Intolerance in the ANC comes back to haunt it

2013-09-29 10:00

“First they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a communist. Then they came out for the socialists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak out because I wasn’t a trade unionist. And then they came for me and there was not anyone left to speak for me.” – Martin Niemöller

I watched with a mix of horror and vindication as an ANC mob howled down former ANC leader Smuts Ngonyama at the heritage celebrations in Mdantsane on Heritage Day.

If you think about it, the hooliganism may well be the only memorable thing about the day.

ANC leaders desperately pleaded for “inhlonipho (respect)”, to no avail. The most telling comment about the loss of authority in the ANC came from Eastern Cape Premier Noxolo Kiviet, who could be overheard saying: “Andikwazi ukubanqanda (I cannot stop them).”

And so she decided to join in the singing. Talk about the tail wagging the dog. That was the only thing that seemed to quieten the crowd.

You should know you have a crisis of authority when leaders must mimic their followers to be effective.

I use Niemöller’s quote for a reason.

There was a time when decent men such as Ngonyama went along with the intolerance during Thabo Mbeki’s years – yes, history tells us nothing comes from nowhere.

Those were the days in which the ANC leadership used intellectual bombast, backed by state power, to strike fear in the hearts of men and women.

Remember that lot? They strutted the political stage like peacocks at the height of their power.

To be sure, and I have to say this, I never sensed any intolerance on Ngonyama’s part. That is precisely the reason why, as Niemöller suggests, he should have spoken out then.

I am not suggesting he deserved the rude treatment but only that those who are silent in the ANC now should know that this will come back to haunt them too.

There is, of course, a qualitative difference between the intolerance of the Mbeki years and the mob rule on display in Mdantsane – which I also experienced at a public debate in East London with Frank Chikane not long ago.

At least Mbeki’s people showed, or pretended to show, a degree of sophistication.

But Jacob Zuma’s ANC engenders another kind of shame. Our real political culture is now on full display for the world to see – in all its vulgarity.

The rainbow nation has lost its shine, and those of us who knew better are beginning to say: “See, we told you so, the intolerance in the ANC runs deep, very deep. Go back to the 1980s in this country, and you will see what I am talking about.”

As the mob shut down Ngonyama, I found myself uttering an impolitic question, to no one in particular: “Are these the guardians of our democracy? It can’t be.” But the reality is that they are, for they belong to the majority party.

Mind you, this is not a bunch of illiterates.

Among them you will find teachers, nurses and professionals of all types.

If they can treat someone like this at a public rally, why should they treat pupils, patients and citizens differently in their respective workplaces?

There will be denials that this is not typical of the ANC, but some of us have been shut down too often to buy that. Why, you may ask, do we have this kind of roguish behaviour? The answer lies in one of the great contradictions of our times: the paradox of freedom and democracy.

For decades we fought for freedom, and as our “rendezvous with victory” approached, we became emboldened enough to demand majority rule. But the word “democracy” rarely passed our lips.

The word became an appendage to our first “democratic elections”. We just never discussed it or educated ourselves about its meaning, values and institutional requirements.

When freedom came, the leaders spoke about economic growth and service delivery, and a better life for all. There is no sillier slogan than that.

Who doesn’t want a better life, after all?

But it will be the buzz for the next six months as the party seeks yet another endorsement so its leaders can continue feeding at the public trough.

The only people who spoke about democracy were international institutions and the ANC’s white liberal friends. Despite its denunciations of liberals, no organisation gained greater liberal support in the 1980s than the ANC.

But the liberals had at least enjoyed a semblance of democratic institutions under apartheid.

They were the ones who spoke about the essential foundations of democracy – the rule of law, the existence of a free press and a vibrant civil society – then and now. And what did we talk about in the “black world”? Service delivery and a better life for all! That became the full extent of our political vocabulary, and now the chickens are coming home to roost.

The great danger, of course, is that our stomachs may be filled but no democratic institutions or culture will be left.

That is what happens when a political party surrenders itself to the mob to win internal party elections and national elections.

Soon such a party exhausts itself because the citizens, like those anywhere else in the world, are soon turned off by the mob.

»?Mangcu is an associate professor at the University of Cape Town

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