This is a story from the past: but it is still relevant today. The African National Congress – particularly under Jacob Zuma – still believes it is the only really legitimate political party. It sees itself as a movement of the people, that no-one has the right to challenge.


The ANC’s attempt to become South Africa’s sole legitimate liberation movement

The ANC has a penchant for assuming it has a divine right to rule South Africa. President Zuma has stated this on a number of occasions. In 2008 he told a May Day rally in Cape Town that: “Even God expects us to rule this country because we [the ANC] are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed. It is even blessed in heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.”

Nor was this a slip of the tongue; in January this year Number One made much the same claim. Handing over a newly constructed school at Libode in the Eastern Cape, Jacob Zuma said: “We want to eradicate all mud schools. We are already doing so. We are not in a hurry because no one is going to rule but the ANC.” His remarks drew loud applause from the pro-ANC audience.

This assumption that the fate of the ANC and South Africa are as one has a long pedigree. It is one that I experienced at first hand.

In 1973 the United Nations, fed up with South Africa’s prevarications over South West Africa, conferred on SWAPO the title of “the authentic representative of the people of Namibia.”[1] Soon it was being described as the “sole legitimate representative of the people of Namibia.”[2] It was an extraordinary decision for the UN, since it left all other political movements illegitimate. It was a response to the highly unusual situation in which the South African government would not accept the International Court of Justice ruling that its mandate over Namibia, which had been established after the First World War, was at an end.

All this seemed pretty academic when I took my position as Africa Secretary for the British Labour Party in 1979. I was delighted to have been given the position. My own history had been of working with the NUSAS Wages Commissions at the Universities of Cape Town and the Witwatersrand between 1973 and 1976. My friends had been banned for attempting to revive the non-racial union movement. My car was being followed and my phone bugged.

I had a place at Warwick University to read Industrial Relations. I decided to leave for the UK immediately, planning to return to Cape Town to work for the unions. But, as it happened, I fell in love, married and never returned to South Africa to make it my home. In 1979 Craig Williamson had just been exposed as an apartheid agent at the International University Exchange Fund and it was not an easy time for a white South African to get a job with a ‘progressive’ organisation. I worked for Mobil Oil for a year before getting the position with the Labour Party.

As I read through the documents and dossiers left by my predecessor, Michael Wolfers, I immediately came across a resolution passed by the party’s Africa Committee, to be considered by the International Committee in a few days time. It was a proposal to recognise the ANC as the ‘sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa’. Based on the SWAPO decision, it was a first step towards winning similar recognition from the Organisation of African Unity and the UN.

At first it seemed entirely appropriate to me. After all, the ANC was clearly the major liberation movement; where was the harm? But as I thought about it I realised its importance. The Labour Party would be giving the ANC a veto over all future relations with South Africa organisations. If Labour wanted to speak to the Black Consciousness Movement, or Helen Suzman, we would have to get their blessing. The ANC could block links with the non-racial unions, which its trade union allies in SACTU had attacked as ‘yellow unions.’ And – most important of all – it would mean withdrawing the Labour Party’s recognition of the PAC. It seemed to me this was a no decision for a British democratic party to take: it smacked of the worst form of Stalinism.

Being young and inexperienced I thought that a simple letter to the International Committee spelling this out would end the matter. How wrong I was.

My boss (Jenny Little, a former Foreign Office apparatchik and the Labour Party’s International Secretary) was horrified that I would question the Africa committee’s decision. Joan Lestor, a left-wing MP of independent mind, was more sympathetic. In the end it was decided to convene a meeting with the ANC to consider the matter.

The ANC was clearly furious that its carefully laid plan was coming apart. It sent a high-level delegation, led by Abdul Minty. I was immediately required to explain my position and forced onto the defensive. Feeling isolated and vulnerable I explained that there was no suggestion that the ANC was not the most important South African liberation movement and that the Labour Party should acknowledge this.

But the ANC did not have exclusive ownership of the title of ‘liberation movement.’ For the Labour Party to pass the resolution would put us at odds with the OAU and UN, since both recognised the PAC. I argued that the decision of who represented the people of South Africa was one that only South Africans themselves could take, in a free election, after liberation.

A rather awkward silence followed, since the case was pretty unanswerable. The ANC said it was not at all happy, but left it at that. The resolution was withdrawn from the International Committee, but the fallout continued. Soon dark rumours began circulating about me. This was very uncomfortable for me, since white South Africans were not exactly flavour of the month!

I continued to work with the ANC and to represent the Labour Party on the Anti-Apartheid Movement, but henceforth the relationship was cold and sour. I got on with individual members of the exile community (including the Pahad brothers) but henceforth I was regarded with suspicion by the ANC and its allies. It was only years later revealed that it was Solly Smith, the ANC official London representative (and not I) who was the South African spy in Britain!

[1] Encyclopedia of the United Nations and International Agreements: A to F, by Edmund Jan Osmańczyk, p. 1506