Fighting for dignity and freedom in our lifetime

The role of the ANC as an effective opposition in the City of Johannesburg

Writing in the ANC TODAY on 25 September 2016, in a paper titled Repositioning the ANC in Society, Comrade Lebogang Maile reminds us of the opening address to the 48th national conference of the African National Congress (ANC) in Durban on 2 July 1991, by then ANC President Oliver Reginald Tambo, who stated: “Even as we provided leadership, we were always conscious of the fact that the ANC was the people's parliament …  For the ANC to reach its goal of a united, democratic, non-racial and non-sexist South Africa, sooner rather than later, then we must not deviate from this course. In this context, we considered it important that decisions of the ANC were to be shaped by popular mass endorsement at all times …  The decisions (and actions) of the ANC … would have come to naught unless they enjoyed popular support beyond the bounds of the ANC itself.”

Maile argues that this is an important starting point for us as we reflect on the recent local government elections, and the challenges facing our movement currently. In analysing the outcomes of the local government elections and aiming to chart a way forward for the ANC in this critical stage of the Revolution, we must first of all remind ourselves that the ANC in and of itself has not yet lost the popular mandate of our people, contrary to popular opinion.

Despite the setbacks suffered by the ANC during local government elections, the ANC remains and has always been a “parliament of the people”, existing not just for the sake of its members but for the wellbeing and benefit of South African society at large.

In the Statement of the National Executive Committee (NEC) on the occasion of the 74th Anniversary of the ANC, on 8 January 1986, Comrade OR Tambo noted that the momentous 1985 Year of the Cadre, which had just passed, had produced new organisational formations and adopted new forms of struggle, in keeping with the heightened pace of our Revolution.

The NEC was reflecting on the initiatives associated with the mass combat units that carried out tasks, including those related to the destruction of the organs of government of the apartheid regime and to making the country ungovernable – and the measures the ANC had taken, among other things, to protect our leaders and to maintain revolutionary law and order in various localities throughout the country.

Our struggle gained enormously by the emergence of these collectives of revolutionary cadres in the 1980s, which were organised, rooted among the masses, ready to pay the supreme sacrifice if necessary, committed to the perspectives of our movement as a whole and loyal to the leadership of that movement. Comrade OR Tambo urged the masses of our people to persist in the positions they had taken, of giving both the necessary protection to these units and the co-operation which the further advancement of our struggle demands.

Comrade OR Tambo and the NEC of the ANC in 1986 understood that the advances that were being made and successes that were registered in the Year of the Cadre had only been possible because the mass combat units were located and rooted in (and, most importantly, enjoyed the support of) the communities they were serving.

A nail in the coffin of apartheid social engineering

In his contribution to the ANC TODAY Volume 1 No 2, of 2-8 February 2001, Comrade Kgalema Motlanthe, in his capacity as the then secretary-general of the ANC, reflected on the outcome of the local government elections of 5 December 2000. According to Comrade Mothlanthe, those elections were not only about the people of South Africa exercising their collective will, a central pillar of any democratic society, but were also about driving another nail into the coffin of apartheid social engineering.

Those elections brought into office local government structures fundamentally different to any that had preceded them. For the first time, local government did not reflect the skewed geography and inequitable fiscal design of a racially defined South Africa.

In these December 2000 elections, the ANC emerged victorious in 72% of local councils, accounting for around 83% of the South African population. This placed an obligation on the ANC to lead more decisively and effectively the process of local transformation. It placed an obligation on our councillors to interact more closely with the communities they represent, involving them in council processes and mobilising them to be involved in direct action which changes their lives for the better. It placed an obligation on our councillors to speed up service delivery, implement as soon as possible programmes to ensure all residents had access to a basic amount of water and electricity, and invest in infrastructure development and maintenance.

Naturally, because the ANC has always been the parliament of the people, and has always enjoyed the trust of the people, and notwithstanding the decisive impact the ANC has made in improving the lives of communities, particularly in Johannesburg, the people continued to demand more, because they knew and trusted the ANC to do much more.

The results of the December 2000 elections confirmed the position of the ANC as the leading political force in the country. Comrade Motlanthe emphasised that an internal ANC analysis of the election results revealed that the ANC had maintained and consolidated its support among the electorate. Among the conclusions that could be drawn from the analysis were that:

  • Levels of party support and voter turnout in the 2000 local elections were substantially similar to the previous elections
  • The ANC maintained its dominant position. Even in the face of low turnout, no serious inroads had been made into its support base by the opposition

This cannot be said of the recent local government elections, on 3 August 2016. Notwithstanding the well-documented delivery record of the ANC-led City of Johannesburg, a large percentage of the masses opted to withhold their votes. The only credible explanation can be that of a trust deficit. The voter turnout, particularly in our strong support base, was spectacularly low, and the overall national ANC voter endorsement was reduced to 53%. This notwithstanding, the ANC in Johannesburg still managed to retain 84 out of 135 wards.  

The electoral gains of the past two decades have been reversed, albeit temporarily. But the defeat of the ANC in the Johannesburg in the 3 August local government elections has also ushered in new opportunities for the ANC to go back to basics, in our new role as the opposition.

The noble vision of 1912

In the Statement of the NEC on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the ANC, on 8 January 1987, Comrade OR Tambo spoke of “the noble vision of 1912”. The noble vision of 1912 had become a formidable force, against which the betrayal of 1910 and the crime of 1948 could not hold their own. The process of the emergence of an alternative power in our country was taking a deep and permanent hold. The house of iniquity that the racists had constructed was disintegrating, and crumbling into a heap of rubble.

This historic development demanded that we and the risen masses deliver hammer blow after hammer blow until the entire apartheid edifice was completely demolished. This noble vision of 1912 of which Comrade Tambo spoke in 1987 still holds true today. This noble vision of 1912 must remain the lodestar for the ANC in opposition in Johannesburg.

The masses of our people have been inspired enormously by the ideas and the perspective of a united, democratic and non-racial South Africa. It is in the realisation of this perspective that they see the fulfilment of their deepest aspirations. Genuinely motivated by these considerations, they are taking their destiny into their own hands by engaging the enemy in struggle, in their millions. For this same reason, the people have daily been expressing their allegiance to the premier instrument of liberation they have created, the African National Congress, the democratic parliament of the people of South Africa.

Hence, they are also part of the mass democratic forces of our country and welcome our democratic organisations as among their true representatives. Again, this perspective still holds true today, as it did in 1987, as orated by Comrade Tambo. This perspective places heavy reliance on the ANC being rooted in the masses of the people.

As argued by Comrade Motlanthe in 2001, the trust the people of South Africa have in the ANC places an obligation on our councillors to speed up service delivery, implement as soon as possible programmes to ensure all residents have access to the basic amount of water and electricity, and to invest in infrastructure development and maintenance. The ANC in Johannesburg has to continue with this task from the opposition benches, with an emphasis on the concept of the bricks and mortar of a better life for all.

When the delegates to the Congress of the People in 1955 said all people shall have the right to live where they choose, be decently housed, and to bring up their families in comfort and security, they effectively defined the programme of the ANC into the 21st century.

The Congress of the People was the culmination of months of consultation involving thousands of volunteers who crossed the country, collecting the demands of the people of South Africa. The Freedom Charter, adopted at the Congress of the People, remains the basic guiding document of the liberation movement in South Africa. Central among the demands of the people was decent, affordable housing built close to work opportunities, "where all have transport, roads, lighting, playing fields, crèches and social centres".

The problem of informal settlements is also highlighted in the Freedom Charter, which says "slums shall be demolished and new suburbs built". The number and size of informal settlements in South Africa has grown dramatically since the Congress of the People, as a result of rapid urbanisation and population growth, unemployment, unequal wealth distribution and the scarcity of affordable land for low-cost housing. The Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), adopted in 1994 as the ANC's plan for transformation, noted the lack of adequate housing in urban townships and rural settlements had reached crisis proportions.

While government has provided in excess of a million houses over the past two decades, a major challenge still remains the location of new housing closer to employment opportunities and economic and social services. This brings to the fore the question of quality, safe and reliable public transport. The ANC in Johannesburg must be the voice of the masses on not only the demands for housing, but also public transport, which affects their daily experiences.

Becoming an effective opposition

We must push for Rea Vaya to be extended to cover all of our marginalised communities in Soweto, Alexandra, Orange Farm, Ivory Park, Cosmo City and Diepsloot. This, along with other progressive development programmes initiated by the ANC in Johannesburg, being the Corridors of Freedom and Jozi @ Work.

The ANC in Johannesburg will become an effective opposition if it does not deviate from the course of its history of being rooted in the masses and enjoying popular support beyond the bounds of the ANC itself. As Comrade Tambo taught us, “Even as we provided leadership, we were always conscious of the fact that the ANC was the people`s parliament.”

The ANC in opposition must hold the DA/EFF coalition to the local government structures forged in 2000, whereby the local government did not reflect the skewed geography and inequitable fiscal design of a racially defined South Africa. Johannesburg must remain an integrated urban centre, bonded tightly through the Corridors of Freedom aimed at reversing its apartheid footprint.   

We must not lose focus in the 84 wards that the ANC won in the 3 August elections. This confirms that the ANC has not lost the confidence of the masses of our people. But, most importantly, this gives the ANC a potent platform in the ward committees, the opportunity to root the ANC in the masses of our people. Every ANC councillor must be an embryo of the ANC located in communities. The strength of the ANC as an effective opposition can only be realised through the people of Johannesburg engaging with the DA/EFF coalition under the guidance of the ANC on the ground.

The ANC as an effective opposition must also take lessons from the experiences of the British Labour Party. Its leader, Comrade Jeremy Corbyn, has been the Member of Parliament for Islington North since 1983 and was elected Labour leader in 2015. Ideologically, he identifies as a democratic socialist, and has always been a friend of the ANC and was one of the foremost activists of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

It would be great for the ANC in Johannesburg to visit Comrade Corbyn to exchange ideas, and learn from his experiences as the leader of opposition and a divided party. Liam Young, a commentator for The Independent, New Statesman and Mirror, talks of Comrade Corbyn as one of history’s greatest opposition leaders.

Young points to major achievements and the impact of the Labour Party as an effective opposition. These include, but are not limited to:

  • Defeating the Tory government on the welfare bill that included severe cuts to working tax credits – over three million working poor families would have lost over £1 000 a year in tax credit cuts had the legislation been passed  
  • The significant defeat of the government’s plan to cut thousands of pounds in disability benefits
  • Altering public opinion when it comes to welfare spending;
  • Along with this the shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer has launched a new economics series that has seen packed-out meetings, with people ready to listen to an economic alternative

Key task in opposition

The key task of the ANC in opposition is to CHOOSE THE BATTLES and ASSERT LEADERSHIP, while being ROOTED IN THE MASSES through ward committees that function effectively and purposefully, guided by the noble vision of 1912. A primary danger for opposition parties is appearing to leap opportunistically on every problem for government. Disunity is electorally damaging.

The ANC is bleeding, stumbling from one crisis to another, and the ANC in Johannesburg in particular, and Gauteng broadly, must give confidence to the masses that the premier instrument of liberation they have created, the African National Congress, the democratic parliament of the people of South Africa, is alive and is still capable of being the custodian of their aspirations.

The role of opposition in any democracy is to ask the right questions of government, and demand that government reply to those questions comprehensively and honestly. This is the basic fulcrum on which democracy turns. Democracy by design has to ensure that all voices are heard, and that government responds adequately and timely. The ANC in opposition should take its stand on each and every issue concerning the people of Johannesburg. In circumstances where democratic measures are practised, opposition plays the most crucial role of all!

In a democratic state, opposition plays the role of checks against the mob, even the righteous mob

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