Past its sell-by date

2009-03-19 00:00

Have you stopped to think how quickly the future becomes the past? I recently read a related quote by Ralph Waldo Emerson, the 19th-century American poet and philosopher, and ever since, my mind has been spinning somewhat noisily as it toils with a simple question.

Once I belonged to a “movement”, at least that is what I was told it was. It sounded and felt so wonderful at the time: a sense of growth, of being progressive, of bringing about change and of liberation. There was also risk, intrigue and danger. The movement had a powerful enemy that was bent on destroying it. The enemy banned and banished it. We could not mention the movement’s name so we whispered it when we had to, or gave it some other cryptic label. It attracted an amazing variety of people, many of whom were to suffer untold persecution.

It was wonderful to have a movement. Some of us were idealistically committed to giving our lives to it and it gave us a reason to live and work. We used it to assuage any fear and it gave us hope and vision for a new country. It was a lovely resource, an excellent purpose, a quiet friend and a panacea, like Asterix’s potion.

Now Emerson has spoilt it somewhat for me. He says, “There are always two parties, the party of the past and the party of the future; the establishment and the movement.” This got me thinking.

In the past, my movement was definitely the party of the future. Whereas the apartheid system and its supporters hankered after conservative and archaic Calvinist ways of being, we were progressive, inclusive and democratic in our outlook. We had a lovely picture of the future and it had a name: the Freedom Charter. The future was going to be one of free education and health care, housing and jobs for all, with all South Africans living together in peace, security and comfort.

Emerson got me thinking: where is that progressive democratic movement now? It occupies the highest offices of the land, has the overwhelming majority in Parliament, and it probably has access to more resources than any African state. Has it been able to carry forth its impetus and bring about a country that resembles in any shape and form the vision millions have worked for, and thousands died for? Having been overseas for a decade, I am probably able to observe with somewhat fresh and detached eyes. In my view, in changing from a liberation movement to a ruling party, the African National Congress has also moved from “movement” to “establishment”. In its transition I think that it lost the future that it promised.

If the movement’s vision for the future was a rugby ball, it has been kicked so far out into touch that it has left the stadium. I cannot see it anywhere. It promised a nonracial democracy. Now, nonracial sounds like an imported Italian lager, with use of the term so rare in ruling-class circles. It makes no sense to talk of nonracism when we continue to count the number of blacks and whites in the national rugby team, and when we have to look at our colleagues and try to work out who is what and whether they should be shoved out, down or up.

Let me not start with the Freedom Charter. Like Stoned Cherry and African Goddess, it probably sounds like a fashion label. Seriously, when last did you hear a movement-er in government mention the Charter? Of course, I am out of touch and was not here when the movement became a party and we all became reasonable and realistic shareholders of Standard Bank, and wearers of funny hats at the opening of Parliament.

So I think it is fair to evaluate to what extent my forward-looking, morally high, politically committed movement has become the establishment. An establishment in my view has little to offer the future. It becomes stuck and set in its ways with little flexibility and adaptability to make changes that matter. It is unable to project a future, as it is unable to develop a vision of where it is heading. This is probably due to the fact that it has lost all touch with its reality. It becomes embroiled in its own organisational angst and becomes a powerless force. Much like the apartheid regime in its last days, its main challenge becomes to resist its displacement for as long as possible.

At the risk of being branded a traitor, let me share that I do not see the forward-moving force for change in operation. In the government, fine policies crafted by our best minds find few skilled and committed implementers. A moral rot seems to have set in, with enrichment being the overwhelmingly dominant agenda of most people who have access to power and decision-making. Within the party itself, questionable uninspiring leadership has replaced poor (albeit at one time, inspiring) leadership, and discipline and commitment have given way to anarchy and lack of accountability. The party is operationally and strategically poor and lacks vision. The government has a poor relationship with civil society, and has threatened the judiciary and the press.

At one time in the darkest hours of our history, an organisation provided hope, vision and leadership that inspired millions. In its challenge to retain its core values, mission and vision while governing a country, I have to say that I feel the ANC has failed. Much of this has to do with poor leadership, but I would argue that the inevitable transition from a movement to an establishment has exacted a price. There is a shelf-life for ruling parties and despite its best efforts to extend its sell-by date, the ANC will one day come to terms with its “establishment-ness” when a young progressive vibrant force for change challenges it. Hopefully it will not ban or banish it.

• Kamal Singh is a former activist and development worker who now runs his own transport company called SoWhere2 in Johannesburg.

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