banned and driven into exile. A radicalisation which began in the 1950s was completed by the student uprisings in 1976, and community and trade union struggles in the 1980s.

The centre of ANC politics shifted to the dusty township streets surrounding the country's industrial metropoles and the working class. The ANC was rejuvenated by the influx of militant youth.

These years of militant mass politics, coupled with the destruction of the black middle class by apartheid, resulted in many working-class militants ascending to the ANC's leadership.


At the 1997 conference, the pendulum began to swing back to the aspirant black middle classes. The leadership succession was fought out — largely symbolically — around the bid by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela to be nominated for the ANC deputy presidency.

The national leadership proved that it had learned from its defeat in the Gauteng leadership battle. It launched an intense campaign to ensure that provincial structures would not nominate Madikizela-Mandela. At the beginning of the conference, the constitution was amended so that 25% of conference delegates must support a nomination from the floor for a candidate for high office. Previously it was 10%.

In the event, Madikizela-Mandela declined her nomination from the floor, so the 25% rule was not tested. Nevertheless, Madikizela-Mandela was elected to the national executive committee with the 15th highest vote.

The only upset for the Mbeki camp came in the contest for the largely ceremonial position of national chairperson. Sports minister Steve Tswete was easily defeated by former Free State premier Patrick "Terror" Lekota. Lekota had been dumped as premier after intervention by the ANC head office.

The composition of the 60-member executive committee revealed the delegates' comfort with the new elite. The country's leading black business person, ANC ex-secretary Cyril Ramaphosa, was returned with the highest vote.

The next 13 places were filled by government ministers, and all cabinet ministers but one were returned. SACP leaders Blade Nzimande (16th), Cronin (31st) and Charles Nqakula (32nd) were elected, along with at least nine others from the party. COSATU general secretary Sam Shilowa was elected in 21st position.


In a tongue-lashing of all opposition parties, in particular the white parties of the old order, Nelson Mandela singled out only Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party for praise and personally introduced the IFP representative to loud applause. Prior to the conference senior ANC leaders in KwaZulu-Natal, Buthelezi's stronghold, waxed lyrical, "When Buthelezi says publicly that we need to unite, we know that the spirit of Dube and Luthuli [former ANC presidents] is stirring".

The ANC public is being prepared for a possible merger of the two organisations, and the accession of Mangosuthu Buthelezi to the position of the deputy presidency of South Africa. The new ANC deputy president, Jacob Zuma from KwaZulu-Natal, is believed to favour such a merger.

[Oupa Lehulere is an educator at Khanya College, a labour movement support organisation in Johannesburg, and a contributor to Links, the international journal of socialist renewal.]