ANC has lost its lustre




April 27, marking 30 years since the end of apartheid rule in South Africa and the ascension of the African National Congress [ANC] to power in that country, set me thinking about the fate of great political parties all over the world in the last four or five decades. Although no other political party has managed to dislodge ANC from the rulership of South Africa in 30 years, the party has greatly diminished in stature, charisma and regard across Africa and within its own country. It won only 46% of the vote in the country’s 2021 local elections, a sharp drop from the 62% it bagged in the 1994 national elections when it was led by Nelson Mandela and the 70% high it recorded in 2004 when Thabo Mbeki led it.

ANC still has other great assets going for it, including being the oldest political party in Africa, having been founded in Bloemfontein as the South African Native National Congress in 1912. Compare that to Nigeria’s oldest political party, PDP, which was founded in 1998, or Nigeria’s current ruling party, APC, which was founded in 2013. ANC also deserves most of the credit for ending apartheid rule in South Africa after a 46-year liberation struggle. In contrast, PDP’s biggest claim is that it ended military rule in Nigeria in 1999 [by stealing the work of others], while APC’s biggest achievement is that it ended PDP rule in Nigeria, 34 years ahead of the 60-year target that PDP set for itself.

A whole great generation of ANC’s freedom-fighter leaders has passed on, including Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Govan Mbeki, Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu and Chris Hani. Passage of time has harmed ANC’s stature. African youths of today mostly remember that current President Cyril Ramaphosa was chairman of MTN, but few remember his great leadership of the mine workers’ strike of 1988, which accelerated the end of apartheid. During that great event, BBC would begin its world news with his sound bite, which was very fiery. The news anchorman will then say, “General Secretary of the South African Union of Mineworkers, Cyril Ramaphosa.” It brought tears to many African eyes in those days.

Little is heard across the African continent these days of the South African Communist Party [SACP], whose contribution to the liberation struggle was perhaps second only to ANC’s. The memory of Joe Slovo, the SACP cadre and Chief of Staff of the military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe is faint in Africa. As is the memory of Slovo’s wife Ruth First, the top ANC/SACP ideologue who was assassinated by apartheid South African agents with a parcel bomb in Maputo in 1982. And of Yusuf Dadoo, SACP General Secretary who never missed a meeting in 40 years.

The drop in ANC’s national and international stature is perhaps unavoidable because a national liberation struggle is different from ruling a country, especially ruling it while trying not to totally upset the applecart of White economic domination. This  in turn gave rise to Black majority disenchantment. “Was  this what we fought for with so much sweat, toil, time, blood and limbs, with the Whites still sitting pretty on top of the pile?”

Not that a different approach was guaranteed to succeed. Look at the experience of ANC’s northern neighbour, Zimbabwe African National Union [ZANU] which has been ruling since the end of White minority rule there in 1980. ZANU of Robert Mugabe was once the revolutionary darling of African youths, but it is severely diminished in stature now under current president of Zimbabwe, Emmerson Mnangagwa.

Veering to the northwest corner of South Africa, little is heard these days of South West Africa People’s Organisation [SWAPO], founded in 1960 and that has ruled Namibia since it was wrested away from South Africa in 1990. In the 1970s and 1980s its very determined military wing PLAN [Peoples Liberation Army of Namibia] made headline news nearly every day with its fight against the apartheid South African army from bases in Angola provided by the ruling MPLA, with much support from a large Cuban military contingent sent by Fidel Castro. SWAPO’s first leader Sam Nujoma, whose white beard was very familiar all across Africa and particularly in Nigeria, ruled Namibia until 2007 and his partymen succeeded him, but we don’t hear much about SWAPO these days.

Or for that matter, about Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola [MPLA] of Augustinho Neto, which not only wrested power from colonial power Portugal in 1975 but without whose help Namibia would have been difficult to liberate. Formed in 1956 through a merger of several groups including the Angolan Communist Party, MPLA fought the Portuguese Army in the Angolan war of independence from 1961 to 1974. Thereafter, it had to fend off two Western-backed rivals, Holden Roberto’s FNLA and Jonas Savimbi’s UNITA in a very bitter civil war that only ended with the death of Jonas Savimbi in 2002.

Luckily for MPLA, its rise to power in late 1975 coincided with the glorious days of Nigerian foreign policy under General Murtala Mohammed and Federal Commissioner for External Affairs Colonel Joseph Garba. Against US dictates, Murtala recognized MPLA’s government in Luanda and publicly rejected a letter sent by then US President Gerald Ford asking African nations not to recognize MPLA. Murtala personally went to the OAU Summit in Addis Ababa and delivered the most forceful Nigerian foreign policy speech ever, saying Africa will not accept dictates from “any so-called super power.” No wonder he was killed two months later.

Moving to the north east of South Africa, why is little heard these days of Chama Cha Mapinduzi, the ruling party in Tanzania founded in 1977 when Julius Nyerere’s Tanganyika African National Union [TANU] party merged with the Afro-Shirazi Party of Zanzibar, then led by Ali Hassan Mwinyi? All the presidents of Tanzania since Nyerere, including Mwinyi, Benjamin Mkapa, Jakaya Kikwete, John Magafuli and the current one, Samia Suluhu, are CCM members but the party has greatly receded from African consciousness.

Or, slightly nearer to South Africa, of Zambia’s former ruling United National Independence Party [UNIP], mostly associated with its great leader Kenneth Kaunda. UNIP was founded in 1959 and Kaunda led it until it lost presidential elections in 1991. Imagine, this party, once in the forefront of national liberation struggles not only in Zambia but in Zimbabwe, South Africa and all across Africa, saw its electoral fortunes dip to from 95% in 1983 to 0.06% in Zambia’s 2021 elections! No wonder we don’t hear much of UNIP these days.

Why do we hear so little these days of FRELIMO [Liberation Front of Mozambique], established in 1962, which fought the country’s war of independence from Portugal and has been the country’s ruling party since 1975? Is it because its highly charismatic leader Samora Machel died in a South Africa-orchestrated plane crash in 1986, seven years after he came to ABU Zaria, shouted “A luta continua!” and it became the battle cry in Nigeria since then? All we hear now is that his wife, Graca married Nelson Mandela. What of Sudan’s Ummah Party, founded in 1945, of which we hear so little these days?

Whatever happened to True Whig Party of Liberia, founded by returned Americo-Liberian Creoles [Krio, as locals call them] in 1869 and which ruled the country from that year until 1980, when Master Sergeant Samuel Kanyon Doe shot dead President William Tolbert, lined up many of his ministers and True Whig leaders on the Monrovia beach and executed them? See, True Whig bagged 100% of the votes in Liberia’s 1959, 1963, 1967, 1971 and 1975 elections, but in 2005 its presidential candidate got only 8% of the vote. It however supported Ellen Johnson Sirleaf to get elected in 2011. Samuel Doe himself was executed by Prince Yormie Johnson in 1990 but True Whig never recovered from the trauma he inflicted on it.

I am thinking of Tunisia’s once dominant Neo Destour [or New Constitutional Liberal] Party of President Habib Bourguiba, of which we heard so much during our student days. It was founded in 1934 when Tunisia was a French colony. Following the country’s independence in 1956, Bourguiba won the 1959 election with 100% of the votes. But he and Neo Destour overstayed their welcome. In 1987, just before his prime minister Zine El Abidine Ben Ali toppled him, AFRICA magazine reported that Bourguiba, born in 1903, used to sleep for 15 hours a day! No wonder Neo Destour has been asleep since 2011, when his successor Ben Ali was chased out in the so-called Arab Spring.

It is not only in Africa that once great political parties are now asleep. For most of the 20th and early 21st century, there was, with the possible exception of the Communist Party of China and the ANC, no greater political party in the Third World than the Indian National Congress. It was formed in Bombay in 1885 and was at various times led by Mahatma Ghandi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi and Indira’s son Rajiv Gandhi. In 17 elections following India’s independence from Britain in 1947, Congress won the elections ten times either alone or in coalition. Since 2014 however, the Hindu nationalist Bhartiya Janata Party [BJP] has totally upstaged the secular and “Big Tent” Congress and has infused the country with very divisive Hindu nationalism.

Weep not, Indian Congress, because your fate is shared by the Peronistas of Argentina, political descendants of General Juan Domingo Peron’s populist and nationalist, sometimes left-wing and sometimes right-wing Partido Justicialista party. Peron led Argentina from 1946 until his overthrow in a coup in 1955. He  returned to power in 1973, died in 1974 and was succeeded by his wife Isabel Peron, who was overthrown in a 1976 coup. Since then, Peronists have alternately won and lost presidential polls, until late last year, when they lost again. How many youths across the Third World today hear of the Peronists?

So, ANC, you are not the only great political movement that is no longer overwhelming in the consciousness of Africans and all Third World citizens. Hopefully, Nigeria will one day throw up a political party in your mould, before this century runs out.

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