Governing the people: the slide into totalitarianism

Matthew Kruger and Francis Antonie | Nov 12, 2015
The recent statement by President Zuma that the ANC, not the country, comes first is not just, or only, an ordinary political assertion that the ANC is best suited to govern the people. It is also a conceptual claim that without the ANC there cannot ‘be’ a country; it is a claim that rests on foundations that are essentially totalitarian in nature.


‘I argued one time with somebody who said: “The country comes first”, and I said, “As much I understand that, I think that my organisation, the ANC, comes first”’. These are words of President Zuma, uttered during his speech at the KwaZulu-Natal ANC provincial conference, held at Pietermaritzburg over the weekend of 7 and 8 November 2015.

Many commentators, analysts and political parties have jumped on these words. Some focused on the President’s oath of loyalty to the Constitution. Others said that the President, if forced, would place the interests of the party above the state. Similar points were made about how the Constitution comes first in cases of conflict between party and state interests; the President, it is claimed, does not understand his responsibilities. Others were a little more dramatic, saying that the statement insulted all South Africans and that the President should be ashamed; they argued that the President’s mindset allows for abuses of power contrary to the interests of citizens, that he is unpatriotic and that and his words evidence autocratic ambitions on the part of the ANC. [1]

The ANC has responded, claiming that the President was quoted out of context. The context of this statement is considered below. Before attending to this, however, it is worth exploring the legal implications of this statement, should it reflect the President’s political ideas and should it be representative of how he has actually acted since taking office.

Remember, remember, the eighth of November?

When assuming office as President, Mr. Zuma took an oath. As President, he is obliged, inter alia, to act ‘to promote all that will advance’ South Africa and ‘devote [himself] to the well-being’ of South Africa. [2] The President’s statement, out of context at least, constitutes and evidences a breach of his duties. This is essentially the point of various commentators and political parties. Less noticed, though, is the fact that this statement—if it accurately reflects what he said—may constitute and evidence treason.

In South Africa, a person can commit treason in a number of ways. Most relevant to this brief (or, more accurately, to the President) is whether the President has acted ‘with the intention of unlawfully impairing, violating, threatening or endangering the existence, independence or security of the state’. [3] There are a number of parts to this definition of treason, but only one is at issue here, for the others (on the quoted statement) are satisfied. (The President has breached the duties he owes to the state, so he has acted unlawfully. And, in admitting to and deliberately preferring the interests of the ANC over the state’s interests, it seems that he has intentionally acted to impair, violate, threaten or endanger the interests of the state.) The only issue to consider is whether the interests implicated by his unlawful and intentional actions concern the existence, independence or security of the state.

There is not that much that can be said on this issue, for the apparent subordination of the ‘well-being’ of South Africa and the disregard of his duty to ‘advance’ South Africa obviously impair, violate, threaten and endanger the existence, independence and security of the state. First, when the state is totally exposed to control by interests other than its own, it is clear that its existence is threatened. Where either external or internal interests totally determine the actions of a state, it is stripped of its sovereign status, an essential feature of statehood. Second, where interests other than the state’s determine how government acts, the state cannot be characterised as independent. Third, the security of a state encompasses more than protection from war. It includes the political, social and economic well-being of the state and its people. So, where the actions of the government prefer the interests of the ANC to those of the state, these aspects of state security are impaired, violated, threatened and endangered.

If all that the President said was that the ANC, rather than the country, comes first, it would be difficult to avoid the conclusion that the President is guilty of treason. It would also be strange that more has not been made of this fact. It is likely, however, that the reason for this silence on an act that is technically still punishable by death is that most commentators and political parties know that the President said much more: there was a context.

What did the President actually say?

Before criticising the President, we must ensure that we know what he actually said. We must consider the context of the statement that the ANC, not the country, comes first. We must also do our best to understand what he was actually trying to say. Little good comes from deliberate misrepresentation of ideas with which we disagree. So, in what context does the President say that the ANC, not the country, comes first? He says:

If I believe that I belong to the most powerful organisation, called the African National Congress, I have won the battle and I have won the war. Because at the end, it is the ANC. And I argued one time with somebody who said: ‘The country comes first’, and I said, ‘As much I understand that, I think that my organisation, the ANC, comes first’. Because those people, if they are not part of the ANC and there was no ANC, they could be misled, they could be under yoke of oppression forever. You need a conscious organisation with clarity to take the people to a destination. Not just a people. The people without a revolutionary organisation, they can be in trouble, like many who have been in trouble. It is the organisation, it is the collective leadership, it is the united leadership. [4]

Whilst this statement is not exactly clear, when the President’s assertion of ANC-priority is read in context, the case for treason cannot be sustained. It is also less clear whether he intentionally breached his loyalty to the Constitution, places the interests of the ANC above the state, insulted all South Africans, is unpatriotic, and is willing to abuse power and act contrary to the interests of citizens. This is because the President seems to mean one, or perhaps both, of two things.

To explore the two possible meanings, in the next section the President’s statement is compared to a famous statement made by Lenin. In doing so, we tease out the meaning of the President’s statement and we identify some of its conceptual, political and moral problems.

Understanding the mindset of a Marxist revolutionary

In late November 1920, Lenin delivered a speech at a party conference in Moscow. During this speech, he famously defined communism as follows: ‘Soviet power plus the electrification of the whole country’. [5] 

This is an interesting definition, for at least two reasons. First, ‘soviet’ can mean ‘council’, in the sense of an elected body that represents a small community, or ‘citizen’. Both meanings suggest that communism is grounded in the will of individuals. Second, Hannah Arendt has noted that the definition omits ‘the role of the party’ in soviet—that is, politically democratic—rule. [6] On this definition, the party may be important, essential even, but it exists as an instrument of the people. Of course, we know that Lenin’s successors were unable to separate the democratic idea that ‘The People Shall Govern’ from the undemocratic idea that ‘The Party is the People’, that is, the idea that the party is not just an instrument of the people but is synonymous with the identity and existence of the people. We also know the consequences of this ideological commitment.

Why is this history relevant? It is relevant because the comments of the President, quoted above, reflect a similar tension between democratic and undemocratic ideas.

On the one hand, he thinks that ‘the people’ require political organisation before they can escape the ‘yoke of oppression’, be it the yoke of poverty or the yoke of existing unjust structures and distributions of power. In this sense, what really matters is ‘the people’ and their being politically organised in a form chosen by them, which form enables them to achieve actual freedom. Unless the people ‘first’ organise, the thinking goes, there is no meaningful sense in which we can talk about a ‘country’. Perhaps this is what the President means when he says that ‘his organisation, the ANC, comes first’. 

If so, the President does not mean that the ANC’s interests trump the interests of citizens. On this interpretation, the President has not been disloyal to the Constitution, he has not placed the interests of the ANC above the state’s, he has not insulted South Africans, he is not unpatriotic and he has not demonstrated a willingness to abuse power and act contrary to the interests of citizens. Rather, like all politicians, he thinks that organisation in the form of a party is necessary before goals can be achieved—in his words: ‘You need a conscious organisation with clarity to take the people to a destination. Not just a people.’—and he thinks that the ANC is the best party for achieving these goals. In short, much of what he says is campaign rhetoric; and, importantly, the rhetoric is in democratic terms. In the words of the Freedom Charter, he is simply saying that the ‘People Shall Govern’ and that the ANC is here to represent the People.

As stressed above, however, we must read or listen to people in context. The President, tellingly, also describes mere membership of the ANC as victory in a political war. Further, before saying that the ANC comes first, he says that ‘at the end, it is the ANC’. Later, in a way that is similar to the idea that ‘at the end’ what matters ‘is the ANC’, he says that it ‘is the organisation, it is the collective leadership, it is the united leadership’. The type of organisation and leadership that he has in mind—that ‘it is’—is a ‘revolutionary’ one. 

To conceive of politics as war, requiring a perpetually revolting party, and to think that the ANC is the ‘Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last’, is to think in a way that is essentially totalitarian.

Unsurprisingly, it was the EFF that most clearly understood the President’s comments, for it too has a Marxist revolutionary mindset. So, the EFF is mostly right that the President’s statement ‘is testimony that we are heading for dictatorship and the death of multiparty democracy, because it means they are prepared to become a one-party state’. The EFF’s comment, however, is not entirely right because the ANC (assuming that the President reflects its ideological commitments) is not just ‘prepared to become a one-party state’. Rather, because it cannot conceive of the state without the party—that is, without the ANC—it already believes that South Africa is a one-party state.

Understood in this way, we can see that the President’s statement that the ANC, not the country, comes first is not just, or only, an ordinary political claim that the ANC is best suited to remove the ‘yoke of oppression’. It is also a conceptual claim. It is a claim that without the ANC there cannot be a country. Instead, by definition, there would be a disparate mass, wandering aimlessly through life, always under the yoke of some kind of oppression. Like those who followed Lenin, the President does not separate the democratic idea that ‘The People Shall Govern’ from the essentially totalitarian idea that ‘The Party is the People’. 


That the President’s statement is rooted in an ideology that ultimately leads to totalitarianism—which, of course, is not to say that we are anywhere near this stage now—is obviously reason to be worried. Indeed, we know what happens when rulers announce: ‘L’Etat, c’est moi’, and we also know what happens when political parties think themselves to be the beginning and the end; when they privately believe and publically announce that they are the people. 

Like Lenin’s successors who should have studied more closely his definition of communism, the President and the ANC must read more closely the Freedom Charter. For the ANC to arrest its slow but steady ideological slide into totalitarianism, it must return to its roots. It needs to remember that ‘only a democratic state, based on the will of all the people’ has legitimacy, for ‘no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of the people’. It must remember its declaration, ‘for all our country and the world to know’, that only a party chosen by the people can truly act in the interests of the people. And, it needs to remember that democracy is rooted in ‘self-government’, that political parties are instruments of the people, and that the people, not the party, shall govern. It must remember, for time is running out.


Matthew Kruger
Legal Researcher

Francis Antonie

[1] See
[2] Schedule 2 of the Constitution.
[3] S v Banda 1990 (3) SA 466 (BGD)
[4] This is a personal transcription of a partial recording of the President’s speech. The recording can be located at:, last accessed on 11 November 2015. 
[5] The speech can be found at:, last accessed on 11 November 2015.
[6] Hannah Arendt, On Revolution (Penguin Books, London 2006) 65-6.