There was a time when the African National Congress and Sinn Féin were bruited as progressive or even revolutionary forces by the bulk of the left, and equally vehemently repudiated as repugnant men of violence by most of the right.
Thirty years ago, our side used to stage sit-down protests outside South Africa House and went on Troops Out marches. Their side flounced around in ‘Hang Nelson Mandela’ T-shirts and ensured that Gerry Adams could only be heard on television if his voice was overdubbed by an actor.
Nobody would then have imagined a situation in which the ANC was established as South Africa’s ruling party, while Sinn Féin had transformed itself into a probably permanent coalition partner in Northern Ireland.
Nor, come to that, would either socialists or Conservatives have believed it possible that the ANC would head a government that tolerated the continued economic domination of the mining houses and the slaughter of striking miners, or that Adams and Co could come to terms with partition, shake hands with the Queen and happily sign up to orthodox neoliberal economic policy prescriptions.
Nobody who isn’t crazy would seek a reversion to the bad old days in South Africa or the Six Counties, of course. But all the same, clearly something unexpected happened in the intervening period, and it is worth the left’s while to figure out the hows and whys.
I have recently finished two books from two veterans of the struggles that attempt to do just that: Andrew Feinstein’s After the Party: Corruption, the ANC and South Africa’s Uncertain Future and Tommy McKearney’s The Provisional IRA: from Insurrection to Parliament. The clue to their contents are, in both cases, implied in the second half of the titles.
Feinstein campaigned against apartheid, admittedly as a concerned white liberal from a privileged background rather than as a black activist from the townships, and went on to become an ANC MP. It is obvious from some of what he writes that he admires many aspects of the New Labour project.
McKearney, on the other hand, is rather more obviously the real deal. He is a former senior member of the IRA and a participant in the hunger strike campaign. He is, moreover, an avowed Marxist.
But what both men have in common is a determination to document the process by which the prospect of high office succeeded in sterilising many people who were once ready to put their lives on the line for the cause in which they believed.
Feinstein’s is the more tragic tale, detailing the ANC’s AIDS denialism and support for Mugabe, and a series of arms deals in which a number of the leaders of the prolonged fight against white supremacism ended up pocketing large sums of cash from the likes of BAe. Some of the bribe money even made its way to the leadership of Umkhonto we Siswe.
‘Some within the ANC and the country believe that both Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma are tarnished goods and that to move forward requires someone unsullied by the past few years of excess, autocracy, arrogance and deceit,’ he avers. ‘I agree with them.’ As a result, he took a principled decision to terminate his political career.
Although the fingers have not been in the till to anything like the same extent in Northern Ireland, McKearney is nevertheless trenchant in his critique of ‘[t]he new sectarian state, entrenched and extended by the Good Friday Agreement’, which has been ‘based upon limited cross-sectarian social relations deriving their character and power from an alliance between cross-sectarian political entrepreneurs, a new cross-sectarian middle class, civil service and bureaucratic elite.’
What we see in both instances is that those the ANC and SF purport to serve have somewhere along the line been wiped out of the equation.
Yet neither book fully highlights the context of three decades of generalised ideological erosion, in which not just the ANC and SF, but forces as diverse as the Labour Party, Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and the Partito Comunista d’Italia have lost any claim to radicalism they may once have possessed.
Until – or more likely, unless – the left rediscovers the sense of purpose that once drove it on, the ideas of the right will continue to rule, whichever party implements them. And that will be to the detriment of those we claim to represent.