Within the power structure of every society specific vital, integral individuals operate within groups to promote, stimulate, guide or otherwise influence members to action. Such activity has been called leadership, and the individuals have been referred to as Leaders.
They are also known as power holders, men and women of power, power-centres, and power elite. What makes these individuals distinctive is their role in the group, their influence, and their possession of social power.
We grew up taught and believing that the African National Congress (ANC) is the “leader of society”. This claim was borne out of the ANC’s history as being committed to participatory democracy: the involvement of citizens in decisions about issues that affect their lives.
The history of the ANC and the people’s struggle is one of popular participation. Also, the ANC’s very identity as a mass movement is rooted in the notion that it exists as a political vanguard (read: leader of society). Associated with the ideas of Vladimir Lenin, the vanguard party is a vehicle led by an enlightened, revolutionary leadership through which the people can be led to freedom.
Vanguardism proposes that a dedicated movement – or party – needs to give ideological, moral, and intellectual leadership through a process of “conscientization”. A vanguard views itself as a true representative, able to interpret the popular will.
The people must not only see the vanguard’s objectives as in their best interests. They must also see leadership by that vanguard as essential for those interests to be secured. It implies a fundamental connection between the people’s collective needs and the leadership of their vanguard organization. An active role for the people is a critical component of vanguardism. But the movement must guide participation.
Fast forward to the current period, and it is clear that we have reached a critical point in our democracy. Popular disillusionment with the ANC, failures in government performance, and the rise of popular protest are evident. But certain ideas continue to influence the way democracy is practised.
The “leader of society” (the ANC) has been found wanting as a leader of society. Rampant corruption and abuse of office have marred its claim to the rightful leadership of South Africa’s people. Inevitably, the citizens have lost faith in formal political processes.
Writing in the Sunday Independent five years ago (11 October 2015), Kuseni Dlamini prophesied; “…the ANC… risks alienating itself from the very people whose votes are indispensable to its ambition of being “leader of society”.”
One person who attempts to explain this is Professor Mohamed Salih, a Professor of Politics at the University of Leiden. Professor Salih argues that it is not strange, in fact, “characteristic, of liberation movements upon victory and rise to power. “Some liberation movement governments failed to implement the democratic values that kindled their struggle. One subsequent result of this anomaly is the emergence of ‘movement governments’ caught between internal and external pressures to democratize and the movements’ desire to maintain their grip on power and the control of the personnel and resources of government at any cost,” he said.
Professor Christopher Clapman also offers some insight when he suggests that “the very movement from struggle to government potentially opens up sources of difference and dissent that were previously suppressed or obscured”. The people who found no difficulty in working together for freedom “may have had rather different ideas about what that victory was expected to achieve, that are rapidly exposed once it comes about”.
If this is true, we must answer another important question: what has happened to the principle of ‘the people shall governn’?
The importance of this question, and the worrying state of the ANC at the moment, is emphasized by Thabo Mbeki (2017) when he said: “Throughout the century of its existence, during which the black oppressed have voluntarily accepted it as their representative, the ANC has never believed that it constitutes the national collective, the people, thus to elevate itself far beyond its historical status as a mere representative of the people.”
Let’s be honest, the ANC cannot claim to be the ‘leader of society’ or the vanguard. To do so, may only be because it is haunted by ghosts of those who paid the highest price for freedom and nightmares from the images of millions of people who continue to suffer poverty and marginalization while the elite lounges in the largesse of ill-gotten riches.
The conception of the ANC as the leader of society or a vanguard party derives from its Marxist-Leninist ideological influence. It is also an expression of commitment by those who were prepared to die for freedom. Sadly, the post-colonial era has brought about new challenges and a need for a new political outlook.
Phindile Kunene, writing in Amandla Magazine (7 September 2017) suggests that we need to revisit the ideological permutations that influenced the struggle era will allow “us a more realistic look at some of their flaws”. She further says; “The debate about whether vanguard parties are the ideal political instruments for our times is championed only by marginal sections within left political circles in South Africa. The same can be said about the unquestioning acceptance of the working class as the revolutionary subject of our times.”
I could add that we also need to look at the role of political parties, their relationship with the citizens, and also whether democracy exists only when there are political parties. This is more urgent than ever before to understand how democracy works and assess how well it performs the functions imputed to it, such as responsiveness, representation, accountability, and realization of the public good.
In the original conception, parties were partial and bound to the passions and prejudices of public opinion; in some recent conceptions, we see political parties as being loyal to their conception of the good and unperturbed by public opinion.