From colonialism to African nationalism

ANC notable and historian, Pallo Jordan, traces the long and proud record of the ANC as the champion of the black majority

Two rival nationalisms, representing diametrically opposed attitudes about the nature of South Africa and proposing conflicting concepts of its future, dominated the history of 20th century South Africa.

The African National Congress (ANC), founded in January 1912, developed to be the primary organised expression of African nationalism. The National Party (NP), founded the following year, became the dominant advocate of Afrikaner nationalism. While African nationalism, in all its organised formations, strove to end racist oppression, Afrikaaner nationalism became the chief exponent of institutionalised racism.

Pitted against each other from birth, successive NP governments attempted to crush the ANC in an escalating campaign of repression. Persecution by officialdom and the police, proscription through banning orders, torture and brutal beatings, lengthy terms of imprisonment, mass shootings and massacres, executions and outright murders, carried out by hired assassins and official hit-squads, were among the methods the NP employed to preserve racial domination and to impose the hare-brained designs of its leadership on South Africa.

The political pact concluded between these two parties during the first two years of the 21st century was the most improbable outcome of nine decades of political contestation.

The ANC from its inception represented a very broad spectrum of democratic opinion inspired by Christian values, classical liberal ideals and social democracy. Its character was structured by the core features of what the movement designated as a "colonialism of a special type" (CST) which was then the prevailing order in South Africa.

The manner in which South Africa was ruled prior to 1994 had been arranged at a conference of the leading European powers held in Berlin in 1884-85. By the end of that exercise, with the exceptions of Ethiopia and Liberia, every other part of the continent had been placed under foreign rule. By a unilateral decree of the European powers, Africans had been reduced to a subject people, to be ruled and governed by others, usually whites from Europe, or their descendants, who had made Africa their home.

European colonialism did not end at the imposition of a foreign government. Colonial administrators set about dismembering the economic independence of the indigenous people. Taxes were imposed both to sustain the colonial administration but most importantly to separate African tillers from their land in order to create a labour force. A regime of forced labour, not dissimilar to the mediaeval corvée - enforced with the sjambok and the gun - was established to build public works. The 1905-06 Poll Tax rebellion led by Bambata was provoked precisely by such impositions.

Colonised people were not citizens but colonial subjects, governed by a specialised body of laws. By the cunning of reason the acronym for that body of laws in South Africa spelt "BAD". Incalculable mischief was wrought by the so-called "experts" in "native culture" and "customary law" who corrupted indigenous legal systems to suit the needs of the colonial administration. Unaccountable, arbitrary power was the hallmark of every colonial administration, and apartheid South Africa was no exception.

But, as has been pointed out, colonialism had a Janus character. While doing terrible violence to the subject peoples, their society and their culture, it nonetheless carried with it a modernizing impulse. In order to administer its colonies more effectively and to maintain military control over the territory and its people, the colonial powers built roads, railways and introduced modern communications. The colonial powers were compelled to train the colonised as administrators, to serve its merchants, its banks and to serve as its gendarmes - holding down the local population. In settler colonies, like Rhodesia, Ireland, Algeria, and South Africa where the white settlers filled this role, the colonial power dispensed with the services of the indigenous population. In such places a racial hierarchy, usually institutionalised and formally enforced by law and reinforced by a number of informal rituals of sub-ordination, was the outcome.

But colonialism also spawned a number of centripetal forces that conspired to create a common society. Hence Ralph Emerson's comment in his From Empire to Nation that the leaders of the nationalist movements and the colonisers shared a number of common values.

The colonial economy also imposed a degree of unity on the country. Nowhere in Africa was this more true than in South Africa. Judged from that perspective, with all its atrocities and terrible injustices, the Anglo-Boer War was not only inevitable, but was also the price exacted by progress.

But progress came with its own ambiguities. It invariably disrupted the lives of communities, creating new uncertainties by generating continuous change. The disequilibria of change in turn persuaded many to prefer the certainties and the orderliness of the known present or an imaginary past. A romantic conservatism consequently developed alongside progressive thought among large sections of the African population, especially in rural areas and among the recently urbanised. This mood dovetailed well with the new thrust in "Native policy" after 1927, attracting the support of precisely those layers of African society who were least comfortable with change, the traditional leaders.

None of the African nationalist leaders sought to restore a romantic, pre-colonial order. As distinct from ethnic nationalists who acquired prominence during the latter decades of the 20th century, they invariably were modernists who wanted to gain access to the modern world for their own people.

We are now at the halfway mark of the ANC's second term of office in government.

There have been immense difficulties and shortcomings but what the ANC dreamed of, planned for, mapped out in general terms in the Freedom Charter, what it theorised about from the 1960s to the end of the '80s, is what it is in the midst of in the present - the transformation of South Africa from an authoritarian racist state into a democracy. South Africa has:

  • one of the most progressive constitutions in the world,
  • some of the most advanced labour legislation,
  • institutionalised rights for women that many old democracies are still haggling over,
  • accorded constitutional rights to children that are streets ahead of many other countries,
  • legislatures that are robust institutions, open to the press and the public.

The ANC and its allies have also been on a steep learning curve, involving both glowing successes and grave disappointments.

The tactics employed by the ANC prevented South Africa's descent into the racial civil war that was planned by the far right and its allies. At this moment when the ultra-right is again active it is proper to remind ourselves what the mood was like on the eve of the 1994 elections, with bomb blasts in central Johannesburg and at Johannesburg airport. The international media descended on South Africa, not to see what actually happened - a dignified, patient and extremely disciplined people going to the polls - but to witness what they anticipated would be the unfolding of another Bosnia.

  • Literally millions who in the past never had clean water at hand, now have it as a right.
  • Millions of children who would otherwise go hungry, now have at least one meal a day at school.
  • Millions of pregnant mothers and children under six for whom medical care was a dream now receive it.
  • Millions who had little hope of education can now see a brighter future ahead of them.

The list of achievements that materially affect and have changed in real terms the lives of our people is endless - telecommunications, roads and transport, land reform, housing, welfare and even correctional services have all changed for the better thanks to the ANC-led government.
These may not look like much from the perspective of the well-manicured lawns of suburbia - but they have made a real difference in Khayelitsha, in Valhalla Park, in Cofimvaba, in Orange Farm, in Thohoyandou, in Madikwe, in northern Zululand and in Kuruman.

There have also been disappointments. We always knew that the process of nation-building would not be easy, but the ANC has hewn the path of reconciliation to facilitate it. But reconciliation does not imply forgetting the past. The past is both the crime of apartheid and the struggle to affirm the abiding value of the human personality embodied in the fight for freedom. There is and consequently can be no moral equivalence between apartheid and the struggle for freedom; between those who upheld oppression and those who fought against it.

Building a common South African nation is more than cheering the national cricket team, waving the same national flag. It means reducing the huge inequalities that separate Pinelands from Langa and Bokmakierie; Steenberg from Tokai and Constantia; Alexandra township from Sandton.

It means closing the gap between the well-paid white miner and the African mineworker; between the shop-floor worker and the rich corporate elite; between the farm owner and the rural poor; between men and women; between the urban areas and the rural areas. This is why the Reconstruction and Development Programme's vision of urban and rural infrastructural development is central to the nation-building project.

There are some 20 mega-projects underway from Saldanha Bay in the south west to Richards Bay in the north-east - each of them accounts for more than half a billion rands. These are economic projects that also embrace a larger dimension - the building of a single nation and the reconstruction of our region.

In every part of the country, far from the stare of the media and glare of the television spotlights, communities are hives of activity: streets are being tarred; waste collection is improving; telecommunications are being installed; schools are being constructed and renovated; clinics are being built and upgraded; houses are being built: for ordinary people tangible proof of the new South Africa in the making.

True, the ANC has made its share of mistakes. Had it sat on its hands it would have made no mistakes. But it would also have achieved nothing. Nation-building is a process that entails both destruction and construction, disruption and creation. That it would cause discomfort and anxiety amongst some was inevitable. Because it is about empowerment, the self-empowerment of the millions who were disempowered by national oppression, it was to be expected that these millions would want to exert their power in a number of ways. There was no guarantee that they would always do so wisely.

During the ninetieth year of its existence the African National Congress has demonstrated the capacity to remain relevant despite sweeping changes in South Africa, Africa and the rest of the world. After forty-eight years as a legal movement, the ANC was compelled to go underground in 1960. Few thought it would survive.

Compelled to operate from external headquarters for 30 years, the ANC's leading bodies co-ordinated the work of structures spread around the world. It maintained a multi-faceted relationship with a host of other bodies- sister liberation movements, political parties, governments and solidarity movements. Democrats, liberals, every faith community, the labour and workers' parties throughout the world were drawn into an international movement in support of the struggle of the South African people.

It was by marshalling all these forces, working in closer and more effective co-ordination, that the ANC secured the international isolation of the apartheid regime, compelling it to seek a negotiated settlement.

At the age of 90 the ANC is a seasoned veteran that learnt the skills for growth, renewal and continuing relevance in the crucible of the struggle for freedom. Its traditions of internal and public debate armed the movement with the courage to retrace its steps when necessary and to rethink strategy when required to. Within the living memory of many, heterodoxy has regularly been embraced as the new orthodoxy. Working in an ever-changing environment, the movement acquired a remarkable tactical resilience.

At the conclusion of the recent ANC policy conference, President Mbeki called on the ANC membership to contribute directly to the movement's programme of action and to rekindle a sense of moral vision: that moral vision of a just, decent society of free men and women which inspired them to wage the struggle against oppression.

The challenges ahead are great, but the ANC remains confident it can rise to them.