The African National Congress of South Africa is still celebrating its centenary. As political organisations in Africa go, this is an astonishing and significant milestone. The long life of the ANC and its continued relevance in South African politics differs remarkably from that of political parties on the continent. In many ways, the ANC exemplifies the difference in fortunes between liberation movements and political parties.
Liberation movements that took up arms against foreign rule have largely survived and remain unchallenged in power even when they have not always lived to their promise. There are, for example, the classical anti-colonial movements: Front for the Liberation of Mozambique (FRELIMO), the Popular Movement for the Liberation of Angola (MPLA), the South West Africa People’s Organisation (SWAPO) in Namibia and the National Liberation Front (FLN) in Algeria.
Then there are movements that fought post-independence dictatorships and injustices, such as the National Resistance Movement (NRM) in Uganda, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) in Rwanda and the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front in Ethiopia.
Both the anti-colonial and post-independence movements have shown remarkable resilience, adaptability and survival instincts, often in the face of daunting challenges, including hostility from some of the most powerful countries.
The same cannot be said of political parties that led many African countries to independence. Many of them, like in most of West Africa, have disappeared into oblivion. Others, for example in most of Eastern and Central Africa, continue to splinter into unviable fragments. Across the continent many more have been on their death beds for so long that they stand no chance of being nursed back to health.
Why is there this difference in fortunes?
Part of the explanation lies in what Oliver Tambo (RIP), President of the ANC during the time it was banned in South Africa, said of his organisation.
“Our alliance is a living organism that has grown out of struggle. We have built it out of our separate and common experience”, he said.
He was saying that the nature of struggle gives liberation movements time to learn lessons at every stage on the way, time for the different tendencies to coalesce around a common programme, and the opportunity to manage dissent and criticism. The duration also means that there is ample time to bring the people – not just leaders – together in a common cause.
Oliver Tambo distinguished the ANC from regular political parties when he suggested that the latter often represented more the interests of leaders than those of the majority of the people.
This is a position shared by the Ugandan journalist, Andrew Mwenda. He has expounded on the notion that political competition in Africa is largely an arrangement about how the elite share power and privilege, and not about delivering public goods. Whatever differences exist among the political class are merely a reflection of how they see their interests can be better served.
And so whenever there is a disagreement about how to share the spoils of power, there is a likelihood of party break up. Individuals perceiving themselves to be aggrieved leave and form their own party, which in time also breaks up for similar reasons. Alliances are formed and as quickly broken. We have seen a lot of this in the East African region in the last decade or so.
All of this shows that in the first place political parties were not formed to advance particular programmes beneficial to the whole country but to specific individuals or groups.
It also shows that most of our party, even national, politics are personality driven. That has been the undoing of most of them.
Of course, there is the argument that post-independence political parties got to power too soon, before they developed a democratic culture, even internally. As a result, they developed intolerance to differences of opinion, which in turn led to two things: silencing dissenting voices or those with divergent views leaving the party.
That may be so. But the same argument can be extended to liberation movements. The only difference is that the latter have a more disciplined way of handling divergence of views – which does not lead to break up.
All this is not to say that it has always been plain sailing within liberation movements. They have had bumpy rides, too. There have been internal divisions and external threats. Corrupt and power-hungry individuals and groups exist. Disenchantment has often set in. But these are organisational hazards. Part of the strength of an organisation is its staying power and how it manages these hazards.
So, yes, there are many reasons to celebrate the ANC’s centenary, not least its long life and the example it has set. The ANC and other liberation movements have lessons for political party organisation. It may be worth the while of those interested in political competition to pay attention to them.