The Presidential Years

By the time the ANC assembled in Bloemfontein (later renamed Mangaung) in December 1994 for its first national conference after the election, eight months had passed since it took office as leader of the Government of National Unity. That was time enough to set the scene for debates that would continue over the coming years to recast the liberation movement’s strategy in the new conditions. It was time enough for the first flush of victory to be tempered by the impact of entry into government.

It was natural that the NEC’s political report presented by Nelson Mandela should trace the vast distance travelled since the ANC’s founding conference in the same city 83 years before. It was natural that the report should touch on the debates about negotiations and conclude that the ANC had been correct to make the strategic shift which brought about the Government of National Unity. The overriding question was how to advance from that bridgehead and see to it that having gained office, the ANC had the capacity to bring about social and economic change.

It was a conference like no other before it. In Mandela’s words, delegates were

… converging from Union Buildings and Tuynhuys; from parliament and regional legislatures; from ministries and provincial governments - as the majority organisation in the first ever democratically-elected government of our country. We have converged from the shop-floor and informal settlements; from places of worship and learning; from urban and rural areas; as business-persons and professionals - African, Coloured, Indian and white - a microcosm of South African society.

For the first time in the history of our country, we have under one roof, sharing the same vision and planning as equals, delegates from every sector of South African society, including those who hold the highest offices in the land. This in itself vividly captures the qualitative change our country has undergone: a dream fulfilled and a pledge redeemed.

That pledge, made in this mother-city of the ANC 83 years ago by yet another representative gathering, was to transform South Africa into a non-racial and democratic society. As we meet in the environs where they planted the seed, we can proudly say to the founders: the country is in the hands of the people; the tree of liberty is firmly rooted in the soil of the motherland!734

After contestation around two senior positions (National Chairman and Deputy Secretary-General), Mandela was re-elected as President with a new and mainly younger team of officials (Thabo Mbeki (Deputy President), Arnold Stofile (Treasurer-General), Jacob Zuma (National Chairperson), Cyril Ramaphosa(Secretary-General) and Cheryl Carolus (Deputy Secretary General). This marked continuing generational change from the likes of Walter Sisulu and the late Thomas Nkobi. Some stalwarts on the previous NEC such as Harry Gwala, Govan Mbeki, Andrew Mlangeni, Albertina Sisulu, Albie Sachs and John Nkadimeng did not avail themselves for nomination, while others had been appointed to bodies of state which precluded them from political party leadership and activism.

In his closing address, (unscripted but taking into account inputs from advisers in discussion the night before), Mandela reflected on how remarkably different the conference had been from earlier conferences during his time which had been marked by tension and conflict as they debated decisions which changed the character and direction of the ANC

The ANC has held many national conferences in its history. One of these was the 1949 Conference, which was held here in Bloemfontein. That Conference was the closing of a chapter and the beginning of a new one. The Conference produced what later became known as the 1949 Programme of Action. That Programme was the brainchild of the ANC Youth League. We called that body a youth league, even though some of its leaders were forty years and above. It was a strategic plan which, by the standards of those days, was most comprehensive. The Programme changed the character and outlook of the ANC. It called upon our people to resign from all apartheid institutions, like the Native Representative Council which was established in 1936 for Africans; the Bunga, which was supposed to be the law-making body of the Transkei; and the District Councils Advisory Boards. The Conference called upon our people to resign from all these. It urged the employment of weapons of struggle, like general strikes, stay-at-homes, boycotts, protest demonstrations, defiance campaigns. It sought to transform the organisation from one which drew its leadership from the elite to one whose leadership represented all sections of our people.

The 1952 Campaign for the Defiance of Unjust Laws, in which 8,500 people defied certain laws, were arrested and sent to jail, that was the result of the implementation of that 1949 Programme of Action. … A programme of this nature led to heated debates in the 1949 Conference of the ANC, because some of the leaders of those days were never prepared for mass action, to say nothing of arrest and imprisonment. There was a great deal of controversy, heated discussions and even insults. ...

Then there was also the 1955 Congress of the People, attended, like this Conference, by 3,000 delegates. They came from a wide range of organisations: political, labour, religious, cultural, sports bodies, and they came together and passed and adopted the Freedom Charter. Thereafter, the ANC held its own conference, in order to adopt the Charter. Again, there were tensions and conflicts - serious differences. …

The present Conference is remarkably different ... For one thing, this Conference has confounded the prophets of doom who predicted that the leadership would be roasted by delegates for neglecting the concerns of its constituency and concentrating on reconciliation. They said that the leadership would be attacked for the way they had mismanaged the affairs of Umkhonto we Sizwe. They told the country that there would be fierce battles for positions, and that some leaders would be toppled. Contrary to such predictions, delegates here during these last five days have shown an unprecedented degree of unity.

One of the dreams of every national organiser, and indeed of every member of the ANC, is that from every conference, especially a national conference, the organisation should emerge … more motivated, more united than ever before. That is what we have achieved in this Conference. Four top officials were returned unopposed. The rest - that is, two of the officials - were elected with massive majorities, demonstrating the supreme confidence in the integrity and ability of such leaders.

Throughout five days delegates realised and appreciated the historic mission of the African National Congress and that the organisation will discharge that mission only if delegates approach issues before conference with a high sense of responsibility and discipline. Like several conferences before, this one was also a mirror image of the new South Africa we are building, from both the ethnic factor as well as the gender question. …

And for the first time in our history, delegates discussed, not resistance, but reconstruction and development. No more did we discuss subjects like the suspension of the armed struggle, like negotiations, which were hot issues in the last National Conference. Our delegates were concerned with implementation of the RDP, bettering the lives of our people. The level of discussion was very high and the concerns of people on the ground - the building of a better life for all - formed an important part of the agenda.738