The ANC is much older than it thinks

2015-03-08 15:00

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Why does the ANC insist on January 8 1912 as its birthday when the organisation was actually started 25 years earlier?

If what I am saying is right, can it really be said the ANC does not even know its own birthday?

If it does not know its birthday, can it truly know its identity? If it does not know its identity, can it know its values?

If it does not know its values, can it truly know the meaning of democracy? If it does not know the meaning of democracy, can it know the value of institutions such as Parliament?

If it does not know the values of Parliament, is it any wonder the securocrats who run government would be implicated in signal jamming and bringing cops to the floor of Parliament?

The first person to point out that the leaders of the ANC were misleading the people about the party’s birthday was the great poet SEK Mqhayi in 1929.

He was annoyed that RV Selope Thema, yet another influential public intellectual and the second secretary-general of the ANC, kept repeating the lie that the ANC was formed by Pixley ka Isaka Seme upon his return from the US in 1912.

This is how Mqhayi repudiated Thema: “This gentleman says this assembly was founded by Dr Seme in 1912?…?it is on precisely this point that I wish to enlighten this young man so that he sees his way clearly, because what he is focusing on is a worthy story indeed. As an old man I would like to take him back to the year 1887, the year of Thung’Umlomo, Stitch the Mouth.

In that year there was an effort here in the Cape to establish a major association with Mr Goda Sishuba in the chair and Mr JT Jabavu as secretary – but after a while, Mr Thomas Mqanda became chairman and Mr Jonathan Tunyiswa secretary. That association was named the SA Native Congress (Ingqungquthela).”

But Jabavu was a difficult man and it was left to Tunyiswa to carry the effort to formally launch the new organisation in King William’s Town in 1890.

As André Odendaal has pointed out in his wonderful book, The Founders, Tunyiswa’s appeal was directed to “the heartland of the new politics – an area with traditionally close lines of communications, where the first African organisations had emerged in the proximity of King William’s Town and the leading mission stations”.

Odendaal records that Tunyiswa’s call was met with “a good response” and 58 delegates formally launched and drew up a constitution for the congress in May 1890.

To those who say I criticise theANC because I do not like it, I often point out, rather tongue-in-cheek, that my great-grandfather Peter Tyamzashe was at the founding meeting in May 1890.

He was invited to join because he was an executive member of the existing Native Educational Association, an organisation of teachers and priests that evolved into the first political movement among Africans.

The founders of thecongress, particularly WB [Walter] Rubusana and Allan Kirkland Soga, travelled the length and breadth of the country to ensure that the organisation transcended tribal lines.

The SA Native National Convention was formed in 1909 with Walter Rubusana as president and John Langalibalele Dube as deputy president and Jeremy Makgothi as assistant secretary.

Mqhayi said the emerging African nationalism struck the Boers as “an evil omen” or, in his words, yayi ke lonto ise ngumhlola kumaBulu.

He said, “at that time Mr Thema and Dr P Seme were out of the country; such men as Mr Mangena were away, though Mr George Montsioa had just returned”.

Mqhayi seems to suggest the individuals who returned with superior American and British education simply hijacked the movement, “the country believed that men of intellect and knowledge had arrived, fit to serve the community”.

Dube, who had spent a great deal of time in the US, was elected president of the newly formed SA Native National Congress in 1912, while Rubusana was outmanoeuvred. There may be parallels here with the manner in which ANC exiles took over the leadership of the local political movement in 1994.

A clear parallel is that the earlier ANC was an elite organisation whose 1919 constitution advocated the vote only for civilised men. ANC exiles also had a similar aloofness towards the masses during Thabo Mbeki’s leadership.

I have been spending a great deal of time in the archives reading newspaper accounts of the late 1800s and early 1900s. I literally have goosebumps reading the announcements of the meetings and the discussions that took place.

I read the writings of John Knox Bokwe, Rubusana, Seme, Thema, Dube, Jabavu and Sol Plaatje, I then watch Jacob Zuma laughing at the flagrant violation of Parliament by his government’s police and the contempt for the opposition in Baleka Mbete’s face and I cry out: “Oh, how far the fruit has fallen from the tree.”

I ask myself how this organisation of my great-grandfather can knowingly go on like this. And then I find my answer in the small matter of the birthday.

Even if it knew that it got its birthday wrong, the ANC would not dare change it. So much of the organisation’s identity is built around January 8 1912 that an annual bash is routinely organised in celebration of this nonbirthday.

So much is invested in this date that to change it would lead to a loss of face. So, to save face, the party would rather stick with the lie than be true to its own history.

Understand that and you will understand why the ANC would rather go over the cliff than change its leadership.

Mangcu is associate professor at the University of Cape Town

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