This is Freedom

The AIDS activist Zackie Achmat reflects on South Africa’s 5th democratic elections in this interview with Cape Town independent media outlet, GroundUp.

Nelson Mandela Statue, Union Buildings, Tshwane, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa. Image via South African Toursim Flickr CC.

I joined the ANC when I was in prison in 1980. In the 2004 election I spoilt my national ballot by writing HIV causes AIDS on President Mbeki’s face. I voted ANC on the provincial ballot for Ebrahim Rasool and his cabinet who had done a sterling job on HIV. When Rasool was in a coalition govt with the National Party, he was MEC for health. He resisted Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s attempts to delay the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV programme by implementing a pilot programme.

In 2009, I decided to vote ANC after a serious debate. I regret that decision. By that point the ANC had basically destroyed its internal democracy to the extent that there was any party life. It had been invaded by former homeland bureaucrats and opportunists.

To give you an example: Richard Mdluli, who became the crime intelligence boss under Zuma, had been in the apartheid police and had worked with the security police on the repression of activists. That is an extreme example, but in addition to that Thabo Mbeki had based his economic policy on the creation of a black capitalist class and the rapid and dramatic creation of a black middle class. The latter in itself is not a bad thing considering that black people had very little access to education, culture and economic opportunities. But concomitant with that creation of the black middle class was the fostering of crony capitalism based on state tenders.

Now let’s take a step back and look at what elections mean. In any democracy an election is a snapshot of society’s political expression. It is only the expression of those who vote at a particular moment. In our country the vote is one of the most important gains of our democracy. Therefore it is critical that when we discuss whether to vote or not to vote or to spoil our ballot, that we base it on an analysis of what is happening in society.

You say the ANC’s internal democracy has eroded. Is that a sufficient basis for deciding not to vote for them?

No. Let’s first see what the ANC has done. We are celebrating 20 years of democracy. The ANC’s greatest achievement was the 1994 truce between three major forces in society: the forces of liberation led by the working class under the banner of the ANC, the white apartheid state, and corporations. Many people have criticised this as a compromise which has led to a sellout. I can understand why, but you have to understand the balance of forces in our society at that particular time.

The forces of liberation could not destroy the apartheid state. Neither could the apartheid state destroy the forces of liberation. The apartheid state was armed to the teeth and white South Africans remained amongst the most armed people in the world.

The capitalist class was globally in the ascendancy because of Thatcherism and the destruction of the Soviet system which had been the main backer, apart from Sweden, of the ANC. We were in an incipient civil war because the white state included Buthelezi, Mangope and other homeland leaders. The important question here was that they were turning the war into what was called black on black violence. The conflict from 1990 to 94 was the bloodiest in our liberation history. It wasn’t just the massacre at Boipatong, but also the armed Inkatha impis supported by De Klerk.

Had we not made that settlement, let me give you an example of what would not be possible. I once asked a TAC [Treatment Action Campaign] member by the name of Maria in an interview why she loved civil disobedience but still voted ANC. She had lived in Alexandra. She replied, “Because when the ANC took over there was war and now it is a peaceful and nice country.” A critical element of that 1994 truce was the Constitution. If correctly interpreted by the progressive forces of the left, the Constitution creates a qualitatively new moment for taking the struggle for equality and justice forward.

The ANC has also achieved through this a significant moral victory in restoring the political and social dignity of black people. There are many Model C black children and university graduates who never grew up under apartheid and who say the ANC has sold out black people. But for people of my generation and earlier the ending of apartheid established an ineradicable dignity and victory over oppression.

What else has the ANC achieved? There’s been increased access to water, education, sanitation, health-care, shelter and other social goods. One of the most important victories of the working class in SA was the demand by civil society organisations and COSATU for the expansion of the grant system and particularly the child support grant. This grant has avoided a situation where a significant number of people would have gone hungry.

So why not vote for the ANC that has brought us all of this? Let’s start with the 1999 arms deal. It’s mostly attacked for the corruption that involved the leadership of the ANC and multinational companies. However, the most enduring problem caused by it was an executive lawlessness which led to the weakening and in some cases the destruction of independent state bodies such as the Scorpions, the office of the National Prosecuting Authority and above all Parliament. It is in this period that internal democracy in the ANC was destroyed by Thabo Mbeki and his henchmen like Essop Pahad, Alec Irwin and Manto Tshabalala-Msimang.

You blame the arms deal. Do you not think the response to the HIV struggle also resulted in the undermining of these institutions?

The foundation for Mbeki’s success in HIV denialism and the further destruction of independent bodies such as the Chapter nine institutions, had been laid by the arms deal.

Isn’t it historically incorrect to claim that the ANC had true internal democracy?

People treat the ANC as a monolithic body. Unless you lived through the period of the 70s and 80s, it would be hard to realise that the ANC in exile was a divided and weak body kept together by Oliver Tambo and a struggle led by working class youth inside the country. The democracy of the ANC inside the country was a fundamentally different question to what was going on inside the camps and in exile in the ANC.

The most important democratic gain inside the country was the building of the labour movement. To this day, it is still the most democratic part of the tripartite alliance. Therefore in the period 1990 to 1999, there was a flowering of internal party democracy which allowed for the creation of progressive policies. The internal democracy is gone but the policies remain. However, the intention to implement those policies is almost gone too.

Are there any other reasons you won’t vote ANC?

HIV. Local government. Chancellor House, the ANC’s party funding machine. The education system and policing.

But the response to HIV has improved? And the messups with education and policing were made in the early years of ANC rule?

Let’s take a step back. To this days hundreds of thousands of people still die of AIDS every year. Even though new infections have slowed down and life expectancy has increased dramatically, the high number of new infections and deaths is still a legacy of the ANC. To this day, ANC members die and are not open about their HIV status.

The silence of people like Jeremy Cronin, who wrote a few poems condemning Peter Mokaba but never spoke out publicly the way people like Barbara Hogan did, the criminal silence of people like Malusi Gigaba in stark contrast to Zola Skweyiya is a legacy that lives on in issues like the Nkandla scandal. The same silence and collaboration that operated with HIV denialism remains with the struggle against corruption epitomised by Nkandla.

And education?

ZA: To their credit, Zuma and Motshekga ended the policy of outcomes based education, the consequences of which will be with us for a generation or more. However, there are deep class inequalities in education. The vast majority of black working class children continue to face an intellectual dispossession which undermines their dignity, freedom, equality and opportunities to participate in society and the economy. The ANC is in denial about the extent of that crisis and continues to defend [the fact] that there are thousands of pit latrines in schools.

GU: And policing?

This is one the most egregious examples of the failure of the ANC. Reducing crime and creating safe communities is not simply a task for the police. What the struggle for safety in Khayelitsha has revealed is that we have inherited much of the old order. It is capable of committing things like the Marikana massacre which the ANC defends. None of the ministers responsible for the police who were responsible for the massacre have been asked to resign.

So you’ve explained why you won’t vote ANC. What to do instead?

I haven’t come to Nkandla?

What about Nkandla?

Out of deep frustration and anger I would love to spoil my ballot and write “Nkandla” over Jacob Zuma’s face, but the vote is something people have struggled and died for. It is internationally the struggles of the working class that have brought democracy to so much of the world. And that democracy allows us to struggle under better conditions rather than under the conditions of repression which makes organising very difficult. So I am going to use my vote to protest. However, I cannot vote for the Democratic Alliance or any of the parties of the right. I won’t vote for the DA because I believe it’s a party that entrenches division and inequality by exploiting the fears of minorities and promoting the interests of major corporations.

By right, does that include the EFF?

Let me put it differently. The EFF is both a most exciting and most dangerous thing. It shows that young people, particularly young men, who are alienated can be brought into politics on the basis of addressing social and economic injustice and inequality. The danger is that most of the leadership are populists and militarists who rely on slogans rather than the building of concrete knowledge that allows people to contest power.

So who will you vote for?

I am going to cast a protest vote in favour of one of the smaller left parties.

Which ones are you thinking of voting for?

Possibly Themba Godi’s African People’s Convention. People laugh at me and say, “who’s that?” And I say the APC. And people respond “what’’s that?”

Why the APC?

The APC was formed during the floor-crossing time. Like Patricia de Lille, Themba Godi crossed the floor from the PAC, but he has maintained his integrity. He became chair of SCOPA, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts. The beginning of the decline of the ANC was the arms deal and one of the institutions it weakened was SCOPA. It is traditionally chaired by an opposition MP. The ANC imagined if it made Godi chair of SCOPA, it would be able to control him with the offer of goodies. Instead, he has restored integrity to SCOPA by holding departments accountable and supporting the work of the auditor-general. I would like him to be returned to parliament because he has a record of doing good work there.

But you’re not under any illusion that the APC is a serious political force?


What do you think of Ronnie Kasrils and Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge’s call for people to spoil their ballots or vote tactically?

I think the call for a spoilt ballot is a mistake.


One of the problems of South African democracy, also one of the ANC’s failures, is that about 40% of adults didn’t vote in the last election. In addition there was a large number of spoilt ballots. I’m under no illusions. The ANC will still get well over 60% of the vote. Spoiling one’s ballot, even by a few hundred thousand people, will not decrease their majority. Voting for an opposition party will.

There is the impression that most people vote for the ANC out of blind loyalty, that they’re cannon fodder. Is this true?

The argument made by superficial commentators that people vote ANC out of ignorance or race solidarity is wrong. Most people who vote ANC, vote for decent homes, economic justice, water and what the ANC calls a better life for all. Most peoples’ lives are better off than under apartheid. The majority of ANC voters correctly fear a fragmentation of society into competing groups of people on the basis of race or ethnicity. The ANC has been a force that has bound the country together. It is now undermining that legacy. Most young people are not going to vote. And those young people who are going to the vote for the ANC mostly do not want Zuma in power according to a recent poll.

The question of race and vote is very often misunderstood on the left and right. Racial oppression of black people remains a material fact in our society because of class inequality. Until a mass working class party which understands the connection between race, class and gender is formed there will be no alternative for the majority of ANC voters.

So where’s this workers’ party coming from?

South Africa is in a time of uncertainty and promise. The decision by NUMSA to create a united front and to explore the creation of a mass workers party by breaking with the ANC is an important moment. But the danger is the divisions in the working class and their main movement COSATU. NUMSA and its supporters face the challenge of going beyond small left groups and to return to organising a mass based struggle. For me, as I said at the start of this interview, elections are a snapshot of some people’s will. Real democracy is what happens between elections, the daily participation in political, economic and social struggle based on knowledge. I believe this is what we should all turn our attention to over the next decade.

  • This interview is republished here with the kind permissions of the editors of GroundUp.

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