Anton Lembede. Picture: ANA
Anton Lembede. Picture: ANA

Anton Lembede, the architect of SA’s first ideology of African nationalism

By Siyabonga Hadebe Time of article published Feb 6, 2020

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Pretoria - This piece explores the life and contribution of Muziwakhe Anton Lembede. 

Lembede was the first president of the African National Congress Youth League (ANCYL). Just like Cetshwayo who did not agree with his father Mpande or Makana who refused to be associated with the legacy of his father Ngqika, Lembede comes from a generation of young people who did not appreciate how their fathers approached the subject of the liberation of blacks in South Africa. These young Turks were Oliver Thambo, Jordan Gumede, Ashby Mda, Nelson Mandela and Walter Mda.

When discussing Lembede, one is compelled to put forth a resounding argument that the closest the ANC has ever attempted to be a true people’s organization was in the 1940s and early 1950s when these young and radical leaders emerged into the political scene. And Lembede was right in the centre of this drastic change. As a result, he is described as “the principal architect of SA’s first full-fledged ideology of African nationalism,” but he left the world too soon. Many of us ask how would the South African struggle for liberation have shaped out had he lived longer, and or possibly survived to lead the ANC. 

Founded in 1912, the ANC was an organization of enlightened blacks who worshipped the English crown. These educated black landowners were stumped for nought when the British decided to leave them out when they established the Union of South Africa in 1910, which consolidated the interests of Europeans.

Following the two massive European settler wars, sometimes called the Anglo-Boer wars, the English and Voortrekkers (or Dutch descendants) decided to come together to create a state that we today called South Africa. The new state was going to be built on the lands forcibly stolen from Africans and run on the labour of Africans. The country’s wealth was extracted to benefit European capitals, and this phenomenon continues to the present.

Notwithstanding these realities, the ANC elites were always hopeful that the British were going to change their minds and also include them as part of the locally-groomed ruling class that was going to help London to run the ‘jewel of the British crown’ (that is how South Africa was known for its wealth, diamonds and gold). To reaffirm its place as Britain’s most prized asset abroad, this part of the world produced the greatest diamond ever found at Cullinan mine outside Pretoria. The glittering jewel proudly seats on the queen’s head today, both figuratively and in reality. Extraction of gold and diamonds was going to define South Africa’s racial and economic character going forward.

At the same time, hardcore Afrikaner nationalists were determined not to exist under the shadow of the English whom they did not trust. But the ANC elites had faith in the English even when they were clearly losing out to verkramptes, politically-speaking at least. Not everyone in the ANC was blind to this. Younger party members were growing impatient with their leaders who believed in non-racialism when signs were all over that whites were moving quickly to consolidate their power to the disadvantage of blacks. 

Lembede and his colleagues witnessed the Nationalist Party (NP) win elections in 1948 - their triumph was not a surprise as some historians maintain. This was a confirmation that whites were absolutely not interested to share power with blacks. The young Turks challenged the ANC “to be more active and to set aside gentle debate.”

Lembede is said to have been inflexible and rejected the idea of welcoming white liberals. His ideas later found life in Mangaliso Sobukwe and maybe also in Bantubonke Biko. ANC’s negotiated settlement with apartheid generals close to 40 years after Lembede’s death is said to have been more like a spit on his grave and his legacy. 

Lembede was a problem to the establishment, this could explain his mysterious death in 1947 at the tender age of 33. His death did not stop his comrades from pushing for reforms within the ANC and motivated for militancy, but things were not going to be the same. 

Every resolution of the ANC started with statements like, ‘We pray the Minister… We humbly request…’ The ANCYL’s radical approach argued, according to Thembile Ndabeni, “the time for the-hat-in-hand approach and begging the Whites were a thing of the past.” They pushed hard for a militant Programme of Action which was duly adopted by the ANC in 1949. It called on the ANC “to embark on mass action, involving civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts and other forms of non-violent resistance.” The Programme of Action was necessary after the NP won elections. The issue of non-racialism was still contested nonetheless.

For others like Mangaliso Sobukwe, Potlako Leballo, as they felt that the ANC was still not radical enough and that it kept close ties with white communists, who had helped to draft the Freedom Charter in 1955. They objected to the substitution of the 1949 Programme of Action (a brainchild of Lembede and company) with the Freedom Charter. They eventually launched the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) on 6 April 1959 at Orlando Communal Hall in Soweto. The PAC wasted no time and organised a campaign against pass laws on 21 March 1960 in the townships of Sharpeville and Langa. Scores of people were either killed or injured when police opened fire in Sharpeville. The PAC prioritized land and saw South Africa as a land of black people, but the ANC followed another trajectory of non-racialism and declaring that South Africa ‘belonged to all who live in it’.

For refusing to embrace the Freedom Charter, Sobukhwe and his comrades were arrested and later convicted for incitement. Realising that the PAC (and ANCYL) posed a serious threat to its rule, the National Party Government banned both the ANC and PAC on 8 April 1960 and imprisoned all their leaders. The PAC responded by founding its own armed wing, the Azanian People’s Liberation Army (Apla). Upoqo Akalahlwa, the old guard in the ANC then under the leadership of Chief Albert Luthuli still maintained a straight face and pretended that it was in control of the black people’s struggle for liberation. 

Luthuli was honoured by the ‘international community’ with a Nobel Peace Prize in 1960 for the “nonviolent struggle” against apartheid. Strangely, apartheid was not dead, but Luthuli was awarded a prize for punching whites with kiddies’ gloves, which Die Transvaler described as “an inexplicable pathological phenomenon”. Nonetheless, Luthuli had already realised that the young lions, either within and without the ANC, were moving at a faster pace. For example, he publicly burned his “dompass” during the state of emergency which followed the Sharpeville massacre. 

Luthuli was also arrested for the act of public defiance by the apartheid state. Of great significance during this period is that Boere nationalism was at its peak, and patience with Luthuli and his fellow liberal blacks had worn very thin, possibly for their failure to contain African nationalism and radicalism. 

Immediately after Luthuli received his Nobel Prize, the apartheid government “cut ties” with Britain to declare South Africa a republic in 1961. The truth is that granting the ‘’wrong people’ independence was an act of treachery by London to spite the African majority rather than the sheer political brilliance of the verkrampte Boers. 

In 1965, Ian Smith pulled the same stunt by declaring Rhodesia an independent country, but he was stopped in his tracks many years later. The 1960s was a period of Africa’s decolonisation but independence in South Africa and Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) was given to the settler community to protect British economic interests. Blacks could not be trusted with power and this view still stands to this day. Presumably, the black majority did not have a strong capitalist class which could be trusted, as Moeletsi Mbeki argues in his book ‘Architects of Poverty’. 

The transition from the Luthuli generation to the younger leaders was seen as a bigger threat by the Colonial Office in London. Two significant things had to happen: allow Boers to declare independence from Britain and imprison young ANC leaders. Nelson Mandela, who was part of the radicalised younger ANC militants and many of his comrades were thrown in jail. The ANCYL (maybe not so much the mother body, the ANC) and PAC posed a bigger problem that had to be quickly exterminated before the black population also became too radicalised as occurred 15 years later when students protested in 1976.

The role played by external parties in destroying black nationalism cannot be ignored. A former US diplomat who was working as a spy for the CIA revealed in 2016 that he was responsible for an apparent tip that led to Mandela’s arrest in 1962. 

The white government had lost patience with upper-class blacks, Luthuli and his generation particular because they had failed to “soften” younger generations to believe in the tamed liberation struggle. Luthuli was first banned then killed on July  21 1967. His lengthy ban, which was a clear sign of Boere/ English aggression, obviously upset the ‘international community’ which had honoured him. While banned, he was also visited by US Senator Robert F Kennedy in 1966 at his home in Groutville, north of Durban. Kennedy himself was slain in the US a few months thereafter. Swedish PM Olof Palmer was also killed many years later for failing to understand the game that was being played on South Africa. 

The South African economy has always been predominantly in the hands of the English, thus Britain did not trust Africans that they will protect their wealth, especially with the insurgence of the radicalized PAC and ANC’s youth formations. Furthermore, South Africa was at the centre of global economics which was still on a gold standard: there was no way that the black race could be responsible for safeguarding the wealth of the world. To this day, it is still difficult to comprehend for many people why the South African struggle took very long to end. The answer to this is that South Africa has always been directly linked to world politics, and of course it's economy. Apartheid was much bigger and broader than it is always described. 

Nevertheless, the destruction of the radical black generation took two forms, if not three: jail, prison and death. But there was another important element, the 'divide and rule strategy' which was aimed at giving certain privileges to some members of the young Turks. The likes of Mangosuthu Buthelezi in Natal and Mathanzima brothers in the Cape were molested to accepting the homeland system. Whereas, Oliver Tambo and others were accepted to settle in England as exiles. On his part, Mandela was slowly being convinced to accept “coexistence” with whites, as he radically shifted from militarism to adoption of a negotiated settlement.

As for the rest of the people who believed in the armed struggle and violent opposition to apartheid, they were dealt with harshly. Poor people were kept in military camps and also fed communist doctrine, while leadership was being slowly taken away to drink hot tea in Westminster, and Grote Schuur. Of the much younger generation which included the likes of Thabo Mbeki and others in exile, like Mandela in “prison”, were amenable to the peaceful end of apartheid. No wonder Mbeki’s pamphlet on land reform still argued for non-racialism and not so many reparations to compensate Africans for losses and brutality. He said in 2018 the ANC was “no longer a representative of the people of South Africa. Rather, as its former President, Jacob Zuma, said, it is a black party.”

True to what Lembede, Sobukwe, and others like Thembisile Hani (and Winnie Mandela in Soweto as well as Harry Gwala in prison) protested because they believed that blacks did not depend on whites to attain political freedom. These individuals were either brutally killed or were placed on the peripheries of the project for building a 'rainbow nation' in the 1990s which still ensured the white privilege and control of the economy, including land and other resources. The truth is that it did not take even two decades to kill the revolutionary spirit or eagerness to fight in South African rebels. 

Besides isolated incidents of insurgency by both MK and Apla, armed struggle was the biggest failure against armed-to-the-teeth apartheid forces. These armies were never going to defeat the apartheid forces. Slowly the PAC disintegrated and Apla was squeezed out. The ANC became desperate in refugee camps in Angola, Zambia and Tanzania, as well as in Uganda. Just ask the likes of Kebby Mphatsoe what really was going on. These were desperate times. Had apartheid continued for another decade or two, the ANC would also have died in exile, or all its epic leaders would have all perished behind bars. 

However, there is a narrative that the ANC actually died in exile, and was resuscitated by white capital. White capital was preparing itself for globalization. The ANC that returned from exile was going to give power on condition that it would not disrupt South Africa’s reintegration to the Western political sphere of influence. This is the same capital that went abroad to negotiate with the ANC and later showered it and its leaders with gifts like buildings (Shell House), houses, money and high positions in companies. The Urban Foundation was set up in 1977 by Harry Oppenheimer and Anton Rupert to groom black leaders that would later run South Africa while ensuring that the interests of whites. People Wits professor Patrick Bond has written on the Urban Foundation and how its neoliberal agenda influenced policy in the post-1994 period.

This means that the economy was going to be left intact, and the country would immediately accept neoliberalism (Washington consensus and the World Trade Organization (WTO) without question. Neoliberal economic policies were adopted besides the reality that the black majority was living in dire poverty and inequality was rife as a result of apartheid legacy. Hence, American author Naomi Klein characterized the South African transition from apartheid to democracy as ‘a democracy born in chains’. To this day, the ownership structure of the economy has not changed, and there is inequality, unemployment and poverty. 

Even with this as proof that blacks got a raw deal from the negotiated settlement, the racial character of the South African economy is vigorously being denied by some within the ANC. The heated debate during the 2017 policy conference on whether ‘white monopoly capital’ exists or not needs to be understood within a specific context. Gauteng, among others, remained resolute and argued that there was no such thing white monopoly capital. The ANC lost an opportunity of dissecting the intersection of race and economics at the conference. This was deliberate because individuals were carefully chosen to defend the status quo. This is not anything new but comes from the past.

On the other hand, leaders of the PAC were not so fortunate – many died in a desperate state. For example, the then forgotten PAC’s JD Nyawose of Natal died a poor man in 2003 after spending all his life in Geneva, Switzerland. He did not even get a provincial funeral after KZN party leader Joe Mkhwanazi tried to convince certain people that a liberation hero had fallen. Many years later state funerals were given to young footballers and others, a move which is not surprising considering how the ANC has generally treated the PAC since it took over the government from whites. Many of the PAC fighters still languish in jail. Former APLA prisoner and now MP Kenny Motsamai in 2019 appealed to President Cyril Ramaphosa to “give our people general amnesty because they are there for the right cause, they were fighting for liberation.”

It is clear that the period between 1940 and 1961 was about ‘sanitizing’ South Africa.  The politics was ridding the country of its revolutionary characters. Whites were therefore only concerned about diluting aspirations and revolutionary ideals of Africans. After ensuring the death of the Lembede generation, both figuratively and in reality, the ‘international community’ favoured a 'civilised' form of the struggle with the exaggerated United Democratic Front (UDF) as its champion. The idea of a ‘broad church’ was not meant to be inclusive as such but to silence radicals within the ANC. Priests, whites and others hijacked the struggle for liberation from the black majority. It is quite common to hear people comment these days that the struggle was won with the assistance of a civil movement, but its character remains as mysterious as the Save South Africa campaign of recent years.

The blacks in South Africa missed a great opportunity to free themselves in the 1940-1960 period. The adoption of the Freedom Charter meant a diversion and distraction from what the likes of Lembede had started. It is at this point also that it became clear that South Africa would not have its own version of the Battle of Pigs like Fidel Castro’s Cuba in 1959, or at least a Chimurenga as in Zimbabwe. A (national democratic) revolution without an armed struggle was always going to end in the present-day South Africa, where blacks are landless and poor. And, the economy was always going to remain an exclusive domain of whites.

Since then the real state capture and annihilation of a revolution became the order of the day, democracy born in chains! 

During apartheid, white businesses had stashes of cash that they desperately wanted to invest elsewhere. Immediately after the lauded ‘political miracle’ occurred, large corporates like Anglo-American, Old Mutual and SAB left the 'new' South Africa. If they were so genuine in their efforts, why did they turn their backs on something they help create? Oppenheimer and friends had done a sterling job in convincing the ANC that Washington consensus-inspired macroeconomic policies were the only way, viz. flexible exchange controls, floating currency, privatisation, etc. Their wealth was safeguarded. 

A negotiated settlement never saved South Africa from a bloodbath, but it was planned many years before the unbanning of liberation movements. Therefore, South Africa’s sheepish political miracle was never meant to free the black majority but to entrench the dominance of white capital through whatever means possible. The so-called peaceful settlement's sole aim was to keep South Africa in the hands of whites, and within the West’s political sphere. This task became much easier with the demise of the Soviet Union in the beginning of the 1990s. The “miracle” was celebrated with South Africa being allowed to host and lift the Rugby World Cup and admittance to the WTO both in 1995. Former president Nelson Mandela, who many thought was an icon of rugby until the real boss Luis Luyt hauled him before a court, hoisted the trophy aloft and the revolution was gone. The web trap was set many years before. 

The 1949 Programme of Action rather than the Freedom Charter should have been a South African revolutionary bible, perhaps. There is nothing revolutionary in the Charter but it merely diluted the political aspirations of blacks to get their land back. Our forefathers Cetshwayo, Sekhukhune and others did not fight to get a seat in parliament or in the board of directors of a company. But fought against foreign dominance and to protect their land. One is yet to find a country where its majority are paupers in the land of their birth, and a small minority controlling even the air they breathe. The country is said to be facing unemployment, poverty and inequality. Truth is, this explains the conditions the black majority lives in. Non-racialism has brought tears, pain and suffering: this is an agenda to keep blacks at the bottom of the national hierarchy of race. Lembede was right to reject cooperation with the white communists.

It is for this reason that Lembede wrote, “Africa is a Black man’s country, Africans are the Natives of Africa and they inhabited Africa, their motherland, from time immemorial; Africa belongs to them. Africans are one… The basis of national unity is the nationalistic feeling of the Africans, the feeling of being Africans irrespective of tribal connection, social status, educational attainment, or economic class”. The more we grapple with what we face today, his words ring like a sweet melody. However, blacks are like professional garden boys in suits while serving interests of white capital class, with no shame. Others pretend to be owners of capital when they aren’t. 

With Britain now out of the European Union, it has promised to forge tight links with former colonies. It is back to square one for South Africa and the region. Lembede, Sobukhwe had the right brains to counter the likes of South African Bureau for Racial Affairs which brought South Africa to this entanglement. 

Siyayi banga le economy!

Siyabonga Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, politics and global matters based in Pretoria.

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