ANC membership numbers – what significance?

Many political observers were stunned when President Jacob Zuma announced at the recent National General Council that ANC membership numbers had dropped substantially, by some 37%, since the Mangaung conference of 2102. This was followed by a flurry of statements aimed at explaining that the figures announced did not actually signify a drop. It should be noted that the Mangaung figures reflected a ballooning of ANC membership in provinces noted for their support for Jacob Zuma. Ranjeni Munusamy reports in the Daily Maverick: “From 2010 to 2012, KwaZulu-Natal, for example, went from 192,618 to 331,820, Free State from 41,627 to 121,074 and Mpumalanga from 46,405 to 132,729.”

How much weight should one place on membership numbers? It depends what membership signifies. It depends on the type of organisation and the challenges it faces and the tasks it sets out to perform.

What are members in the ANC today expected to do and contribute? It goes to the heart of the question of what type of organisation the ANC is in 2015. When one answers that one can say what size membership is desirable for the organisation and what qualities need to be instilled in order to achieve the organisation’s goals. Numbers in themselves do not signify that an organisation is powerful or functions well, or that it has influence or manifests its presence effectively.

The membership is there to contribute in various ways towards achieving the goals of the organisation. That may be the constitutional duty but what is the reality? To what extent can we say that individuals become members of the ANC to further its constitutional goals and to what extent are there other motives that lie behind joining? Certainly evidence shows that objectives unrelated to the ANC’s supposed political vision might be achieved through membership or holding office within the ANC.

The current mass membership of the ANC is a relatively new phenomenon although a large membership is not unprecedented. It has not always been possible to have a large membership and in some contexts it has been undesirable, given the conditions under which the organisation operated.

When the ANC was formed, in 1912, it was a relatively small group of people and although it did engage in some mass activities in its early years it was much smaller than organisations like the Industrial and Commercial Workers Union (ICU) and the Garveyites. Right up until the late 1940s and the 1950s particularly, the ANC was a fairly small organisation.

Nevertheless over its first 40 years it established a cultural presence within communities and in many families. Many considered themselves members even though they had not taken out membership cards. There were families who considered themselves to “be ANC”. When some were asked to take out membership cards they responded, “but why do we need cards? We are ANC”. One can see this familial element when the late ANC leader, Wilton Mkwayi records how his father posted him an ANC membership card. This illustrates an insufficiently documented aspect of ANC history, that is, its presence as a cultural factor within families and communities, something that may still persist as a reason for its support in some areas.

When the ANC became a mass organisation in the 1950s it required specific qualities from its most dedicated members, those who were willing to devote their lives to the struggle, known as “defiers of death”. It demanded some level of discipline, especially non-violence during the Defiance Campaign of 1952. In the Congress of the People campaign that led to the creation of the Freedom Charter from 1953 to 1955, members had to collect demands from people, hearing what type of South Africa they wanted to see. They were instructed to act with humility and collect or write down these demands, whether or not they agreed with what was said.

To achieve these goals a large membership was then required. In other contexts in the period of danger, it was essential to have a small membership. If one wanted to operate in secrecy, the greater the numbers the more likely the unit would become known.

When the ANC was banned in 1960 it had a fairly large membership, probably around 50,000 from a high of 100,000 in 1952. It was difficult in these conditions of illegality to make a smooth transition to effective underground work. Many people were reluctant to break the habits of legality and they continued to wear ANC uniforms. Even in underground cells some of the necessary habits of clandestinity coexisted with those from the period of openness. Thus some members of underground units kept minutes of meetings, a hard won skill but obviously inapplicable when records would become evidence on which members could be prosecuted.

In consequence of this difficult and sudden transition, the ANC could not immediately and successfully transform itself into an underground organisation. Those who became involved, including most of the top leadership, were either arrested or forced to continue activities from exile by 1966.

When the ANC set about recovering from its banning, there was a need for slow rebuilding of the ANC (and SACP, for many of these units were organised by its ally, the SACP) as underground structures, entailing patient discussions with potential recruits in order to be sure they were suited for dangerous work that could lead to prison, torture and death.

Not everyone who was an ANC or SACP member had been arrested or went into exile and some of these veterans, like Albertina Sisulu, Elliot Tshabangu and others helped build the underground that later came to interact with the new generation who rose in revolt in 1976. People like Joe Gqabi, for example, later assassinated in Zimbabwe, had many discussions with some of the emerging young leaders. The ANC did not cause the 1976 uprising but because it had a presence, however limited, it was able to interact with and provide some advice to the youth, where needed.

Unlike the present, for much of the period of illegality joining the ANC and SACP entailed risks. Outside the country, the risks were obviously greater if based in MK camps or in Dar es Salaam and later Lusaka, but there were also bombings and killings in “safer” places, as with Dulcie September in Paris. Inside the country, there was generally a very limited average lifespan of an underground and MK unit and a strong likelihood that a person who was recruited would be arrested, tortured and jailed, if not killed, as was the case with Looksmart Solwandle Ngudle, James Mdluli and Ahmed Timol.

In joining the organisation and knowing what fate might befall one, the cadre needed to be fortified in order to face this danger. A gun and military training were insufficient. One needed to internalise this willingness to risk one’s life and wellbeing and face the probability of capture and potential death.

That meant that something more than an intellectual understanding of theories of liberation was required. One also needed the sense that one’s own life merged with the plight of the people whose cause was being taken up. This unity of understanding and compassion strengthened the resolve of those who risked this work, especially when captured. Obviously not everyone lived this out, but that sense of connectedness strengthened many who were able to hold out under very difficult conditions.

Joining the ANC and SACP obviously carries very different meanings for many people in the period after 1990. Membership has been open and obviously there have been few dangers. While opportunities for reward were minimal in the period of illegality, there are now opportunities for enrichment in various ways, through fair and foul means.

Joining the ANC now means something very different. It has become depoliticised insofar as there is no systematic process of induction of members into policies and principles of the organisation. And if there were to be, it would require interrogation of what weight ideas from earlier periods – for example that of National Democratic Revolution (NDR) – ought to carry, if any, in current conditions.

Now there is very limited political discussion beyond who should be elected to what position. This has meant, with the vast expansion of membership, that it is unlikely that many new members are well versed in ANC political principles. Indeed, we may also ask, how much significance is attached to ideas and ideology in the politics of the ANC in general. To what extent have ANC concerns now become focused almost exclusively on who gets what and who is allied to whom for purposes of enrichment?

References to “selfless service” may have been true of the organisation at an ealier period but that certainly is not asked of members today. One of the reasons why there is some vibrancy in politics outside the ANC-led alliance, without necessarily endorsing everything that is done in the current student protests and in organisations like Abahlali baseMjondolo, is that the ANC has become decadent. Its statements lack credibility. It has lost compassion for its base constituency. In that situation anxiety over lost members does not relate to fearing loss of momentum in achievement of transformatory and democratic goals. Rather, the alarm is over whether a candidate can garner enough of the “voting fodder” in contests relating to distribution of positions and other benefits.

Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website His most recent book is Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner and he blogs at

[This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:]