The historical necessity and limitations of African nationalism

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Following the 1913 Land Act that placed most of the land in white hands, the South African National Natives Congress (SANNC) sent a delegation to London to lobby the government to abolish the act. The delegation was unsuccessful. Their approach to the government was not to call for an all-out rebellion against colonial rule. Because of their Western education, the SANNC leaders were better placed to understand the politics of colonial rule. 

Their response appealed to all ethnic groups. This made the SANNC response a national one against colonial injustices. African nationalism, however, like the nationalisms of the colonial world internationally, arose in historical circumstances that had been changed by global developments – in particular the evolution of capitalism into a global order of economic alienation and exploitation, and consequently political subjugation. 

The ANC became the spinal column of the African masses. The black middle class, organised under the banner of the ANC, stood in relation to the masses merely as the agitator and organiser of mass protests, pressing their power into service for opposite social aims from the working class. The contradictory aims were to be accommodated in the Freedom Charter adopted at the Congress of the People in 1955 in Kliptown. 

It contained on the one hand demands for the nationalisation of the commanding heights of the economy, and on the other, for freedom of commerce and trade. Worker delegates called for nationalisation under worker control, but the economic clauses, under the direction of Ben Turok, excluded the vital element that distinguished capitalist nationalisation from socialist nationalisation. 

While the workers aspired for the abolition of capitalism, the middle class aspired for its preservation to enable it to be accommodated within it. In an article “In our lifetime” published in the Liberation journal in June 1956, party president Nelson Mandela laid out the aims of African nationalism as set out in the Freedom Charter. 

“The Charter’s declaration “The People Shall Govern” visualises the transfer of power not to any single social class, but to all the people of this country, be they workers, peasants, professional men or petty bourgeoisie. “It is true that in demanding the nationalisation of the banks, the gold mines and the land, the Charter strikes a fatal blow at the financial and gold-mining monopolies and farming interests that have for centuries plundered the country and condemned its people to servitude. 

But such a step is absolutely imperative and necessary because the realisation of the Charter is inconceivable, in fact impossible, unless and until these monopolies are first smashed up and the national wealth of the country turned over to the people. “The breaking up democratisation of these monopolies will open up fresh fields for the development of a prosperous non-European bourgeois class. 

“For the first time in the history of this country the non-European bourgeoisie will have the opportunity to own in their own name and right mines and factories, and trade and private enterprise will boom and flourish as never before.” There is thus a common thread that binds together the aspirations of the middle class as expressed by Macah Kunene and Mandela across half a century, both as accommodationist to varying degrees. 

The former is espoused in a politically supine position before British imperialism, the latter erect, in defiance of the denial to take the management of neocolonial affairs into the hands of the elite among the subjugated. The utopianism of the vision set out by Mandela was revealed in practice. What are the choices before African nationalism today? 

In an article widely derided by the capitalist press but also by the SACP’s former deputy general secretary, Jeremy Cronin, Wits University economist Chris Malikane issues a damning verdict on the post-apartheid socio-economic order, and calls for the completion of the national democratic revolution. Malikane asserts that “The first phase of the democratic revolution in South Africa, the ‘post-1994 breakthrough’, is fast approaching its end”. 

Worth quoting, not so much for its prescription of the configuration of social forces that must make common cause to complete the revolution, but the undeniable reality of the seeming impotence of African nationalism as reflected in the post-apartheid dispensation. 

Andile Lungisa is a former deputy president of the ANC Youth League.