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100 years of the ANC: The black man cannot live by political freedom alone

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100 years of the ANC: The black man cannot live by political freedom alone

From the archives | South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) turned 100 on 8 January 2012 and organised a lavish celebration in the city of Mangaung where it all began in the Wesleyan Church on 8 January 1912. It is a significant milestone in the history of the fight against colonialism and oppression on the continent. But as the champagne glasses clicked, one message was clear above the din: the black man, like all others, cannot live by political freedom alone. Pusch Commey writes.

This article first appeared in the February 2012 issue of New African

On 8 January 1912, a group of African intellectuals founded the South African Native National Congress (SANNC), two years after Britain and the descendants of Dutch settlers had formed the Union of South Africa in which only the rights of whites were protected. A few months before the founding of SANNC, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, a black lawyer, had made a clarion call in October 1911 for the unity of all Africans, following the Anglo-Boer War over territory and resources.

Even though Africans, the true owners of the land played a significant role in this food fight of the two white factions, the Union of South Africa Act of 1910 excluded the blacks from the peace dividend. The two adversaries – the British and the Boers – working together as Europeans, colluded to oppress and exploit the blacks for their own economic gain, regarding the blacks as somewhat inferior human beings.

Present at the 1912 meeting were esteemed traditional leaders such as Solomon ka Dinizulu, Montsioa of the Barolong, Lewanika of the Lozi of Zambia, Letsie II of Lesotho, Labotsibeni of Swaziland, Dalindyebo of the abaThembu, Sekhukhuni of the baPedi and Khama of Botswana. The fault lines deepened in 1913 when the white races passed the Native Land Act which limited black land ownership to 7% of the territory, later to be increased to 13% of the most unproductive and resource-poor portions.

The SANNC reacted with petitions and sent an unsuccessful delegation to London, believing in the goodwill of the British. All they got were promises and doublespeak. The human rights of the African would always be trumped by British economic interests, best served by a unity of Europeans in Africa. The black and white battle lines were drawn then, and have been festering until today in the unresolved question of the land and the economy.

The SANNC changed its name to the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923, broadening its appeal. It however remained largely inactive and was sidelined by the white regimes until it was revived by its new head, Alfred Xuma in 1943.

A youthful and more radical Anton Lembede, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu then started the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) and brought life into the ANC. Mandela later wrote that they felt the old leadership was “a tired, unmilitant, privileged African elite more concerned with protecting their own rights than those of the masses.”

The cause of the ANC became urgent when in 1948 the Dutch right wing of the white races, called Afrikaners, won an election under the banner of the National Party. Taking a leaf from Nazi ideology and reflective of the discrimination against blacks that was happening elsewhere in places like the United States of America, Australia and New Zealand, they introduced apartheid or separate development. The obnoxious idea was not simply to say “we cannot live together with blacks”. They hogged all the natural resources of African land and capital and furthermore made terrible laws to exploit their human resources as well. Even more diabolical was the Bantu Education Act, which was designed by the spiteful President Hendrik Verwoerd to mentally enslave blacks. It created an inferior and badlyresourced education system with a curriculum that taught blacks to be servants destined to minister to the needs of the white master.

The ANCYL would not take this lying down. They advocated strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience. In 1952 it organised its first large “defiance campaign”. Tens of thousands broke curfews, burnt internal passports, and entered whites-only areas, risking jail. It was within the context of independence movements across the continent and a struggle for black dignity in America. The response of the white race was more brutal oppression.

In 1955, the Congress of the People, a summit uniting the ANC and other groups, adopted the Freedom Charter, which insisted that “the rights of the people shall be the same, regardless of race, colour or sex.” They envisioned a just nation of equal citizens regardless of race. The powerful ideas of the Freedom Charter have survived until today, but there is plenty of unfinished business.

An offshoot of the ANC, the Pan African Congress (PAC), impatient with the slow pace of liberation, organised a march on 12 March 1960. The apartheid police responded with lethal force, mowing down 69 unarmed blacks in what has become known as the Sharpeville Massacre. On 31 March 1960, the ANC and all the liberation movements in the country were banned ina state of emergency. In December 1961, Chief Albert Luthuli, the then president of the ANC, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for advocating non-violent struggle against apartheid. This did not wash with the restive youth. Non-violence in the face of a brutal trigger-happy regime was not going to work and the ANC was taken underground.

Nelson Mandela started the ANC military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), and waged attacks against the murderous regime in 1962-63. Mandela, Sisulu and other ANC leaders were arrested and sentenced to life imprisonment in the famous Rivonia Trial during which Mandela declared his readiness to die for what he believed in.

It is significant that Mandela was defended by George Bizos, a human rights lawyer of Greek origin, while Dennis Goldberg, of Jewish origin, and Ahmed Kathrada, an Indian were maong those put on trial and sentenced to life imprisonment on Robben Island.

It is also significant that there were a good number of whites and activists from various races who acted according to their conscience and risked life, privilege and limb to fight against injustice. President Jacob Zuma in his anniversary speech mentioned white and Indian heroes like Billy Nair, Mac Maharaj, Joe Slovo, Barbara Hogan, Ruth First, Denis Hurley, Archbishop Trevor Huddlestone, and Marion Sparg.

The movement continued the struggle in exile from London, Dar es Salaam, and Lusaka, and allied itself with the Soviet bloc during the Cold War era, when Anglo-Saxon interests would not permit a speedy resolution of the conflict. Too much had been invested in South Africa, epitomised by the behemoth Anglo-American Corporation, which literally controlled a good chunk of the economy with its white shareholders locally, and abroad. It was the economy! When the defeat of apartheid is mentioned, names like Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher of Britain and President Ronald Reagan of America draw ire, in their staunch opposition to economic sanctions against the racist regime. Thatcher has never been welcome in South Africa.

After Mandela’s incarceration, there was an intensification of repressive methods including the legitimisation of death squads and cross-border raids to root out the ANC in neighboring countries. The struggle was kept alive by individuals such as Winnie Mandela and groups such as Steve Biko’s Black Consciousness Movement, operating from university campuses. Biko was murdered by the apartheid regime on 12 September 1977, leading to international condemnation.

The ANC, for the most part, became dormant. Then came the Soweto Uprising, organised by pupils protesting against the forced imposition of the Afrikaans language on them as a medium of instruction. The police opened fire and left 43 children dead. This was followed by two more states of emergency.

It was the catalyst for the intense mobilisation of opposition to apartheid. Young people skipped the border to join the ANC’s military wing to fight apartheid. Anti-apartheid movements across the globe intensified their efforts.

The regime led by P.W. Botha tinkered with reform that would retain white power. They instituted a sham tricameral parliament that included Indians and Coloureds with no real power. As expected, Blacks, the real owners of the land, were missing in the equation. The regime went on to beef up the army and the police. They tried to divide the country and take the jewels, creating silly Bantustan states for blacks along tribal lines that purported to be self-governing, but which reported to Pretoria. All that was in vain.

Ideologically, apart from race, the apartheid regime had sought to play the Cold War politics of the time, presenting the ANC in exile as a bunch of communists who threatened Western economic interests in the country. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, this argument was no longer tenable. When the myth of the all-powerful apartheid military machine was shattered in defeat at Cuito Cuanavale, by the selfless Fidel Castro’s Cuba and Angolan MPLA forces, the writing was on the wall, it was time to negotiate. Zimbabwe had obtained independence in 1980, followed by Namibia in 1990 and the apartheid game was up. Somebody had to find a way out of the situation that could only get worse with time.

President F.W. de Klerk grabbed the opportunity when P.W. Botha suffered a stroke. He embarked on a journey of no return, freeing Mandela, unbanning the liberation movements and embarking on reform that resulted in the first multi-racial elections on 27 April 1993. Mandela was crowned the first democratic president of the country on 11 May 1994. A new constitutional democracy was enacted, with property rights guaranteed.

It had been a long time coming for Africa’s oldest liberation party since Kwame Nkrumah had accelerated independence for Ghana in 1957 and sparked a domino effect that led to the independence of many other sub-Saharan African countries thereafter. In other African countries, the fundamental objective of the colonisers was predation, a follow-up to the Slave Trade, which when abolished, had to mutate to sustain the resourcepoor economies of Europe. It continues until today by way of a capitalist world order in which large companies whose majority shareholders are not African control vast land, labour, capital and resources in Africa. Kwame Nkrumah called this new mutant neo-colonialism, where essentially Africans do not own Africa.

It has also mutated into the creation of dependencies through aid, often administered by quasi-government organisations, now fashionably called NGOs and “civil society”. Such dependencies create powerlessness, in which the quid pro quo is a literal handing over of African economies, where in return there is the exploitation of resources many times in excess of the aid or Greek gifts doled out.

It is instructive to note that the partition of Africa and its resources at the Berlin Conference was triggered by the collapse of European economies. Hunger leads to predation. Recent economic trouble in Europe should serve as a warning. It is a warning to those who subscribe to being weak. Looking at the guest list of the ANC at the centenary celebration, some European countries have been exceptional,
mainly the Nordic ones (Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and Finland) who have come out smelling of roses, as opposed to their Anglo-Saxon brothers. Their moral approach lent support to the liberation movements. Credit also has gone to the people of Britain and America, not their governments, in the anti-apartheid movement who pressured their governments into doing right by man. Eastern Europe gets kudos, but the biggest applause was won by the small island nation of Cuba – a small nation with a big heart.

The long walk
South Africa’s long walk was because the white population vainly decided to turn an African country and its resources into a European country, with psychological roots in the Slave Trade, colonialism and a supremacist master/servant mentality. It was to be a pecking order where the white minority would be at the top of the food chain, by whatever means necessary. To recap, Britain, with its “Gattling guns”, waged war on the Dutch when diamonds and gold flowed aplenty in South Africa. The Dutch descendants fought back. The end of the Anglo-Boer War and its fall-out led to a consolidation of white kinship to the exclusion of Africans.


The European interest in Africa is resource-driven. They think of cheap resources when they think of Africa, be it by way of a slave trade, a human resource or a natural resource.


When the Dutch descendants came into power, they took a page from the British and perfected the art of discrimination, leading to the obnoxious apartheid system. Anglo-Saxon South Africa and its links were not far behind as long as nobody touched the money. Their corporations still held sway over the economy. Then the Dutch descendants used the muscle of government to empower their offspring. White populations were boosted through immigration from various parts of Western and Eastern Europe to counter black population growth. After 100 years, the fundamental economic paradigm has not changed much, it has only mutated. One of the first acts of the Anglo American Corporation after the Blacks took political power was to move its headquarters to London. Why this was permitted by the ANC government, nobody is sure.

Like in the rest of Africa, the European interest in Africa is resource-driven. They think of cheap resources when they think of Africa, be it by way of a slave trade, a human resource or a natural resource. This comes from the days when resource-less Britain was only interested in resource-rich areas in Africa and elsewhere, while the French were busy with territorial gain. The next fundamental phase of the next 100 years of struggle will undoubtedly be economic. Various actors have tried to seize the space with little success, mostly as a result of white networks that promise damnation if the status quo is disturbed.


South Africa is still grappling with African poverty and massive inequalities. A huge educational deficit, means that South African blacks will continue to struggle in the economic arena, because of a lack of skills.


There is Anglo-Saxon insurance in a system tailored to trigger a collapse in the form of capital flight if there is any threat to white capital and interests (see Zimbabwe). Black governments have had to tread carefully because there could be a political fall-out from economic collapse. Thus black economic oppression is perpetuated till kingdom come.

The economics of the struggle
A good one hundred years after the ANC’s founding, South Africa is still grappling with African poverty and massive inequalities. A huge educational deficit, fostered by the discriminatory Bantu education system, during which the regime spent 13 times more money on the education of white children than blacks, means that South African blacks will continue to struggle to make significant headway in the economic arena, because of a lack of skills.

On the economy, the blueprint for the ANC Freedom Charter in 1955 called for the nationalisation of mines, banks, and monopoly interests because the ownership was along racial lines. But today, nationalisation has become a dirty word in South Africa. Blacks without capital to leverage cannot participate in a capitalist South Africa.

On the issue of land, the ANC Charter of 1955 called for redistribution, and not nationalisation, but even that has become an intractable problem. Again, with the Zimbabwe example as a guide, where land reform was severely punished by Western power, the ANC is afraid to take radical steps on land reform. Perhaps future success on the issue in Zimbabwe might be what frees a fear-stricken ANC from its self-imposed strictures.

In effect, after 17 years of liberation, little has changed with respect to ownership of the economy and land. Whites with the power to leverage capital have prospered even better under liberation, as opportunities have opened up locally and internationally, where South Africa is no longer a pariah. So 95% of the economy remains in white hands, together with 83% of the land.

Enter Julius Malema, the suspended president of the ANC Youth League, modeling himself as an economic freedom fighter. It has been an attempt to mirror the youthful militancy of the days of Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu. In effect he has seen himself as the economic mirror image of the political side of the great man. He is a young man as impatient with the pace of economic liberation as Mandela was with the political.

Needless to say Mandela ended up in jail for 27 years. Malema has dug up the Freedom Charter and called for the promised nationalisation. However, times have changed; the quality of his uneducated leadership has been called into question.

Mandela and his lieutenants were sophisticated university graduates and lawyers. Malema and his lieutenants lack gravitas and have often resorted to rabble-rousing and invectivesinconsistent with a new civil society. Malema’s diatribes have not translated into organised and focused youthful initiatives or credible programmes, supported by the government, that would inspire and empower the youth to shape their future. More often he has made noise without programmes.

The ANC has done a great job in bringing political and economic stability. South Africa is now a democratically respected member of the international community. However the greatest threat to the country is the inherited inequalities that are drawn along racial lines. It is a problem that can spark social upheavals. The solution of the economic issue may take another 100
years or even more. But a restless African population will not wait that long.

Part of the problem is the generosity of spirit that is often lacking in the previously advantaged – the spirit of giving that will go a long way to managing a potentially explosive situation.

This has prompted Archbishop Desmond Tutu to call for a wealth tax on whites. Has this been embraced? No. It has rather met with the intransigence of the P. W. Botha era.

It is a troubling situation that calls for an economic Codesa (Congress for a Democratic South Africa) as soon as possible, to avert a conflagration. The political Codesa saved South Africa from implosion in the early 1990s. As the saying goes, a hungry man is an angry man. And the black man, like all others, cannot live by political freedom alone.

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Written by Pusch Commey

Pusch Commey is a Barrister of the High Court of South Africa, Award winning writer and associate editor of New African Magazine since 1999. He is based in Johannesburg South Africa. He is the author of 9 books including the best selling 100 great African kings and queens, and Tofi's Fire Dance. He is also the CEO of the South African based Real African Publishers, and the founder of the Real African Writers  series.

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