The piece is titled “Shedding New Light on the Historical Development of the ANC” and focuses on all three volumes in Sylvia Neame’s series.
Sylvia Neame’s core argument is that South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) developed historically as a front or, as its own name would suggest, as a congress, not a political party. She draws her distinction between congresses and parties from Thomas Hodgkin’s pioneering book about African nationalism. Hodgkin, writing in the 1950s, maintained that congresses differed from parties in three ways. First, unlike parties they actively seek to represent total populations, to embody the national will. Secondly, they are not usually centralised organisations, but rather looser ‘amalgams’ of local and functional bodies. Thirdly, unlike parties, which are generally organised to compete against other parties in an electoral arena, congresses have an ultimately more ambitious or ‘aggressive’ strategy, directed at systemic change, and they employ a wide range of ‘techniques of popular pressure’. In failing to recognise this distinction, she maintains, earlier treatments of the ANC misrepresent the compulsions that prompted its historical development.
Neame borrows her conceptual distinction between parties and congresses from Hodgkin, but she builds upon his ideas. Neame, for example suggests that congresses ‘arise typically in situations in which the modern classes of the bourgeoisie and the working class have not been able to reach maturity’ (Volume 1, p. 2) and hence have been unable to develop their own narrower organisations. Hodgkin’s argument does, in fact, suggests that congresses break up quite quickly into parties – that in West Africa the formation of more sectional partylike organisations did not await the development of industrial classes. Hodgkin’s distinction is mainly about organisational structure, whereas Neame suggests that, at times, congresses themselves can be quite centralised organisations without losing their distinctive character. What is especially characteristic of congresses, she insists, is that they have a ‘non-class’ orientation, which predisposes them towards consensual politics. In the colonial settings in which they emerge, congresses are, ideologically speaking, movements of a ‘bourgeois-democratic type’. By this she means not that they promote bourgeois class interests (1, p. xxv) but rather that they strive for the rights associated with bourgeois democracy. In their efforts to incorporate a mass following, sometimes these rights may extend beyond individual liberties. In South Africa, she suggests, quite early in its history, the ANC could project at times a ‘kind of non-class-cum-left bourgeois-democratism’ (1, p. xx), and indeed, by the end of her history, this more ‘radical mass’ (1, p. xv) orientation had become its default predisposition – structurally determined, as it were. But even in the 1920s, the ANC leader Zacharius Mahabane’s combination of ‘bourgeois-democratism’ with African nationalism enabled him to grasp ‘the importance of worker organisation, though not in a class but rather in a civil rights sense’ (1, pp. 116–17).
These propositions do indeed prompt a fresh reading of the ANC’s history. Neame’s first volume focuses on developments between 1917 and mid 1926, a period that begins with black workers’ protests on the Witwatersrand in 1917 and ends with the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) moving its headquarters to Johannesburg, and, in so doing, decisively joining ‘an unfolding African nationalist movement, standing at the side of the ANC’ (1, p. 506).
Not geared to the conquering of state power (1, p. 18), Neame maintains, congresses’ own embodiment of an alliance or a united front predisposes them to a politics of negotiation with the government. Hence from an early stage in its history ‘the “round table” and national convention found a key place in the conceptions put forward by the ANC’ (1, p. xvii). Mahabane’s proposal in 1923 for a constitutional convention, and his bill of rights, put the ANC on a strategic pathway that it adhered to through its history. As she puts it, ‘by 1923, the ANC had found its political location, which it was to maintain effectively from then on’ (1, p. xxi), a location that would generally confine it to performing a particular ‘historical function’ (1, p. 11).
Given this orientation, the ANC leaders, including ICU principals, paid considerable attention to the political opportunities engendered by the ‘national framework’ of the state’s high politics, attempting to seek influence and alliances within this setting. In the 1920s, they did this at a time in which ruling group’s policy preferences remained inchoate: in particular, prime minister Herzog’s uncertainties about the developmental path South Africa should follow shaped the ‘vacillations’ in the strategic thinking by African leaders in the mid 1920s (1, p. 420). Because at this juncture, before 1926, Herzog was prepared to ‘take into account’ (1, p. 379) the views of ‘black Africanders’ (1, p. 265), both ICU and ANC leaders were ready to call on African voters to support the Pact coalition of Afrikaner nationalists and the Labour Party in the 1924 election. The structural looseness of this era was also evident in the behaviour of white labour. In her commentary on the 1922 strike, Neame argues that ‘white workers were not yet incorporated’, and that the ‘relationship between white and black was still largely open ended’. Even after the strike, possibilities remained for ‘the emergence of a united front between white and black’ against ‘big finance’ and mining capital (1, p. 244). A more competitive capitalist development oriented to domestic consumption, favoured at that time by the forces lining up behind Herzog, might have opened up opportunities for black political leverage, Neame suggests. In this setting, the ANC’s promotion of consensual politics was cannier than it is usually depicted.
The narrative in Volume 1 is mainly directed at unfolding the development of the ICU, which Neame insists should be considered as ‘a wing of the ANC itself’, notwithstanding its organisational autonomy. That was how it was perceived by its own leaders and the ANC’s, with the latter body viewing the ICU’s Clement Kadalie as a kind of ‘departmental head’ (1, p. 440). In fact, though, as she shows, through its early history the ICU was divided in its orientation and, as she later concedes, ‘existed in part outside the framework of nationalism’ (2, p. 12). Originating in the Cape and finding its base among relatively skilled and partially enfranchised black and coloured dockworkers, the ICU’s Cape-based leadership sought to build a ‘radical democratic’ workers’ organisation, resisting the ‘African nationalist thrust’ of Kadalie and Transvaal-based leaders, an ideology that would increasingly resonate with the ICU’s membership on the Rand, a constituency of migrant labourers and domestic workers, ‘“blanket Kaffirs” on the mine and farms’ (1, p. 511). The enlistment of this group as the mass base for African nationalism, she argues, was the ICU’s most important achievement, an achievement underrated by treatments of the ICU that underplay its urban activities, she thinks. It was important, she argues, because, in bringing to the ANC a popular constituency, it helped to counter-balance the influence on its leadership of a conservative right wing that might otherwise have enmeshed the ANC into narrow sectional ‘petit bourgeois’ reformism. Kadalie’s own background, Neame maintains, helped to foster egalitarian predispositions that made him stand out from the offspring of rural proprietors who generally predominated in Congress leadership, and he would retain ‘reservations about African nationalism’, despite the ICU’s ‘gravitation’ towards the ANC (2, p. 12). Neame is able to argue this with considerable authority, drawing upon her interviews conducted nearly 50 years ago with Kadalie’s contemporaries; in particular, she underlines the importance of Presbyterian evangelicalism in nurturing his outlook (1, p. 127). In contrast to historiography that projects the early ANC as an ‘elite or middle class organisation’, Neame maintains, the ANC, through the ICU, really did function as a mass movement for much of the 1920s.
The already stately chronology becomes very gradual indeed in the second volume. This is almost wholly focused on the ICU’s development between 1926 and 1929. Treatment of the ANC is quite cursory by comparison. For example, both organisations held important conferences in 1927. The ANC meeting in July elected J.T. Gumede, freshly returned from Moscow, and for a while appeared poised to shift leftwards. This event is discussed in a short paragraph. By contrast, the ICU’s conference that same year, interesting chiefly because of what it did not do, receives a 17-page analysis. Indeed the first three chapters, nearly half the volume, are about the ICU’s ‘vacillations’ as it is pulled towards ‘reformist’ moderation by the ‘Rand-based liberalism’ (2, p. 7) of the multiracial Joint Council movement and anti-Communist British social democracy. Just why these agencies were able to exercise such compelling influences in the late 1920s was a reflection of the way in which Herzog’s government oscillated between different interest groups. Until 1929, Neame explains, when he decisively shifted his strategic orientation ‘away from the small men of the towns to the farming community’ (2, p. 2), prospects remained for a ‘reform type trajectory’ as ‘even Herzog had not gone over to the camp of reaction’ (2, p. 101).
This setting helps to explain the ICU’s expulsion in 1927 of the 100 or so communists who had joined it, despite the apparently friendly relations the ICU’s leadership maintained with the Communist Party (CP), which indeed printed its newspaper for free. Expelling the communists was partly a reaction to the discontent within the ICU’s Johannesburg following over Kadalie’s venality: the ICU communists were concentrated in Johannesburg. But really, even without such sources of irritation, the ICU/CP break was inevitable. The party, itself undergoing ‘bolshevisation’, wanted the ICU to be something that it could not be: a structured workers’ entity. In resisting such prescriptions, Neame suggests, ICU leaders were more in tune with ‘actual historical conditions’ (2, p. 207), which favoured rather the ‘essential spontaneity of mass movement’ (2, p. 205).
This ‘essential spontaneity’ of the organisation’s following is very evident in Chapters 4 and 5 of Volume 2, when the organisation’s efforts to extend its support among farm workers triggered a near insurrectionary revolt among sharecroppers and labour tenants. The ICU’s rural agents tended to view these people as ‘workers not peasants’, misunderstanding their defensive resistance to the changes introduced by government and the farmers themselves. Neame’s argument was that this was not a proto-proletarian revolt but rather a ‘struggle for the land’, which was ‘directed against the consolidation of a modern capitalist segregation system’. In parts of Natal, in those areas adjacent to the Zulu reserves, the threat ‘to the existential basis of the tribe was a key to participation’ (2, p. 359). At the same time, though, it was hardly traditionalist, given the antipathy between the rebels and the senior chiefs (2, p. 348). Neame suggests that Kadalie, in his own egalitarian and communalist conception of ideal land relations, was intuitively closer to understanding its spirit than both the ANC’s sometimes ‘relatively substantial landowners’ (2, p. 396) and communist land nationalisers (2, p. 317).
The movement varied regionally, though, in its following and aspirations, and here Neame relies heavily on Helen Bradford’s work, though she is critical of Bradford’s assignment to the movement of ‘a certain socialist-cum-“class” colouring’ (1, p. 12), a misunderstanding, she insists, of its ‘historical function’ (1, p. 11). To be sure, the ICU’s rural mobilisation was radical, but it was ‘essential[ly] nationalist’, syndicalist maybe, but not really socialist. And in
the absence of any co-ordinated organisational framework, it fragmented quickly into personal fiefdoms, most tellingly in the Natal Midlands, where its networks became incorporated into the land purchase schemes launched by Kadalie’s powerful deputy, A.W. Champion. Kadalie’s visit to Europe in 1927 supplied the opportunity that Champion needed to try to impose upon the ICU his own ‘shopkeeper perspective’ (2, p. 402), a predisposition that put him at odds with the conservative ‘Kholwa’ gentry, who predominated in the provincial ANC, and with the promoters of any ‘radical democratic type of peasant democracy’. Neame’s treatment of Champion is an especially telling instance of her skilful incorporation into her argument of richly rendered biographical analysis of big men. ‘Historical personalities’ merit such attention when the social forces that shape movements are inchoate, she suggests, for in such settings they can exercise decisive influence (1, p. 17). But really, as she acknowledges, the ICU’s tragedy was predetermined by bigger considerations than the behaviour of its leaders, and its main achievement, she believes, was to serve as a historical signpost, its mythologised memory inspiring future mass rebellions of ‘an African nationalist kind’ (2, p. 535).
At that stage, though, any efforts at mass rebellions were being instigated by communists, not nationalists. In contrast to earlier analyses, Neame is less critical of Comintern’s treatment of the South African Communist Party leadership. It was ‘correct’, she thinks, for Moscow’s officials to emphasise the necessity for communists to work within the ANC and for Comintern to order the dissolution of the League of African Rights, which Bunting and his supporters viewed as a substitute for Congress. On the other hand, Comintern also fostered a ‘sectarianism’, which had the effect of alienating the Congress ‘centre’ and strengthening its right wing. The party’s alliance with the ANC’s president, J.T. Gumede, had the effect of ‘disembowelling’ the movement (3, p. 20). Any ‘provocatively radical’ (3, p. 43) efforts to construct a militant united front with the ANC were premature and failed ‘sufficiently to take into account the actual relation of forces’ (3, p. 43) within Congress. From 1930, in a broader political context in which the reduction of liberal space (3, p. 62) helped to weaken the Congress centre, conservative leadership would throw the movement ‘out of balance’ (3, p. 45). Under Seme’s presidency, predisposed to courtship of what Seme called the ‘ruling nobles’ (3, p. 67), the ANC ‘ceased to function as a national political body’ (3, p. 88) – indeed Sylvia Neame struggles through the 1930s to find much evidence of any ANC activity at all. She does discern a surprisingly wide spectrum of Congress politicians (3, p. 60) engaged in land purchases, a disposition that may have been encouraged by the ANC’s ‘strong tendency’ to ‘function within’ the terms of the 1936 land and franchise legislation (3, p. 122). In effect, through this decade the ANC made little progress in ‘establish[ing] its historic claim to leadership of the African people’ (3, p. 128).
Neame’s treatment of Alfred Xuma’s presidency is more favourable. She views the ANC’s adoption of the Atlantic Charter as a welcome return to ‘left wing bourgeois democratism’ (3, p. 164), and she believes that Xuma’s constitutional reforms facilitated the ANC’s later transformation into a popular movement in the 1950s. Xuma’s dislike of mass militancy was shared quite widely within Congress leadership – through the war, Congress centrists still believed that white liberals in politics and industry supplied pressure for reform, and indeed liberal agencies provided the ANC with funding. In a setting in which many communists preferred to ‘bypass the task of African national liberation’ (3, p. 299), Neame suggests that Xuma’s ‘basic anti-communism’ was explicable. She herself is critical of the party in this period, acknowledging that its leadership was ‘caught on the wrong foot’ (3, p. 206) by the mineworkers’ strike. She also supplies an illuminating discussion of the party’s disagreements about how black trade unions should be organised.