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ANC, Sinn Fein: when radicals move right

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.


  1. Stephen Bell says:

    This is written by a journalist who has no responsibility for, or experience of, government. He has no suggestion of an alternative policy to be pursued by the ANC or Sinn Fein.

    It does no service to Left Futures to publish such a glib and factually inaccurate article. There’s no attempt to come to terms with the ANC government’s efforts to turn the South African economy away from the old colonial powers and towards China. There’s no attempt to engage with Sinn Fein’s practice of promoting the unification of Ireland whilst opposing austerity. Could Left Futures could actually examine these issues?

    “When radicals move right” – perhaps a more appropriate by-line for Dave Osler’s support for NATO’s war upon Libya.

    1. Jon Lansman says:


      I am surprised by the vehemence and nature of your response. You have attacked Dave Osler (rather than what he said, which is itself, by the way a breach of our comments policy) for his lack of “responsibility for, or experience of, government” – since when has that been a requirement for expressing a view? You, of course, have every right to criticise what he says if it demonstrates some lack of understanding, but that is not what you have done. You have also attacked him for his view on a wholly unrelated issue. You have attacked Left Futures for publishing “such a glib and factually inaccurate article“. What you have not done is to make a serious critique of it, nor have you provided evidence of its alleged inaccuracy (I shall return to “promoting the unification of Ireland whilst opposing austerity“).

      Firstly, Left Futures published the piece because I (as Editor) think the transition of both the ANC and Sinn Fein over the last two decades from liberation movements to parties of permanent government (in what is effectively for time being a one-party state in the case of the ANC, and in the context of power sharing in the north of Ireland in the case of Sinn Féin) merits some discussion and debate. This is particularly in the case of the ANC in the context of what has happened at Marikana. I think Dave’s piece is a good opening to such a debate, bringing a taste of the issues raised in the books by Feinstein and McKearney.

      On Sinn Féin, I think a criticism of Dave’s piece is that it is not made clear that he is really talking about the north of Ireland, although that is implied by the fact that he says Sinn Féin has “transformed itself into a probably permanent coalition partner in Northern Ireland”, and McKearney’s book does deal exclusively with the north. If he had been talking about Sinn Féin in the south, it would be quite wrong to speak of Sinn Féin “happily sign(ing) up to orthodox neoliberal economic policy prescriptions“. There is no doubt (as Left Futures has frequently suggested) that Sinn Féin in the South has led the political battle against austerity and deserves great credit for it. That’s less clear in the north. As part of the government they have implemented cuts although (and perhaps Dave will disagree with me) I don’t see much alternative any more than I do in the devolved governments of Scotland and Wales or in local government.

      In fact, Dave’s criticisms of Sinn Féin even in the North are pretty mild. He reserves his main criticisms for the ANC and it is on this that I am particularly disappointed by Steve’s comment because, as it happens, I have been more impressed with Socialist Action’s stance on South Africa in the wake of events at Marikana than almost anything else I’ve read on the subject.

      With hindsight, I do think that the headline was misleading – I tend to stick with authors’ headlines unless I see a strong reason to change it. The article is not so much about radicals moving to the right, as about radicals moving into government. However, commenters do have an obligation I feel to read beyond the headline.

  2. Paul McLean says:

    As Stephen Bell suggests, the Leftwing credentials of David Osler are as usual, vastly over-rated. He makes a good point about Sinn Fein’s democratic and peaceful promotion of Irish unification and opposition to austerity. But it is not clear why the South African bourgeoisie and its attempts via the ANC to realign the economy to China is of itself beneficial to the South African working class.

  3. Tom Miller says:

    Think stuff in Ireland, particularly the South, is too much in flux to really see in full what the currents operating are and what their relative strength is. Sinn Fein has had a relatively consistent left line in the South, but this once again is partly because there is no prospect of government. It is closest to Labour and the trots, but Labour is led by a strongly anti SF faction that descends from OIRA that means that even a relatively close platform at the last election saw them once again faced with a choice between going in with FG and staying out of Government.

    The ideal would probably be a Labour/SF coalition or a FG/FF coalition that leads to one. Both are not really on the table.

    In the north, elements of dodginess over donors, and general business as usual in the Assembly.

    I don’t think there is all that much to say really!

    But I agree with Jon Lansman (and Socialist Action over Marikana).

    In my view, the ANC is too broad to constitute a real political party in the post-Apartheid era. It needs to kick out its neoliberal leadership. If the dynamic between the revolutionary left, black nationalists and social democrats can come good, with the backing of COSATU, there is a real prospect for change here. But it will require a bit of tolerance and internal discipline on the part of the grassroots ANC.

  4. Tom Miller says:

    I should add to the part about Ireland that most of the younger party members of Labour were against the FG deal (and thereby subsequent developments which have aggravated it).

    It will be interesting to see how this develops:

  5. frank says:

    Apologies for coming late to this but this is a very one-sided, and therefore inaccurate piece.

    Northern Ireland remains a sectarian state, which is why Sinn Fein still wants to end it. That’s why Gerry Adams has recently raised the issue of a border poll, which is an advance allowed under the Good Friday Agreement.

    Meanwhile, to prevent it being run on wholly sectarian lines SF participates in a power-sharing arrangement, not a Coalition govt as stated.

    The cuts are of course wholly designed in Westminster. The last Secretary of State said the cuts were non-negotiable. Only SF opposed this and eventually mustered support to have £400mn in cuts restored.

    That does not remove them altogether. If socialists in Britain want to help oppose cuts in Ireland they ought to be campaigning for an end to British rule, the author of the cuts.

    SF would no doubt welcome their support in this.

  6. Terry Burns says:

    Fortunately I was in the 70s & early 80s and continue to use most of ideas gained a supporter (member) of Militant and therefore did not fall under spell of either the ANC or the various Irish Nationalist orgs. In fact as with rest of Militant supporters spent a lot of time explaining how these forces would develop and being attacked for doing so. This is not a – I told you so- comment it is just making an historic point about what is popular is not always right.

  7. Johnreid says:

    Comparing SinnFein to the ANC is discussing the ANC lived in a fascist state where black people were strung up, the worse Catholics got was being treated like second class citizens the ANC blew up buildings killing a few and were prepared to go to jail for it, where they were beaten ,Sinn feinI,R.A killed kids

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