African National Congress Research Paper

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The origins of the African National Congress (ANC) were a conference of black South African notables assembled in 1912 to protest impending legal restrictions on African land ownership. Until the 1940s, the ANC remained decorously circumspect: lobbying, submitting memorandums, and relying heavily on white liberal intermediaries. During World War II (1939–1945), the ANC began to build a mass membership structure and attempted to mobilize popular support by contesting local “advisory board” elections in black townships. By this time, several of its leaders were also members of the Communist Party. Communists had initially concentrated on winning white worker support but switched their efforts to blacks in the 1ate 1920s.

Within the ANC, both communists and a group of young self-professed “Africanists” who formed a Youth League helped to influence the ANC to embrace more aggressive tactics. It adopted in 1949 a “Program of Action” calling for strikes, boycotts, and civil disobedience as means toward a goal of African “self-determination.” The ANC’s radicalization coincided with the accession to government of the (Afrikaner) National Party (NP). In power, Afrikaner nationalists began to tighten and extend racial segregation policies. In practice, the NP’s apartheid policies sought to confine black participation in the urban economy to unskilled and semiskilled labor.

The Communist Party was banned in 1950. Thereafter its members would work within the ANC. Communist influence as well as older liberal traditions instilled by the Methodist schools that trained most African political leaders ensured that although the ANC itself remained an exclusively African body, it defined its program on a broader basis. It sought allies in the Indian Congress movement, founded in Natal by Mohandas Gandhi in 1894, and in 1952 encouraged the establishment of a Congress of Democrats for white sympathizers. The ANC’s Freedom Charter, adopted in 1956, referred to a democratic future in which all races would enjoy equal rights. In 1952 a “Defiance Campaign” against new apartheid laws failed to win any concessions but succeeded in swelling membership to 100,000. Six subsequent years of mass-based militant resistance helped to convince a number of ANC principals, including its patrician but popular deputy president, Nelson Mandela, that the organization had exhausted the available options of peaceful protest. A breakaway movement, the PanAfricanist Congress (PAC), formed in 1959 as a more radical alternative. The Pan-Africanists emphasized African racial identity and criticized the role of the Communist Party in “watering down” the ANC’s nationalist predispositions. In fact, the Communist Party’s influence was most evident in the mild socialism of the Freedom Charter. In 1960 the PAC committed itself to resisting the pass laws. In Sharpeville on March 21, outside Vereeniging, police were confronted by a crowd of five thousand people, and the tense standoff culminated with the police firing and killing eighty. In the national tumult that followed, the government banned both the PAC and the ANC. The ANC reconstituted itself underground and in 1961 formed an armed wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation). In 1963 Umkhonto’s high command was arrested and most of its members sentenced to life imprisonment for their leadership of a sabotage campaign.

For the next thirty years, under the leadership of Mandela’s close professional associate and friend, fellow ex–Youth Leaguer and attorney Oliver Tambo, the ANC would base itself in Dar es Salaam and Lusaka. Only in the mid-1970s could it begin rebuilding its clandestine organization in South Africa. In exile, the ANC strengthened its alliance with the Communist Party, and in stages between 1969 and 1985 it opened its ranks to whites, Indians, and coloreds (in South Africa, any person of mixed racial descent). Survival in exile required discipline and authority, and communist organizational models were influential. Today, Leninist tenets of “democratic centralism” remain in the organization’s constitution. After 1976, ANC guerrillas succeeded in attracting public attention with bold attacks on symbolic targets. So-called armed propaganda brought the ANC considerable public support both in South Africa and internationally, though Umkhonto’s campaigning hardly represented a serious military threat to white security.

Meanwhile a charismatic cult developed around the imprisoned leaders on Robben Island, especially Nelson Mandela. Mandela’s stature was a key factor in achieving for the ANC the degree of recognition or acceptance it enjoyed outside communist countries: By the late 1980s meetings between its leaders and Western statesmen served to underline its status as a government in waiting. The military command structure controlled the destinies of most of the refugees who joined the ANC after 1976. In this part of the organization communists were especially powerful.

However, around its foreign missions and its own educational establishment the ANC began to foster a group with administrative and technical skills, many of its members the recipients of U.S. and western European higher educations. Members of this group began to develop policy blueprints for a post-apartheid liberal democracy. From within this community the ANC also began to make the first cautious moves toward a negotiated settlement in the mid-1980s, a process in which Thabo Mbeki, the head of the ANC’s directorate of international affairs, was a principal actor. Separately, from inside prison, Nelson Mandela began his own program of meetings and conversations with senior government officials and cabinet ministers. In February 1990 the South African government repealed its prohibitions of the ANC and other exiled organizations.

Ironically, the ANC’s development over thirty years as a virtual government in exile was the key to its successful reentry into the domestic terrain of South African politics. The international recognition it received brought with it the financial resources needed to build a mass organization in South Africa of unprecedented scope and sophistication. This organization would not only absorb the exile “liberation bureaucrats” and returning soldiers but also bring together a variety of movements that had developed inside South Africa during their absence, including some of the homeland-based political parties and the vast federation of civic bodies led beginning in 1983 by the United Democratic Front.

Between 1990 and 1994 the ANC played a decisive role in negotiating a fresh constitutional dispensation. After elections in 1994, Nelson Mandela would lead a transitional Government of National Unity in which the ANC would share power with its old adversary, the National Party. The ANC won successive electoral victories in 1999 and 2004.

In power, the ANC’s market-friendly economic policies, encapsulated in the GEAR (Growth, Employment and Redistribution) program, have reflected leadership concerns about retaining and attracting investment capital. The rewards of economic liberalization have included increases in GDP (currently around 3.5%) and a measure of white support especially after former National Party leaders joined the ANC and Thabo Mbeki’s government in 2003. The government has also been successful in promoting a black business class. The ANC’s continuing popularity is probably more a consequence of expanded access to pensions and grants. More equitable provisions are unlikely to guarantee that the ANC will hold its political base for very much longer. Free-market policies have failed to check social inequality or unemployment. After more than a decade in office, the ANC today is sharply divided by a conflict over who should succeed President Mbeki. This division reflects deep disagreements between right and left over policy.


  1. Callinicos, Luli. 2004. Oliver Tambo: Beyond the Engeli Mountains. Cape Town, South Africa: David Philip.
  2. Davis, Stephen, M. 1987. Apartheid’s Rebels: Inside South Africa’s Hidden War. New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press.
  3. Lodge, Tom. 2004. The ANC and the Development of Party Politics in Modern South Africa. Journal of Modern African Studies 42 (2): 189–219.
  4. South African Democracy Education Trust. 2004. The Road to Democracy in South Africa, Vol. 1 (1960–1970). Cape Town, South Africa: Zebra Press.
  5. Walshe, Peter. 1970. The Rise of African Nationalism in South Africa: The African National Congress, 1912–1952. London: C. Hurst.

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