What would Albertina think?

2011-06-09 00:00

TO be successful, any large organisation needs a subtle combination of characteristics. It needs to be strong and broadly consistent, but at the same time it needs to be dynamic, flexible, sensitive to ever-changing circumstances. This seems to be true of a business or corporation. It is certainly true, for example, of a university, even though the internal structure of a university is or should be very different from that of a corporation.

And it is true of a political party. Politics is an immensely difficult game, and in democracies all over the world we see political parties waxing and waning, moving from moments of triumph to moments of confusion and failure, and then picking themselves up again. (Authoritarian­ regimes usually manage to avoid these wobbles, but in fact they are in the end far more vulnerable, as we are seeing in the "Arab spring". For when they collapse the whole structure of the society collapses.) A democratic political party needs to try to balance not only firmness and flexibility, but also the varying needs of the population (both those who voted for it and those who didn't) and the pressures exerted by the global economy and by the forces of history. In political parties effective and wise leadership is especially important.

The ANC, our current ruling party, faces all these challenges, and more.

It is operating in a situation where the huge economic and infrastructural imbalances brought about by hundreds of years of un-equal governance are still largely in place. Many of those who work in the public sector, elected representatives and tenured officials, still (inevitably) lack relevant knowledge and experience. (To take just one example of this, when Julius Malema proclaims the need to nationalise mines and banks, he seems simply not to understand the degree to which this undermines the confidence of the job-producing investors whom the government is trying to encourage.) Added to all this, there are the classical temptations of laziness­ and corruption to be found in people suddenly placed in well-paid jobs.

Leadership has been a problem for the ANC. Mandela was wonderful in many ways, strong but open-minded and open-hearted — though he made mistakes.

Mbeki, fearing it seems the dangers of disintegration in a party so large and varied, became rather authoritarian, made disastrous errors (most notably in the case of HIV/Aids) and quietly persecuted those colleagues whom he regarded as his enemies. His actions produced a revolt within the ANC, and current President Jacob Zuma­ — warm and populist — was carried forward to be his successor. But as a leader Zuma has been hesitant and has allowed a great deal of factionalism to develop within the ANC. And amidst this general uncertainty in relation to policies, a new form of authoritarianism seems to have developed, and it emanates, alarmingly, from the ANC Youth League.

Now one knows that the original ANCYL, founded in 1944 by Nelson­ Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and others (including Albertina Sisulu), made bold strategic moves which invigorated the ANC, but no organisation can be permanently dictated to by its youth — especially when a fair number of creative, sensible and experienced politicians are around. But somehow Malema seems largely to have silenced most of the leading voices in the ANC.

The ANC and many South Africans have been mourning the death of Albertina Sisulu. She was a remarkable, truly heroic woman. (As university orator, I had the privilege of speaking about her and meeting her in 1997 when she was awarded an honorary degree on the local campus.) She had been extremely strong and determined in her opposition to the apartheid regime and her support for human, particularly women's, rights, and she suffered a great deal for her dedication, but at the same time she was modest, warm, alert and inclusive in all her attitudes. Like Mandela and her husband, she represented all that is richest within the complex life of the ANC.

Many leading members of the ANC are well aware of what Albertina Sisulu stood for. Many others, including it would seem most members of the ANCYL, don't know or don't really care. In its statement about her it seemed to suggest that her legacy was simply­ one of militancy at all costs.

This is the time, surely, when the wiser, more responsible voices within the ANC should speak out. Albertina Sisulu was bold enough to confront the apartheid regime. Surely there are people in the ANC who are prepared to confront — to moderate, to restrain, even to educate — Julius Malema and his vociferous and largely unthinking followers.

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