Voiceless dissenters

2010-09-24 00:00

AS far as I can see, an interesting public debate among several former ANC heavyweights went down completely unreported a couple of weeks ago. The fact that it even took place is significant.

Despite their differences, all appear to be at the end of their tether with the ANC leadership.

The Centre for the Book in Cape Town had ex-minister of Arts and Culture, Pallo Jordan, chair a discussion on Cosatu’s first chief, Jay Naidoo’s, book Fighting for Justice: A Lifetime of Political and Social Activism.

Naidoo, who is the director and chairperson of the J&J Group, introduced the book and the critical discussion was led by Professor Martin Legassick, the emeritus professor in the History Department at the University of the Western Cape.

For those familiar with the “left” in the ANC, it was a poignant occasion. All those who attended, are leftists who have never been SACP members and all have been ground through the mill of the ANC and all are still standing and still fighting.

Why fundamentally good souls such as Jordan, Jeremy Cronin and Mandla Langa, for example, continue to “fight from within”, is part of the poignancy.

Legassick, an ex-Rhodes scholar and leading South African Marxist historian, was expelled from the ANC in the mid-seventies, along with people such as Paula Ensor, David Hemson and Rob Petersen in the group of eight.

They had been the mainstay of the ANC’s anti-apartheid activities in the United Kingdom and the force behind the attempted revival of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (Sactu) in the early seventies. They were expelled because they were regarded as “ultra-leftists” and “entryists” raising foreign ideas such as revolutionary socialism in the ANC. Those who led the battle against them were almost all SACP people, including, at the time, SACP politburo members Jacob Zuma, Thabo Mbeki, Joe Slovo, Mac Maharaj and Chris Hani.

And then there was Naidoo, doing what he is so naturally good at — speaking truth to power. Although he was neither detained nor expelled by the ANC, his independent thinking ruffled the powers-that-be in the ANC government enough for them to bug his house and recruit his housekeeper to spy on him while he was in cabinet.

Naidoo’s trajectory, as his book makes clear, from militant Cosatu leader to two cabinet posts to eventually stepping down from the ANC’s national executive council and going into business, had brought him face to face with similar forces to those who detained Jordan and expelled Legassick in the old days and had left him bruised.

The auditorium was packed to overflowing, with many older comrades in the audience and younger activists dominating the floor at question time. The question on everyone’s mind was the same as Lenin’s a century ago — What is to be done?

As the ANC’s national general council (NGC) comes to a close after a bruising week for its myriad factions, it’s timely to remind ourselves of where this all comes from and where many of those who attended the discussion on Naidoo’s book fit into the picture.

The ANC has always been a broad, essentially bourgeois, black nationalist “liberation” organisation that was led, until Zuma, by African intelligentsia who projected themselves as representatives of all oppressed black people.

Its alliance partner, the SACP, has always been one of the most Stalinist communist parties in the world. It uncritically supported everything the Soviet Stalinists did, right up until the fall of the Berlin Wall. Unable to stand on its own feet, it has hidden under the ANC’s skirt and sought to control the thinking of the ANC for decades without taking any direct responsibility for it. Most of the key players in the ANC’s current drama have once been or still are, SACP members.

The SACP has always projected itself as the organisation of the working class.

At the same time, it has always viciously opposed anyone else who sought to even discuss the idea of, for example, a labour party based on the trade unions (the so-called workerists in the labour movement to whom Naidoo was historically regarded as too amenable to), or a revolutionary party based on the history of the left opposition to the Stalinists worldwide (Legassick’s position).

Having so successfully “entered” the ANC so many decades ago, the SACP is a significant player in the battle for the ANC’s elusive soul and it is ever vigilant against other suitors for its soul — especially from the left.

Its main opposition in the ANC, fronted by the likes of Police Deputy Minister Fikile Mbalula and ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, is an ideologically narrow nationalist — potentially even a future fascist — force.

Things have deteriorated to such an extent in the ANC and the opportunism, naked corruption and careerism are so rampant, that within this “big picture”, many other morbid symptoms appear so that the Stalinist and nationalists factions themselves are also being constantly contested from within.

The speakers at Naidoo’s book discussion, and the majority of the people who attended, “represent” still another, but important layer, of essentially voiceless activists, within and outside the ANC, who mainly cut their teeth in mass-based organisation and struggles inside the country in the eighties.

They are generally disgusted with what has become of the ANC but they are not quite sure how to move forward. Many left the ANC ages ago but have no political home to go to. The DP and Cope are seen as even worse alternatives than a rotten ANC. Some are hoping a new, broad labour organisation will emerge and they regard Cosatu’s backing as the only means to get there. This is not likely in the foreseeable future.

All these various forces, including Cosatu, are fighting for the ANC’s soul, for the simple reason that it is now, more then ever before, really up for grabs. The broad church is not holding and first prize is to get the organisation that still enjoys the support of the vast majority of South Africans and has political power.

None of the potential contenders to the ANC throne have given serious thought to another organisation and they are unlikely to, unless and until one faction seizes power and vanquishes its enemies within. Against this broad background came some interesting snippets from the discussion.

Naidoo said that practical answers to practical problems are required, not ideological debate. He wants activists to concentrate on mobilising people on the ground around their day-to-day needs and make elected leaders accountable. Naidoo said he isn’t going to get sucked into the tired old debate of whether to form a new “left” or labour party or not. Or even to engage seriously with whether or not the ANC is capable of being transformed or should be left to rot on the vine. He was scathing about the corruption and perfidy of the ruling elite and feels that mobilising to bring them to account is the way forward.

Legassick stumbled through Naidoo’s book, but raised some well-informed arguments from a classical Marxist perspective. He believes that capitalism worldwide is at the root of all our anguish and that if only the organised working class revolted against its appalling conditions of existence, all would be good in the world. For Legassick, the ANC is incapable of being transformed and a new workers party based on a socialist programme needs to be established.

Towards the end, a Khoi-San activist, barely able to control his anger, spoke of his people’s betrayal by successive waves of colonisers, black and white. In a nutshell he summed up the “coloured” anguish — they were second-class citizens under the whites and they are third class under blacks.

Jordan was exemplary in the way he chaired this until the Khoi-San spokesperson blamed his lot on poor people coming from the eastern Cape in getting preferential treatment in his squatter camp. Jordan stopped the debate, saying angrily that the speaker was saying “a very dangerous thing” and warned him to be “careful”. You touch the question of frontiers and you strike a rock here. — Moneyweb.co.za

• Dirk Hartford is a former political activist, trade unionist, labour editor­, broadcaster and media executive­.

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