The step-aside policy crisis: A case of déjà vu for the ANC?

12 May 2021 - 11:25 By China Dodovu
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The writer says to redeem and extricate itself from the quagmire of ignominy and shame in which it is trapped, the ANC must act decisively in enforcing discipline and recovering the strategic momentum of renewal and change.
The writer says to redeem and extricate itself from the quagmire of ignominy and shame in which it is trapped, the ANC must act decisively in enforcing discipline and recovering the strategic momentum of renewal and change.
Image: Stephanie de Sakutin

In light of the political crisis facing the ANC caused by its step-aside policy adopted at its 54th national conference in 2017, many political commentators, especially its detractors and doomsayers, have speculated it constitutes an implosion, which will inevitably and ultimately split the party. Others see it as the beginning of the end of Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency.

Looking back at the events the ANC has experienced since it was founded in 1912, the current crisis and factional conflicts, largely caused by how its leaders interpret and implement the step-aside policy, is déjà vu. It's something that has happened before as a result of policy contradictions and conflicts and when high-ranking and popular leaders were suspended, resigned or expelled. Despite those setbacks, the ANC remained resilient and strong in pursuing the struggle for liberation and fulfilling its historic mission to create a united, democratic, non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society.

In May 1917, at a conference in Bloemfontein, the five-year-old ANC experienced the first major crisis within its ranks when the national executive resigned en masse. Rev John Dube, president-general, and Selope Thema, secretary-general, were accused by other senior leaders of committing the ANC to approving the principle of territorial segregation, which stood contrary to its policy on the Natives Land Act of 1913 and the 1916 Beaumont Commission’s report on land policy.

At the time, although there were differences among ANC leaders on the acceptability of the principle of territorial segregation, they were united in opposing the Natives Land Act and the Native Affairs Administration Bill. The affair was engineered by other leaders — Pixley ka Isaka Seme, Saul Msane and Chief Stephen Mini — who saw in the issue a good pretext for getting rid of Dube, to whom they were opposed for reasons that had more to do with his personal indiscretions, rivalries and jealousies than genuine differences over ANC ideology or its affairs.

The outburst of indignation at the conference led to the resignation of the entire leadership. Sol Plaatje, the first secretary-general who had returned from England in 1916, was then offered the presidency, but he declined.

The ANC was leaderless for three weeks until Daniel Simon Letanka, the ANC Transvaal deputy president, facilitated a conference in June 1917 in Newcastle where Sefako Makgatho, second ANC president-general, and other national leaders were elected.

Between 1927 and 1930, the debate around the Black (Native) Republic thesis created challenging moments and flared tensions within the ANC and the Communist Party of South Africa (CPSA), now the SACP. Communists James La Guma, Sidney Bunting and Edward Roux and ANC president Josiah Gumede had returned home from Moscow having pledged to implement Communist International’s call for an independent native South African republic as a stage toward a workers’ republic, with full and equal rights for all races.

Gumede took upon himself a great responsibility to persuade his own organisation, the ANC, to join forces with the CPSA and other revolutionary forces to adopt the native republic thesis as its official policy. The policy itself caused tension within the ANC and Gumede failed to persuade his conservative comrades to form an alliance with the CPSA.

During the 1930 ANC conference in Bloemfontein, delegates were divided into two groups, namely radicals and moderates. The radicals favoured pro-communist views and advocated for more radical responses to white minority rule. They had begun to engage more directly in popular struggles for workers. The moderates accused Gumede and the radicals of not reflecting ANC policy and favoured deputations. As a result, Gumede lost the ANC presidency to Pixley ka Isaka Seme. Two communist radicals, Bransby Ndobe and Elliot Tonjeni, who supported Gumede in his re-election bid, continued with their tendencies in the Western Cape. They were later expelled from the ANC and formed the Independent-ANC organisation.

When the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) founders, who included Anton Lembede, AP Mda, OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Congress Mbatha, Jordan Ngubane and Mxolisi Majombozi, congregated at the Bantu Social Centre in Johannesburg in 1944, their mission was to add a new impetus, step up the fight against racial segregation and to radicalise the ANC’s struggle for national liberation. The elders and conservative leaders in the ANC didn’t approve of their interventions.

The new ANCYL generation was fired by a determination to rid the people of a sense of inferiority. With the motto “Africa’s cause must triumph” in its manifesto, they called for Africans to occupy their rightful place among the nations of the world and wanted the youth to be united, consolidated, trained and disciplined because future leaders would be recruited from its ranks.

The ANCYL vowed to galvanise the ANC into “a body of gentlemen with clean hands,” and  to become the power station of the African nationalism spirit. By 1949, they had not only persuaded the ANC to adopt a more militant programme of mass action with strikes, boycotts, civil disobedience and other defiance tactics, but they had also replaced many elders in the ANC structures and Sisulu, one of their own, occupied the secretary-general position.

Other policy tensions within the ANC arose after key leaders Robert Sobukwe, Potlako Leballo, Zephaniah Mothopeng and Nyathi Pokela broke away to form the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) in 1959. They were angered by the ANC and accused it of using multiracial and non-racial language as opposed to Africanist affirmations.

In 1955, the ANC formed part of the Congress Alliance to convene the “Congress of the People” to adopt the Freedom Charter which declared “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white”.

The PAC at the time considered SA to be a black state by right and refused to support equal rights for other national groups. It feared their inclusion in the anti-apartheid struggle would dilute it and lead to a take over by white and Indian communists. As such, the ANC was threatened by the PAC presence in its traditional constituencies. On March 21 1960, the PAC organised a countrywide campaign against pass laws. In Sharpeville, 169 people were killed and thousands wounded while many top PAC leaders were arrested and later convicted for incitement.

In 1975, the ANC didn't hesitate to expel key leaders, including former national executive members Tennyson Makiwane, Ambrose Makiwane, Pascal Ngakane and Themba Mqota. Styled the “Gang of Eight”, the group was publicly perpetuating divisions within the ANC and pursuing disruptive factionalist activities in its bid to exclude some members from the ANC on the grounds of race or SACP membership.

In 1979, ideological divisions within the ANC led to a small but influential group of socialists being suspended and later expelled for pursuing factionalism. The ANC, then in exile, wrote separately to Peter Collins, Paula Ensor, David Hemson and Martin Legassick and charged them with failure to seek the resolution of their disagreements within the established structures. It suspended them as an organised faction. They later formed a group called the Marxist Workers’ Tendency of the ANC.

Since the advent of the democratic order in 1994, the ANC has experienced three major threats and splits as a result of policy differences.

In 1997, General Bantu Holomisa, together with Roelf Meyer, the National Party’s negotiator during the constitutional negotiations at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (Codesa), formed the United Democratic Movement (UDM) after he was expelled from the ANC. In 1994, three years before his expulsion from the ANC, Holomisa had received the most votes during the 49th ANC National Conference in Bloemfontein.

After the 2007 Polokwane conference where Thabo Mbeki lost to Jacob Zuma in the ANC presidential race, and subsequent to the recall of Mbeki as the president of SA the following year, leadership squabbles and factions reached unprecedented levels. Mosiuoa 'Terror' Lekota, the ANC national chairperson for 10 years, led a group of senior ANC leaders including Mbhazima Shilowa, Mluleki George and Smuts Ngonyama who resigned to form the Congress of the People (COPE) party.

In 2013, Julius Malema, former president of the ANCYL, and its spokesperson Floyd Shivambu formed the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) after the ANC expelled them for propagating un-ANC policies.

As a leftist, anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist party, the EFF draws its inspiration from the Marxist-Leninist and Fanonian schools of thought and describes itself as a radical movement for economic freedom and the total ownership of natural resources by the people. It calls for the nationalisation of mines, banks and other strategic sectors of the economy, as well as the expropriation of land without compensation.

It is clear that during the 109 years of its existence, the ANC has gone through very difficult and painful moments because of policy conflict and contradictions among its leaders, and yet it has managed to overcome them.

The warning signs of the “sins of incumbency” since 1994 have now reached a critical point of concern. Due to corruption and other crimes of serious natures perpetuated mostly by its cadres, the ANC is suffering from an existential crisis. It has become so weak that it is fast losing its character as a people’s movement, a disciplined force of the left and an agent for change.

The ANC is increasingly losing trust and credibility because of corruption and state capture, infighting, factional battles and its performance in delivering a better life. When the step-aside policy was conceived, it was precisely to address all these issues. Instead, it has caused polarisation and pain.

In the midst of the step-aside crisis policy, the ANC cannot afford to hesitate. Its current leaders must use the experiences of the past to navigate this complex process. To redeem and extricate itself from the quagmire of ignominy and shame in which it is trapped, the ANC must act decisively in enforcing discipline and recovering the strategic momentum of renewal and change. It must marshal all its experience, history and traditions to once again become a great organisation. If it does so, the ANC will survive the current step-aside policy crisis it is facing.


  • The author is a member of parliament and is writing in his personal capacity.

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