Liberation from the liberator

2014-05-05 10:00

Two weeks ago, “Comrades” Essop Pahad and Ronnie Kasrils disagreed publicly on how members of the African National Congress should vote in next Wednesday’s election. This moment had long been coming.

The posture of the ANC as a united organisation with robust internal discussion of issues was yet again in question. The disagreement, spilling into the public domain will have a progressively corrosive effect on the ANC’s dominance of South African politics.

One fundamental reason for such corrosion is that South Africa today is no longer what it was in 1994. The ANC has restated this fact to good electioneering effect: “South Africa is today a better place to live in than it was in 1994.” These two statements can go with a third one: all South Africans are no longer who they were in 1994. We have changed.

While South Africa and its people were changing, so was the ANC. If its election statement that South Africa is a better place is generally true, does it also carry the implication that the party, the only national government since 1994, has itself changed for the better? The party would clearly wish the electorate to make that kind of inference.

The fact is in the governance of the country the ANC has become far more corrupt than it has ever been. It has consequently corrupted the country in significant ways. The country is not better run by the ANC than 20 years ago.

A better life for whom?

Much of the decline in its governance has occurred in the last five years.

According to the logic of its own electioneering statement, if the ANC claims responsibility for the “better life” it must also claim responsibility for the behavioural and structural corruption that have taken root throughout much of the country during its 20-year watch as government.

Understandably, the party cannot find it within itself to claim such responsibility during elections. That is why Pahad, Jeremy Cronin, and Jessie Duarte in their attack on Ronnie Kasrils call for electoral loyalty despite much about the ANC that they must know no longer makes any sense. The nub of their call is the glaring irony in it.

“The ANC,” Pahad asserts “notwithstanding serious problems within it, remains the most effective instrument to bringing about fundamental change and transformation in our country in favour of the poor and workers, the continent and international relations.” If it once was, not any more.

Kasrils has a different view. The “rot has gone too deep” in the ANC – a “long series of scandals involving President Jacob Zuma and numbers of senior party and government officials.” He points to the culture of secrecy, and the demise of democratic accountability within the ANC. According to Kasrils, the decline has become irreversible.

With a looming election as background, Kasrils’ message to the electorate is clear: do not vote for any organisation you do not trust, particularly one you no longer trust. He leaves us in no doubt that he will not vote for the ANC on Wednesday.

In its March 25 2014 statement on its “commitment to a corruption-free society” the ANC declares: “Any ANC member or public representative found guilty of corruption in court, will be expected to step down from office, or face firm action from the ANC in line with its constitution.”

In its entire statement, the ANC never mentions the decline in state governance as one of the core indicators of corruption. In fact, the ANC neither refers to governance, nor to the national constitution. The only constitution it seems to recognise is its own.

It is also significant that the ANC recognises only guilt established in a court of law, and accords no importance to moral and ethical values and conduct as a requirement for public office.

Illusion of innocence

In reality, the highest public officer of the ANC, President Zuma, has successfully avoided having his guilt or innocence established in a court of law over hundreds of criminal charges against him. So is the case with some other senior members of his party. They all therefore exist in a state of continuous unproven innocence.

The ANC has become legally and behaviourally adept at defeating the ends of justice. Sustained unproven innocence soon transforms into the illusion of innocence. It is the illusion of innocence that has over time eroded ethical and moral sensibility in the ANC. This condition has become a dominant mode of perceiving reality within the organisation.

It can then be established that for the ANC, the Constitution of the Republic, and the rule of law, are not supreme in terms of chapter 1(c) of the founding provisions of the Constitution. What is functionally supreme is the constitution of the ANC. From the point of view of the ANC, its constitution stands functionally above the national Constitution. By definition, the ANC is more accountable to itself than it is to the people of South Africa.

The combination of the culture of unproven innocence and the supremacy of its constitution over the national constitution indicates an organisation that has installed itself in the place of the nation.

If the ANC is the nation, an entity logically and existentially much bigger than itself, then that nation could never aspire to be more than a smaller part of itself. What is universal then becomes encapsulated in the particular. In that case the universal can only suffocate in the particular, which it actually contains. A nation that allows such a condition has only one fate: death by strangulation.

This speaks to the fundamental contradiction in the ANC’s “commitment” to fight corruption. Corruption is actually embodied in the organisation’s highest leadership. So what it asserts of itself as fighting corruption, is not what it actually does. Yet what it does, engaging in corrupt conduct, is what it has become. What it has become is the reality the ANC, through its actions, seeks to transform the nation into.

Loyal members of the ANC are induced to see corruption everywhere except where it is most visible. The party seems psychologically configured to believe that it is being unfairly criticised, and that the problem is elsewhere and not in itself.

The party is therefore condemned by its own commitment to be blind to its own moral and ethical fallibilities.

This is why the ANC is unable not only to point out a naked emperor, but also to refrain from naming him. His role and status within a culture of corruption are thus sanctified. This allows none other than the chairperson of the party, Baleka Mbete, to proclaim Nkandla a “holy space”.

Denial

Only a president caught in such a space of self-deception can boast that an inter-ministerial commission into state funded upgrades on his private property has absolved him.

In reality, a commission on an issue involving the president and investigated by his own ministers within the “holy space” of corruption is highly unlikely to find fault with him. He then continues to busk in the sun of technical innocence. And so, does his organisation, which has developed something akin to a mass psychology of denial and self-deception.

The ANC’s fundamental weakness is to be found in its inability to acknowledge “the rot” within itself. That is why its election message “a good story to tell” comes across less as fact, than as a postured proclamation of success solely claimed by the party. The psychology at play here is clear: the more “the rot” the more the self-proclamation.

Two consequences follow from this. One is that ironically, the posturing and self-proclamation often detract from the real and truthful achievements of the organisation. Failure to confront “the rot” means too much organisational energy is spent on hiding it than on consolidating success based on honest achievement, which speaks for itself.

The second consequence is for the ANC to be reminded of Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom: “You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you can not fool all of the people all of the time.”

The 20-year history of the evolution of South Africa’s democracy since 1994 speaks to Abraham Lincoln’s wisdom.

In 1994 South Africa’s constitutional public was radically reconstituted. Racially determined since 1948 when apartheid formally began, in 1994 that public became universal for all South African citizens. Since then its own nature has been evolving further. By conviction and sentiment, the voting patterns of the newly enfranchised in 1994 were overwhelmingly predictable in favour of the ANC. The multiplicity of political parties since 1994 and signs of serious fracture with the ANC and with its alliance organisations reflects that the public’s voting patterns are becoming increasingly less easily predictable.

Discerning, rational voters

There has been a slow but definite increase in the number of discerning voters whose choices are driven more by rational assessment than by unquestioning loyalty to received political histories. Received sentiment tends to be less demanding of the political players it supports. It will look away even in the face of manifestly corrupt conduct in the politicians it supports. This is even more guaranteed to happen where party members are behaviourally socialised not to see corruption within their own organisation. Even where they could detect it, they are habituated into tolerating it.

Rationally discerning voters, on the other hand, will tend to be more demanding and more decisive in making new choices. Putting great stock on constitutionality, they will call for constitutionally determined solutions to the conduct of corrupt politicians. The interests of the constitutional common good will drive rational behaviour far more than the sentiment of unquestioning loyalty, which tends to prioritise leaders over the common good.

When Pahad and other leaders of the ANC call on members of the ANC to loyally vote for their organisation despite its deeply corrupted condition, they are habitually invoking a tactical blindness in the service of a condition they are unable to condemn.

The evolution of the constitutional public since 1994 is a condition that the ANC is unable to take credit for, because such a public constitutes a serious threat to the organisation in its current form.

The discerning rational voter, who prizes citizen equality within the Constitution over the exclusive “equality” of party membership, will not be dazzled by “the good story to tell” because “the good story to tell” is inherently dishonest by being selective and fundamentally discriminatory. It seeks to create a “feel-good” sense in the public domain in which the invisible prize, wilfully undeclared, is the consolidation of a corrupt state.

There is another way in which the rationally, discerning, and principled voter is likely to be a serious threat to the ANC. It is that such a voter, even in their acknowledgement of the key role played by the ANC in the liberation of South Africa, will increasingly ask why they should ignore a strong and urgent inner voice calling on them to seek to liberate themselves from “the liberator”.

The conditions that will lead to such a public sentiment are already in place.

Social evolution

Free people in a constitutional democracy will want more freedom. They will resist its curtailment by a political party that captures freedom in the act of offering it as a gift for party membership. The fetish of party membership may very well be one of the greatest threats to democracy that the ANC represents in its current condition.

True freedom on the other hand is in the membership of citizenship in a constitutional democracy. That is why the demise of a party could never be the demise of a country and its people. When a party fails to adjust to new historical conditions, its demise offers the promise of a better world without it. That is what has happened historically in the sudden and speedy disappearance of political parties that seemed invincible.

In this connection, the growth of a trend towards a greater public desire for a constitutional common good should not be that surprising. It has taken various organisational, social, and individual expressions. The trend emerges out of people firmly located within a post-1994 ANC movement. It is driven by purposeful, organised political activity as well as by evolutionary means.

From the perspective of evolutionary processes, no party in the world can claim sole responsibility for the entity of social success. It is always a part of that success, may even be a greater part, never the entire part.

Evolutionary social trends are much bigger than any political party. Some social formations will intuit the desire for change much more than others. Such trends may indicate that a deep process of social self-correction is under way.

Both the ANC and Cosatu as large organisations are in a state of flux. They may not survive intact for long.

Currently, in its largest and most organised form, the process of self-correction can be discerned in Numsa. In its less organised but more organic form, it can be discerned in Amcu. In between there is a range of social energy searching for a different quality of the future. It has taken the form of political parties, non-governmental organisations, clubs and societies of every description. Equal Education is one among other glaring examples. The broad society is constantly, actively evolving. No political party can ever be the sole expression of its evolution.

The evolutionary impulse can also express itself through individuals. Currently, Public Protector Thuli Madonsela is a manifestation of it. There are countless others, in every aspect of social endeavour, individuals with extraordinary gifts marginalised by a state unable to control them. They are an expression of freedom.

The ANC in its formal, not necessarily in its visionary, character appears to have chosen to be no longer a part of this renewal, except as a vital lesson of what is to be avoided in future.

The real threat

I cannot see any danger that South Africa will collapse in the face of the ANC’s loss of power now or at some point in future. To the contrary, there are many signs that the decline in state capability under continuing ANC political leadership constitutes a serious threat to the country.

The one serious threat to South Africa is the perceptions of those who stand to lose if the ANC were to lose an election. They will lose unrestricted access to state resources. No longer to be protected by a blindly loyal vote, they will face post election litigation for their misdeeds. To avert the threat they may constitute themselves into coercive force right at the centre of the state. Compromised state intelligence services will look the other way; so could the national defence forces.

Indeed, a corrupt state is inherently disposed towards its most common mistake: the resort to coercion in the attainment of its secret objectives. In this manner may a totalitarian era return to South Africa.

So, as you place a cross on your ballot box on Wednesday, remember, fellow citizen that your problem, like mine, is a beautiful one to have. Never before have you faced so much political choice. The problem may not so much be in the items to choose from but in the habit of not having been called upon to choose. In reality the world out there has a great deal to offer to a discerning citizen.

A part of that world is your country, South Africa. It will not collapse in the face of your choice. It is too strong, too precious for you to place all your investments once more in an increasingly under-performing political portfolio.

The world is yours if you believe in your precious individuality as a citizen of an irrepressible democracy.

» Njabulo S Ndebele, author and academic, is a research fellow in the Archive and Public Culture Research Initiative at the University of Cape Town; and a fellow of the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study

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