African Nationalism in the ANC

The “national question” fifty years ago

In May 1954, a symposium was staged in Cape Town on the national question. In attendance were, among others, Lionel Foreman, Thomas Ngwenya and Jack Simons. The purpose of the symposium was explained as being:

“To encourage and develop a unity of ideas in the movement, especially on the National Question, by encouraging thorough discussion and even polemics, on a national scale. The numerous avowed and unavowed differences between tendencies and factions on this, as on other questions, do not preclude such a discussion.

On the contrary, they make such discussion imperative for the health of the movement. If we cannot achieve a unity of ideas, we must achieve, at least, a clear demarcation of the differences…

In the absence of discussion, sectarianism thrives and the best interests of the whole movement are sacrificed…

It may not be too much to hope that this joint effort on the ideological plane may initiate a general onslaught on sectarianism in all fields of activity in the democratic movement…But we are confident that it is a step in the right direction – a step towards the closing of the ranks in the democratic camp… It seems to us that failure to adopt a serious attitude to such discussion can arise only from the extreme backwardness, hardened sectarianism or political infantilism.”

I start this paper with the above quotation because I am convinced that what was said then in 1954 is relevant in today’s discourse and our revolutionary activities.

The issue of the national question has always been a central part of the discourse within the liberation movement. This issue has the potential to evoke intense debates and must always be handled sensitively in the movement. However, it will be important to highlight the fact that the African National Congress (ANC) has always had as its principal objective the unity of the people of South Africa – WE ARE ONE PEOPLE.

The emergence of nationalism

The emergence of nationalism in Africa, and in South Africa in particular, came as a consequence of colonialism. After the wars of resistance which stretched from the first war against colonialism led by Autshumayo in 1658 to the Battle of Isandlwana in 1879, South Africa was in a period we call the primary phase of resistance in South Africa. In 1906, in the secondary phase of resistance led by Bambatha, the period after conquest of resisting the impact of colonialism, i.e. imposition of taxes on the colonised people.

Nationalism becomes different in the sense that anti-colonialism is understood as political and not just defence of your land or possessions. Nationalism emerged in the Eastern Cape around about 1836 led by Jan Tshatshu, and in 1880 with the emergence of Imbumba Yama Afrika which advocated African unity (as opposed to religious denominational diversity) As SN Mvambo declared in 1883, “for the black man makes the fatal mistake of thinking that if he is Anglican he has nothing to do with anything suggested by the Wesleyan, and the Wesleyan also thinks so…Imbumba must make sure that all these three are represented… for we must be united on political matters. In fighting for national rights, we must fight together.” (quoted in Francis Meli, (1988), South Africa Belongs To Us)

The emergence of the ANC in 1912 was the climax of attempts by Africans to forge unity and fight all forms of divisions and suspicions. This phase of the emergence of nationalism went through a number of changes, from the period of the Herzog Bills in the 1930s, the Youth League in 1943, the African Claims and the 1949 Programme of Action. It culminated in what we in the movement call “the roaring fifties”, when the ANC, now a radical nationalist movement, saw the revolutionary coming-together at Kliptown and the drafting of the Freedom Charter in 1955.

On the other hand, we have seen the emergence of the most backward and reactionary form of nationalism, in the form of Afrikaner nationalism whose intention was to mobilise the white oppressor nation behind its exclusivist and chauvinist policies. I will not be discussing this aspect further here.

Perhaps one of the founding fathers of the Youth League, Anton Lembede, best captures the most radical form of the African nationalism we are discussing. He stated that African nationalism is the ideology that could serve the interest of African emancipation – the dynamic human energy that will be released by African nationalism will be more powerful and devastating in its effect than the atomic bomb. Lembede stressed strongly the question of the psychological liberation of the African people. As he stated, “the African had to be freed from the crippling complexes of inferiority and dependence.” It is tragic and sad that Lembede did not live long enough to see the development of his ideas.

On the other hand, the emergence of the CPSA in 1921 saw another important and significant development in the history of South Africa. Of significance for the discussion at hand is the fact that the mainstays of the formation of the CPSA were the white revolutionaries and intellectuals. Given their class and national background, the founding fathers of the party simply dismissed and scoffed at the ANC as a bourgeois and irrelevant organisation. As Ivon Tones stated in the Comintern in 1921: “the African revolution will be led by the white workers.” Of course, to an extent this is understandable as, at that time, the productive forces in South Africa were not developed and the African proletariat was in its infancy and had not developed its class-consciousness to the full. The main organised working class was the white working class. But, at the same time, they failed to read the laws of dialectics which are concerned with things in motion, a process, ceaseless coming into being and passing away. Because even at that time, Africans were poor, stripped of their productive land, and they were the majority.

By 1924, the complexion of the party had changed. A number of Africans had been recruited into the party, people such as Albert Nzula, Moses Kotane, Edwin Mofutsanyane and Johannes Nkosi, etc. In the 1924 conference of the CPSA, the Cape delegates (who were also active in the ICU), together with the Transvaal delegates, defeated the motion by the General Secretary of the CPSA, Bill Andrews, that the party should apply for affiliation to the white-led Labour Party. Lionel Foreman, the foremost intellectual of the Communist Party, stated that the party opposed the role of Africans leading the struggle because it said that this was the opposite of internationalism. The party rejected this and a delegation led by SP Bunting, Rebecca Bunting and Eddie Roux went to Moscow to attend the 6th Congress of Comintern in 1928. They argued against the role of Africans saying that this would antagonise white workers. When confronted by the charge of the error of white chauvinism, they replied that of the 1 750 members of the Party, 1 600 were Africans. Yet the delegation to Moscow was led by three whites and even the previous delegation was led by two whites (Bill Andrews and Ivon Jones).

Moses Kotane in 1942 said: “In a party like ours, where whites and blacks come together, the general tendency of non-European members is to take a back seat and leave leadership to Europeans.” This changed only after the war when the reverse occurred, and Europeans were inclined to “take a back seat.”

This situation changed when the Comintern proposal was adopted for the Native Republic. As James La Guma, also from the CPSA and who was expelled from the ICU executive, obtained a new perspective when discussing with Bukharin – that the purely national struggle uniting all the oppressed of all classes against white domination was itself of great revolutionary importance. This was also a period of the election of JT Gumede as the President General of the ANC, who became amenable to the CPSA.

On the other hand, there emerged – in particular after the adoption of the Freedom Charter – another grouping which saw the narrow and backward interpretation of African nationalism. This particular strain of African nationalism adopted what we call the “Africanist” tendency or as others call it “orthodox” nationalism. This form of Africanist exclusiveness opposed the clauses in the charter which talked of South African belonging to all and the land being shared among those who worked it. They thought, erroneously, that they were going to capture the hearts of the people through “Africanist” and “Poqo” go-it-alone approaches in the fight against white oppression. They professed “Africa for Africans” without a careful and scientific theorisation of the South African revolution.

What emerged in the movement was the concept of “colonialism of a special type”, where the coloniser and the colonised are found in the same country. As Francis Meli stated: “They failed to modify the aspirations of the Africans to suit the concrete reality of our country by accepting the historical fact that there is room in our movement for those whites who are prepared to fight side by side with Africans and who are willing to accept the policy of the ANC under African leadership.”

Forging unity of the oppressed in South Africa

The ANC has always been at the centre of the struggle for unity of the oppressed in South Africa. In doing so, it realised that the struggle for freedom and the amelioration of the conditions of the oppressed could only be realised when the oppressed are united against the common enemy – white oppression.

“Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children.” (Amilcar Cabral, 1965)

I have quoted Cabral here because at the centre of the pursuit of the movement’s objectives has always been guided by this principle, a better life for all.

Unity of the oppressed people was forged out of the necessities of struggle against white domination. This unity had never been sectarian or racialist. It embraced all those poised against white domination and also in that fold were democratically-minded whites. Even though they were a tiny minority, they were far-sighted enough to embrace the revolutionary African nationalism of the ANC. I will here just cite the highlights:

  • United Front in 1930s against Herzog Bills
  • Xuma-Dadoo-Naicker pact in 1947
  • Mineworkers strike in 1946 which brought to new heights the cooperation between national and class organisations – ANC, CPSA and Mineworkers Union.
  • 1951 Franchise Action Council, formed by coloured people to protest over the Separate Representation of Voters’ Bill, which sought to disenfranchise coloured men in the Cape, which was supported by the ANC and the South African Indian Congress (SAIC).
  • 1952 Defiance Campaign
  • Congress Alliance in 1952 which comprised the ANC, the Congress of Democrats (COD), SAIC and the Coloured People’s Congress (CPC)
  • 1955 Congress of the People
  • 1956 Women’s march to Pretoria
  • All-in African Conference in Pietermaritzburg in March 1961
  • Student organisations between the 60s and 80s
  • United Democratic Front (UDF) in 1983

All these events illustrate the point that in the crucible of struggle, people tried to forge unity. This was based on mutual solidarity, support and unity in action and united action. All of this indicates the fact that African nationalism is political in form and content rather than idealistic. It is based on action not ideological theorising.

Lenin stated that only the struggle educates the exploited class. Only the struggle discloses to it the magnitude of its own power, widens its horizons, enhances its abilities, clarifies its mind and forges its will.

OR Tambo further elucidated on this point in 1977: “When the people decide to fight for their rights as blacks, as the most deprived, people are reacting to a situation created for them. But they are not going to stay in that situation all the time, because they are fighting for human rights basically. They are not fighting white people as white people. They are fighting a white system, but not because it is white, although it is presented in that form. But, basically the struggle is for justice, for human rights…it is capable of being supported by all human beings who support just causes irrespective of race they belong to.”

The gist of the question here is that nationalism need not and should not be synonymous with racism. When approached from a class perspective, it cuts across racial barriers. That is the kind of nationalism – revolutionary African nationalism – of the ANC. The liberation movement recognised that apartheid was the modus operandi of the exploitative system of capitalism. It was the technique of super exploitation and oppression.

Revolutionary African nationalism

The SACP’s 1962 Road to South African Freedom stated: “The immediate and imperative interest of all sections of the South African people demands the carrying out of a national democratic revolution.. . and to establish an independent state of national democracy… the main content of this revolution is the national liberation of the African people.”

The 1969 ANC Strategy and Tactics stated in the section dealing with African masses – the main force of liberation:

“the main content of the present stage of the South African revolution is the national liberation of the largest and most oppressed group – the African people. This strategic aim must govern every aspect of the conduct of our struggle whether it be the formulation of policy or the creation of structures… the national character of the struggle must therefore dominate our approach. But this national struggle is taking place in a different era and in a different context…It is also happening in a new kind of South Africa, a South Africa in which there is a large and well-developed working class with class consciousness, and in which the independent expressions of the working people – their political organs and trade unions – are very much part of the liberation front. Thus our nationalism must not be confused with the classical drive by an elitist group among the oppressed people to gain ascendancy so that they can replace the oppressor in the exploitation of the mass. But none of this detracts from the basically national context of our liberation drive… the national sense of grievance is the most potent revolutionary force, which must be harnessed. To blunt it in the interests of abstract concepts of internationalism is, in the long run, doing neither a service to revolution nor to internationalism.”

This position did not go unchallenged from certain quarters. Some people who styled themselves as “African nationalists” within the ANC organised “a comprehensive review of the 1969 Morogoro decisions in particular with regard to open membership of the ANC to non-Africans.” These came to be known as the Group of 8 who were expelled from the ANC. In Samora Machel’s phrase, they were “the enemy hidden under the same colour and hoisting the same flag.”

In the 1980s in London, another group organised itself from the other extreme, that is, wanting to mobilise for a socialist revolution without due regard to national grievance. They

emphasised class exploitation over national oppression. They published “Inqaba yabaSebenzi.” This group was also expelled, at the Kabwe Conference in 1985. At the Durban Conference of the ANC in 1991, both the Group of 8 and Inqaba were reinstated into ranks of the ANC.

The ideological position of the ANC emphasised that the oppression of the blacks in general and Africans in particular was found within the nature of the pyramid of oppression in South Africa. It is the Africans who were the mainstay of the liberation struggle and the also the ones who bore the main brunt of oppression and exploitation. Hence also the characterisation of the gender question being the triple oppression of African women – by race, class and gender.

The inclusion of coloureds and Indians as part of the group oppressed as blacks again is found in the operation of apartheid. They too bore the brunt of oppression and dispossession.

But the movement was always alert to the fact that the white group was not and is not monolithic. There were and there are democratic and far-sighted whites who were part and parcel of the struggle against white domination and continue to be so. When caught by the apartheid system, they too met the same fate as other fighters against apartheid.

My view is that the concept of so-called coloured-African solidarity in the Western Cape borrows on “short-term-ism” and the “immediate” and is unable to be a sustainable strategy. Apart from the fact that it denies a place for democratic whites, who even today, however small the numbers, vote for the ANC in the midst of the most rabid and racialistic campaigns. Secondly, this seems to suggest the existence of two separate communities that must show solidarity to each other – you may find that the concept becomes problematic and it could not be sustained. The converse of the Indian-African solidarity in KwaZulu-Natal can be argued along the same lines: that it is a short-term approach that may have varied appeals and may blunt the strategic objective of the movement.

The ANC is genuinely a non-racial organization, not multi-racial. The critical question that must never be overlooked in this current conjuncture is that we are in the national democratic phase of our struggle, which embraces national/class/gender dimensions, and Africans are still the group most severely affected by the ravages of apartheid in every aspect of human activity. They too remain faithful to the credo that the only organisation to pull them out of this situation is the ANC. Hence their repeated display of confidence by overwhelmingly voting ANC in each successive election. In the liberation movement, we have come to call this the traditional base of the ANC. At the same time, sections of the coloured, Indian and white communities also display this loyalty by voting for the ANC despite the virulent racialistic and fear campaigns of the opposition.

That is why it serves no purpose, as it has served no purpose in the past, as we have illustrated, to pander to populist and reactionary tendencies of chauvinism. Similarly, the tendency to label people as “Africanists” in the current context within the ANC is rather the display of the same “swart gevaar” and chauvinistic tendencies of the backward classes. Accordingly, the notions of “Africanism” and “coloured-ism” are alien to the theoretical and ideological principles that underpin the policies of the ANC.

What generally happens is that when people run short of cogent arguments they resort to the tendency of labeling. As stated above, the debates on the national question have been with the movement for a long time. Strictly speaking, the national question cannot be fully resolved in the foreseeable future.

Material disparities between groups

The national question is a psychological question but, more importantly, it is a material question. On the psychological one, I would like to quote The Eye of the Needle by Richard Turner: “It is ‘common sense’ (to white South Africans) that black people are inferior to white people. And this common sense is not just some delusion. It is based on white South Africans’ experience of the objective ‘inferiority’of most black people in, for example, education, income, dress and language proficiency, (that is, proficiency in the only language that whites recognise). And moreover, nearly everyone they know treat blacks as inferior.”

On the other hand, the material side is best illustrated by President Thabo Mbeki when he states: “One of these nations is white, relatively prosperous, regardless of gender or geographic dispersal. It has ready access to a developed economic, physical, educational, communication and other infrastructure. This enables us to argue that… all members of this nation have the possibility to exercise their right to equal opportunity…”

It is perhaps instructive that I briefly cite the findings of Census 2001, which stated that the number of unemployed whites was 124 962 compared to 6 171 310 unemployed blacks. Furthermore, the Annual Employment Equity Report 2002 states that of all senior and professionally qualified management recruits 60 percent of management recruits were white, 27 percent black, 6 percent coloured and 7 percent Indian.

The Human Development Report Review 2003 of the HSRC reveals that of all school-leavers who entered the labour market for the first time between 1995 and 1999, 75 percent of whites found employment – compared to 70 percent of coloureds, 50 percent of Indians and only 29 percent of blacks.

These figures should not shock anyone within the liberation movement. They are rather a clarion call for more vigour in the pursuit of the objectives of the national democratic revolution. They further tell us that, in the pursuit of the goals of government, we should not be blind to these facts. If we take the question of the African women, the scenario may even reflect more shocking statistics. This is despite the recognition in the movement that the African woman is at the receiving end of triple oppression. Some hostile and subtle opponents of the policies of our government and of the ANC tend to posit the issue of gender outside of race and class.

If we factor in the dominance of minority languages, i.e. English and Afrikaans, in the academic and job market, we then realise that the task ahead is huge. We know that imbalances in power relations sustain linguistic imbalances and this has an adverse effect on the development and knowledge of, and respect for, African languages. The danger here is that our nation may be creating a new form of “assimilados”. This colonial hang-up will metamorphose into “legitimate” discourse because there are no black intellectuals to confront it and offer alternatives. This too has a severe impact on the national question itself.

Political consciousness

The question we started with above become critical here. Unity is not just feel-good or something abstract. It is something borne by an ideological unity of members of the ANC and a precise understanding of the tasks of the movement at every turn of history. You strive and work for unity. But understanding the tasks of the movement presupposes ideological and political clarity of the cadres of the ANC. Clarity of ideas is the essential condition for giving our people confidence in the ANC. Ideological unity can only be achieved if the cadres and members of the ANC are fully informed of the politics and policies of the ANC. This is the critical challenge facing the movement as it strives to build its branches and other levels of organization.

There will always be differences of opinions in the ANC, and that is healthy. But it cannot be that people go overboard and believe that the only way of moving forward is factional rather than organisational unity. The dearth of political consciousness, I use consciousness not awareness advisedly, is one enemy the movement must confront. In the midst of the offensive of the opposition from many fronts, sometimes the work of political consciousness loses elasticity and resilience: people get confused and sometimes end up believing and singing the same tune as the opposition. I have observed many a time where the media throws the bait on certain issues and then this ends up as the basis of analysis.

That is why it has always been important that mobilising voter support in South Africa, and particularly the organisation’s approach to minorities, has always been founded on the fundamental pillar of the liberation movement: non-racialism and non-sexism. It serves no purpose to appeal to them on the basis of backwardness, i.e. pandering to the backward instinct of self-interest but rather to mobilise on the basis of non-racialism and democratic values. Hence, in the Strategy and Tactics document, the ANC would maintain that it is still a national liberation movement even though it will also reflect the elements of a classical political party. This is so because it fights for power through the ballot box but also must remain the primary organisation of nation-building in South Africa.

The movement has thus steered away from the Peter Marais or Gerald Morkel approach to the mobilisation of the coloured vote, of pandering to the banality of sectarian racism. The test of leadership is to fashion your policies not only on the immediate but also the long-term interest of building a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa.

In the same debate, the other side of the coin is the so-called multi-racialism you find in the Democratic Alliance (DA) today. To all objective analysts and observers, it is clear that the DA’s central focus is white interests. Its pronouncements, and the position it takes on a number of issues, confirm this view. Hence its overwhelming support base remains white. When it then claims that its black membership comprises about 60 percent of the DA, some questions emerge. These questions emerge precisely because it cannot be true that it can then pander to the minority of its support base. Then questions come out about the role of its black leadership, a la Joe Seremane, who sit in DA benches and are even given titles. Yet those who hold the reigns and determine policy remain the core white base of the DA.

This is reflected in a number of policy positions of the DA when, in particular, they will oppose any legislation or budget vote that seeks to redress the imbalances and injustices of the past. Even worse was the vitriolic attack by the DA on the president’s visit to join the Haitian people to celebrate the bicentenary of their independence, the first black independence in the world! No self-respecting African could sit and enjoy such a party! Hence it is not wrong to characterise people such as Joe Seremane in the DA as window dressing, who could not in any stretch of imagination face with dignity the condescending attitudes of Tony Leon-Douglas Gibson axis. This may be illustrated by the fact that the DA deployed Helen Zille for five years to Crossroads to mobilise African support for the DA. They have sent a “white” to go and mobilise in the “black” area and, as a white party with perceived opportunities for jobs, they had hoped they could then exploit the poverty and joblessness of the people of Crossroads with promises of jobs in the gardens and kitchens of the “white master”. Yet, come the 2004 elections, the people of Crossroads could only give the DA less than 100 votes! This is a telling lesson for the DA never to take the suffering of the people for granted.

The critical call from the movement is to push back the frontiers of poverty. Those frontiers of poverty are the consequence of apartheid: poverty reflects the pyramidal operation of apartheid. The stark reflections of that poverty are there to be seen in Khayelitsha and they are in Mannenberg or Phoenix. Yet in mobilising for pushing back those frontiers, you must mobilise all South Africans, black and white. The blacks will contribute in their own way, just as whites will also have their role in the struggle. At the head of that struggle, as the people who stand most to gain from our freedom, will still be the African people.


I would like to conclude by quoting the ANC January 8 statement of 2001: “The National General Council (NGC) issues a directive to all of us to build new cadres who are capable of assisting the movement to discharge its historic responsibilities. We must respond to this through a combination of political education, the involvement of our members in the movement’s activities…all structures of our movement will therefore have to reach out to the masses of our people to involve them in the further deepening of our national response against both racism and sexism.”

Whether we have built it since the NGC is another question, but the key challenge for the cadre is to be seized with various debates in the organization, such as the national question. This paper is just an intervention and I am sure many will be motivated to join the debate.

By James Ngculu in New Agenda Issue 17 (2005)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *