Mandela in Randfontein, South Africa, November 1993. Photograph: Getty Images
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Mandela's power has come: The ANC's challenges in government

While the ANC has spent years bravely resisting apartheid, it has no experience of government. Sarah Baxter assesses the problems facing Nelson Mandela in power.

“The goal of our struggle is in sight, we are now ending one journey and starting another.”

Nelson Mandela, FNB stadium

For 82 years, the ANC has endured banning orders, expulsions, torture and jailings. It has operated in exile and underground. It has organised passive resistance and waged the armed struggle. It has barely had time to learn the skills of legal opposition, let alone government. But, as the votes are being counted in South Africa, it is preparing for power.

Many South Africans have been talking about their fears for the future. Bombs, destabilisation, economic chaos and violence. No sooner did the threat from Inkatha recede, than the terrorist white right has swung into operation. But none of this can detract from the sheer exuberance felt by South Africans who have been able to vote for the first time. For me, Shadrik Moloi, 45, who is illiterate and scratches a living pointing out parking spaces to motorists, put these pre-election nerves in perspective. He told a newspaper in Johannesburg: “My fear is that I won't know how to make my vote. I think I will not know how to make my cross on the paper.” I hope he succeeded.

For now, the vote is all that matters. There are no more whites—only parliaments; and no more tricameral chambers for Indians and coloureds. Everyone has the vote, including Shadrik Maloi. At the Johannesburg Stock Exchange last week, Mandela promised that the years of mass action were over. “It was the action of a community which had no basic rights in this country and no vote. We have now got the vote.” The long-awaited “day of liberation” has arrived, and the years of government are about to begin.

Mandela has not had to prove that he is a statesman. That much was obvious from the day he left prison. But he has conducted the election campaign faultlessly. Wherever he has spoken, in the remote parts of South Africa as well as its urban ghettoes, he has reached out not only to the rapt audiences before him, but to the wider world beyond. He has not been too dignified to poke fun at his opponents, but he has spoken at all times of the national interest.

Could his biggest fear be his own mortality? He has been oddly emphatic in his last campaign speeches that “as long as I live”, white farmers, business people, the money markets and ethnic minorities have nothing to fear. But he is 75. He has survived the brutality of apartheid and has seen it crumble in his lifetime. That is already a remarkable achievement. In due course, the business of government will pass to a future generation.

It is one of the distortions of apartheid that there is a missing generation of leaders, dating from the 1960s, when the ANC was banned. The leader of the ANC in exile, Oliver Tambo, is dead, and many of Mandela's old comrades are near or past retirement age, although they, too, remain active: Walter Sisulu, Joe Slovo, Joe Modise and Ahmed Kathrada. Recognising people's fears about the succession, Kathrada emphasised at a rally in the Asian township of Lenasia last week that there was a “wealth of leadership” in the ANC. Generations to come would be guided by ANC policy, he said. But party discipline is not what it was during the years of jail and exile. Activists have had different experiences of opposition politics; and none of them (whites excepted) has had the vote, let alone power before.

The two frontrunners for the post of deputy president, Thabo Mbeki and Cyril Ramaphosa (if they are not displaced by Chief Buthelezi in the interests of “national unity”), have very different backgrounds. Mbeki, 51, the party's national chairman, went into exile as a teenager in 1961 and spent years representing the ANC abroad. Ramaphosa, 41, the ANC's general secretary, who formed the National Union of Mineworkers and led it into the Council of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), belongs to the new generation of ANC leaders, who learned their politics in the 1970s and 1980s as students in the black consciousness movement and as trade unionists and community activists in the United Democratic Front (UDF). There has been a great debate over whose experience has been more valuable: Mbeki, with his knowledge of life abroad and different regimes; and Ramaphosa, with his negotiating skills and practical experience of modern South Africa.

Tokyo Sexwale, 40, who is likely to be regional premier of South Africa's hub, the Pretoria-Witwatersrand-Vereeniging region, straddles the gap between the old and new guard. He was a black consciousness activist who went into exile in 1975, spent time in the Soviet Union and was jailed for 13 years in Robben Island on his return. He was recently voted South Africa's sexiest politician—not just because of his name—and is capable of charming township militants in Soweto and liberal whites in Johannesburg. Although he was compromised by the discovery of men found beaten in the basement of the ANC's regional office, he has managed to avoid the blame settling on him.

Many other up-and-coming leaders, who are destined for high office, are even younger: Trevor Manuel, 37, the ANC's head of economic policy; Jay Moosa, 36, ex-general secretary of the UDF. Between them, they have led strikes, organised mass action, conducted negotiations and have been detained. But, like everyone else in the ANC, they have no experience of office.

The ANC, however, has a “plan” for government. It is so proud of its plan, otherwise known as the Reconstruction and Development Programme (RDP), and refers to it so frequently, that when I first arrived in South Africa it sounded disturbingly Stalinist. Hadn't the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe had enough failed “five-year plans”? Mandela has been brandishing the ANC's “plan” as though it were the trump card of the entire elections. “We have a plan Mr de Klerk, where is your plan?” he never stops asking the National Party leader. Far from being a Stalinist document, however, the purpose of the plan is to provide hope and reassurance. To Mandela, it is proof that the ANC is fit to govern. It has a “plan”, if not a record in office. It gives him confidence that the ANC can meet its promises.

The National Party has been busily trying to demolish the RDP, drawing on the tactics of the British Conservative Party. Advised by Mrs Thatcher's PR man, Sir Tim Bell, it has “costed” the programme and concluded that it will lead to higher taxes. But Mandela has gone out of his way to soothe the business community. “The economy of our country must be based on sound market principles,” he assured the Johannesburg Stock Exchange last week. “If you look at our programme, there is not a single sentence about nationalisation. There is not a single sentence that is communist, as our detractors claim.” The all-white traders said he left them feeling “mildly bullish”.

While many elements in the ANC remain militant, there is a key generation of young activists, who were radicalised in the 1970s and 1980s, but would now describe themselves as moderate, who are moving into positions of power and influence behind the scenes. Some will be civil servants and advisers to the new regime, whose task will be to ensure that the transition to a multi-racial society goes smoothly; others have already taken up business and management jobs in the multi-national corporations that used to shut out non-whites. They have now been catapulted into senior positions—the new South Africa will be a young society—but they are also pragmatists. Frank Meintjies, 35, a former journalist on I community newspaper in Natal and ex-information officer for Cosatu, has just been appointed to the eight-member council of the Independent Broadcasting Authority, charged with awarding new franchises for television and radio. “People on the left are talking about more managers,” he says, “and that denotes a key mental shift. We used to talk a lot about leadership, which was a fuzzier term that had more to do with platform oratory.” He is worried, however, that in the student movement, the UDF and other collective organisations in which people like him cut their teeth, “there was never any clarity about power and responsibility. One or two People would emerge as leaders because they were more combative. In the past, it was easy to make excuses for mistakes.”

Yacoub Abba Omar, 33, who joined Umkhonto WeSizwe in the 1980s and spent several years in exile before the ANC was unbanned, is now head of communications for Armscor, the acquisition agency for South Africa's defence forces. “Previously, the head of communications would have concentrated on making sure things did not get in the press and promoting the South African arms industry overseas. It is my job to ensure that the industry works in as transparent a way as possible and that it is accountable to elected and appointed officials.” He says firmly that there is little money to be saved from defence cuts, contrary to the claims of many leading ANC figures. In the short term, spending may even rise, as former ANC and PAC cadres are merged with the existing South African defence forces.

Ismail Momoniat, 36, is a member of the ANC's department of economic planning. He, too, is one of the party's new realists. “The collapse of the Eastern bloc has left a huge vacuum for lots of people, but it has meant there is no debate about whether you have the market system or not. You have to send the right signals to the financial markets.” The ANC, he says, will have little choice but to adopt the National Party's existing budget for the year 1994-95. There will be different spending priorities, but the over-all economic framework will remain the same. “We can't launch into big public investments in year one,” he says. Already, the department of economic planning is keeping a wary eye on the spending commitments made by voluble politicians, just like the Treasury or any western finance ministry.

So “responsible” is the ANC determined to be in office that May Hermanus, 33, a former National Union of Mineworkers official and safety engineer, who was headhunted by Samancor, the South African Manganese Corporation, suspects that large employers will end up closer to the trade unions than the government. “I think the Labour movement is going to hit its head against an ANC government,” she predicts. She regards the moratorium on

Strikes called for by the ANC in the run-up to the elections, when civil servants and hospital workers in the homelands began to take industrial action, as a sign of trouble to come. “I don't think the workers are going to stick it for long.”

Hermanus, who was classified as “coloured” by the apartheid regime, says, “My whole life has changed in the past ten years. I can walk the streets, go into cinemas and restaurants and work for a company like Semancor and feel I have something to offer. It's my country, my place and I have a role to play.” But, she adds, “It's scary. I don't feel powerful. I feel insecure and worried. This is the crunch. After all these years of arguing about things, we're actually going to have to make the changes work.”

Nelson Mandela has shown few signs of pre-election jitters, but he, too, must sometimes feel powerless and small. It was horribly clear as guns rang out around the FNB stadium in Johannesburg that he is respected, but not always obeyed. He was furious, warning that the ANC's security guards would be answerable to him for allowing weapons past the gates, and reminding “criminal elements” in the ANC that gun control was a main plank of party policy. None of the “comrades” will have paid any attention.

But, when, as seems certain, he is inaugurated as President of South Africa on 10 May, he will not be alone. There are many others in the ANC who share his ideals of peaceful and steady transition towards a multi-racial society. According to the constitution, he will have to lead a government of national unity, that includes members of the opposition par-ties, until the next election in five years' time. And, for the first time in his life, he will have the power of the state behind instead of against him. The time has come.

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The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times