From Arab Spring to ANC Winter

2011-11-14 00:00

WE are indeed living in interesting times. In a strange way our generation is not only reading about history, but we are part of it and it is all happening fast.

It started with the Arab Spring, which didn’t just bring down Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt and Muammar Gaddafi in Libya; but also forced the monarchs of Jordan, Morocco and Saudi Arabia to reform their laws and in other cases fire their governments due to pressure from citizens. This was followed by the great fall of the European empire, which saw the collapse of economies in the European Union, notably Greece and Italy, followed by change of administrations.

But perhaps what is close to us as South Africans is the beginning of what may be a long winter for the African National Congress. While the tensions within the organisation are an open secret, few will disagree with the suggestion that last week’s media briefing by the ANC national disciplinary committee, headed by Derek Hanekom, was a game changer.

The decision to suspend the top six officials of the ANC youth league drew battle lines, shifted the balance of forces and pitched comrades against each other.

Similar to the Arab Spring, the ANC Winter is rooted in some kind of disagreement, quest for power and desire to change the status quo. From the onset it is important to note that what is happening within the ruling party today is not unique to this generation. As I have argued in other contexts and platforms, the history of the ANC — and to an extent that of the alliance — has always been a hotchpotch of thoughts.

The ANC has always been a contested terrain since its inception and since the alliance’s formation. In fact there is established literature on the history of the internal battles over policy advanced by individuals within the nationalist (Pixley kaSeme), communist (Moses Kotane), trade unionist (Champion uMahlathi), liberal (Albert Luthuli) and pan-Africanist (Robert Sobukwe) groups within the ANC.

What we should perhaps examine is what has been the causal factor of the current episode, including understanding the anatomy of the ANC, its historiography, processes, role players and their interests and the thinking of the ordinary ANC membership.

On a simplistic level we can attribute one factor as a reason, but the fact is that there is a combination of circumstances that has led to the current situation.

In politics, like in business, there is good strategy and bad strategy. I believe that the main causal factor is that the organisation had good ambitions, but bad strategy and that both the mother body and its youth wing are equally guilty in this regard.

Firstly, a few years ago the mother body unveiled a bold plan of pushing membership to one million. This was indeed a noble strategy. As it was explained then, this was to ensure that the oldest liberation movement in the continent had the political muscle in terms of membership. It would join the likes of the Congress of SA Trade Unions (Cosatu), which boasts one million-plus members.

Under normal circumstances this was a good idea and promises a lot of political mileage for the party concerned. However, there was always a danger of the ANC being open to new people who would come with what the organisation always describes as “foreign culture”.

The level of ill-discipline within its ranks demonstrates the party’s failure to come up with a good strategy for nurturing new members through political education.

Due to the ANC’s failure and lack of strategy, something worse has happened: instead of getting a million members in good standing the organisation has gained a mob in good standing. So to those who might be puzzled by “new tendencies and foreign culture” within the ruling party and wonder how people who claim to be bona fide members can burn their organisation’s premises in Msunduzi or councillors’ houses in Gauteng or government buildings in Mpumalanga, the answer is simply that the new mob has arrived.

This new mob is loud and careless about the history, traditions and processes of the ANC. Remember, they are not here for anything else but opportunity to network and hit some jackpot. To them economic freedom means access to networks and government jobs. They are sincere in the belief that through their membership card and a T-shirt they have arrived.

Secondly, the ANC Youth League’s ambition has been (judging from their campaigns and articulation) to recycle particular ideas and eras in the youth movement’s history. The youth league under Malema wanted to mimic a golden era of the youth movement of 1943 to 1949, which is recorded as the rise of the youth league and the adoption of the programme of action. This, of course, was the era of giants, the era of Muziwakhe Anton Lembede, Oliver Reginald Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe, A.P. Mda and many others. Indeed they were part of a generation of leaders who understood and practised the principle of serve, suffer and sacrifice. Perhaps the main difference is that while today’s leadership is prepared to kill for an individual, that generation was prepared to die for an idea that would live.

Again this was a noble ambition on the part of Malema and his group, but alas where they failed was in mastering the style of that generation of yesteryear, especially when presenting their arguments within and outside the ANC. Instead of engaging their opponents and honing the quality of their arguments the ANC Youth League always raised its voice in an orgy of criticism and denunciation of others.

Worse, some in the youth league have fast graduated into being predator politicians. In his wonderful book The Art of an Idea, John Hunt, an award-winning playwright and author, describes a predator politician as someone who has no interest in the idea other than how it will enhance his personal agenda. Often that means killing everyone’s thoughts, or diluting them and thereby claiming ownership.

The Hanekom announcement marked the end of the first phase, and how the next will play out will be watched closely across political lines. The more immediate challenge for the ANC leading to the centenary celebration is to evaluate its strategies.

As it did over the years (hence it is still standing), the ANC should remember that the core of strategy work is always the same: discovering the critical factors in a situation and designing a way of co-ordinating and focusing action to deal with them. For that to occur the ANC must remember that only an objective and united organisation (as united as any organisation can be) can do that.

Nhlanhla Mtaka is the executive director of Ingabadi Group. He is a political analyst and commentator for radio and television.

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