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Book raises poignant questions about the future of Nelson Mandela’s party

The African National Congress fought against the evils of apartheid, but couldn’t escape the sins of power itself. EFE-EPA/Yeshiel Panchia

My instinctive reaction on first laying my eyes on Mcebisi Ndletyana’s new book, Anatomy of the ANC in Power: Insights from Port Elizabeth, 1990-2019, was to wonder if the African National Congress (ANC), which has governed South Africa since the end of apartheid in 1994, was destined to atrophy.

The book is set to heighten the debate about the future of the party, whose dominance has been in decline since 2009. Ingenuously titled, it adds to the growing body of knowledge on liberation movements in power.

It explains how the party, which had fought against the injustice of the brutal system of apartheid, became so absorbed by the sins of incumbency when it came to power.

The book is a distillation of analytical savvy, intellectual prowess, wit and the fine pen of an outstanding pundit.

The political scientist Anthony Butler and sociologist Roger Southall have bemoaned analyses of the ANC for lacking practical and intuitive knowledge of its institutional life, complexity and informal networks. Ndletyana’s book attempts to fill that void.

As emeritus professor of historical studies Chris Saunders has put it, the

ANC’s history is a large mosaic of many different parts.

But can these different parts be knitted together into a complete historical narrative?

Making history

The history of political organisations is made every day of their existence, and continues even after their demise. The ink that writes history does not dry up.

Ndletyana gives the history of power politics in the ANC interpretation. He answers the vexing question that Joel Netshitenzhe, a national executive committee member of the party, asked in 2018:

how do liberation movements lose sense of idealism that included a preparedness to pay the ultimate price?

The book analyses the internal workings of the ANC, starting at the time when it reestablished itself inside the country, after it was unbanned in 1990, and ends in 2019.

It covers the two decades of the ANC in power. It is, therefore, wide-ranging and large in scope. I am not aware of any other other book that has gone to this length in analysing the ANC in power.

Port Elizabeth – the populous seaport city in the Eastern Cape province – is the contextual setting of the narrative. It has since been renamed Nelson Mandela Bay or simply called The Bay.

The place has always been the fulcrum of political activism, from the earliest days of African nationalism. This, coupled with the ANC’s popularity there, gives the historical reason for its choice as the scene for the book’s narrative.

The strength of the book comes from its causal processes approach and ethnography as a means used to gather information, including studying theoretical literature, official documents and archival materials.

Ndletyana argues that the decline of the ANC, as shown in various electoral outcomes, especially from 2009, is the function of its very political dominance as a governing party. It created the illusion of invincibility.

Oligarchic tendencies

When the ANC took control in Port Elizabeth in 1995, it reconfigured its internal workings to align them with the structure of power in the governance of the municipality. The party became the city government and city government became the party.

This spawned oligarchic tendencies and marked the onset of the scramble for the resources of the city. The platform for this is factionalism – a phenomenon which started to show glaringly in the ANC’s 52nd national conference in 2007 in Polokwane, when Jacob Zuma replaced then ANC president Thabo Mbeki.

Ndletyana shows how these tendencies belie the essence of democracy, including the party’s self-characterisation as a leader of society. His view is that these aberrations are a

manifestation of systematic weaknesses occasioned by the party’s inability to adapt to being a party-in-government.

Of course, being unable to adapt to being in power and sustaining political dominance by keeping a hand in the cookie jar – sheer corruption, which has assumed proportions of state capture – are two distinct factors. But, in building the thesis of his book, to explain the decline of the ANC in Port Elizabeth, Ndletyana talks of these as conflations in a blended way, not as binaries. This makes the narrative plausible.

This is ingenuity of thought and interpretation, coupled with a no-holds- barred approach – a function of unencumbered scholarship. The book may ruffle the feathers of those it implicates.

They are revealed as hurdles to the reform of the party. Their resistance goes to the extent of sabotaging the electoral prospects of the party to protect their sanctuaries, which are sustained through access to municipal resources.

This is how the ANC lost the “jewel of the crown” – Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality – in the 2016 local government elections. This is where the ANC had enjoyed historical popularity. The Democratic Alliance performed better than the ANC, and cobbled together a coalition to form government. The ANC lost because it had hollowed out its political capital.


But can the party of Nelson Mandela self-correct? Ndletyana is understandably unconvinced. That’s because attempts to reform the party are thwarted by those wielding an invisible hand in the affairs of the government, to maintain their networks of patronage.

Former ANC leader and South African President Nelson Mandela. Piere Verydy/AFP/GettyImages

Unfortunately, this mirrors the state of the ANC nationally, which is at war with itself. The greed of unscrupulous leaders and party members is in contestation with its historical mission of social justice. Ndletyana lays bare this insidiousness of power.

The distinction of his book lies in the strength and clarity of elucidation. It engages the reader in a topic of profound historical significance. But its resonance is in the problems of the day.

I strongly recommend the book to anybody with an interest in South Africa’s future. After reading it, they’ll no doubt wonder: will the ANC survive the future, or is it destined for inevitable demise?

Read more: 'ANC Spy Bible': a real-life South African thriller, but too much left unsaid

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