Prince Mashele

The ANC NGC and the silent question

2010-09-20 12:40

Big political events, such as the ANC’s National General Council (NGC), currently afoot in the city of Durban, typically have an intoxicating effect on the minds of (especially) uninitiated observers. It is the kind of intoxication that impairs the capacity to penetrate realities beyond the twirl of the moment.

When a mind has been incapacitated by the whiz of momentary politics, its eyes are unable to see beyond the immediacy of political drama. In such dizzying circumstances, hallucinations are common, and minutiae can very easily be mistaken for magnitude.

In a theatre, performers can sometimes be as involved as their spectators; to the extent that they all forget that there is a world beyond the walls of the auditorium in which the act is being performed.

And so does Durban appear to be the case. Journalists and analysts seem as involved as ANC delegates. Nobody is talking about the yawning gap between citizens and politics.

When the ANC was formed, back in 1912, its founders intended it to be a “parliament of the people”. Those who are incapable of escaping from the prison of simplicity might see nothing profound in this. But the philosophical pregnancy of a “parliament of the people” cannot be aborted simply by incapacity to appreciate it.

An illegitimate parliament

Being so framed and adopted about two years following the formation of the whites-only union government, the intellectual fathers of the phrase “parliament of the people” sought to project the whites-only parliament correctly as an illegitimate parliament. Only a white person possessed of the most illusory of nostalgia would today argue that the 1910 government was a government of the people.

Representing the majority of South Africans, even as political conditions then did not permit for it formally to be voted into a structure called parliament, or the Union Buildings, the ANC had an undeniable moral claim to call itself a “parliament of the people”.

Scrutinised closely, the ANC’s conception of a “parliament of the people” cannot conceal its two-dimensional nature. The first was a political resolve to reject and challenge the artificial legitimacy that the racist union government had manufactured and bestowed unto itself. The second was a philosophic and more sophisticated dimension: to position the ANC as a mirror of social values and aspirations.

About the political dimension a great deal has been written, while very little has been penned about the philosophic. It is therefore the latter that deserves space in this column, especially with respect to the silence that unites journalists and political analysts who have a lot to say about Durban.

That chiefs, priests, intellectuals and ordinary folks were among those present at the founding conference of the ANC in Bloemfontein was not a political accident. Decidedly, the conference was designed to project the national character of South Africa. When the founders said “the ANC is the people,” and that “the people are ANC,” this had to find expression practically in the composition of the conference, as it was to be so in the subsequent life of the organisation.

Selflessness

Thus the ANC could, for many decades, claim with a steady conscience that it was a mirror of the South African society. Selflessness was at the centre of the political activities of the organisation, and service to the people was the motive behind its activists. There was a time when joining the ANC was tantamount to permitting the hangman of apartheid to pull the ropes of the gallows.

What the founders of the ANC may not have imagined is how fast the heat of power would melt the glue that attaches their organisation to ordinary South Africans. The period leading to the current NGC has been characterised by corruption scandals and leadership squabbles sufficient to cause doubt in the minds of sober observers as to whether the ANC is still the “parliament of the people”, especially in the philosophic.

In a political discussion paper, released on September 10, 2010, entitled “The Alliance at a Crossroads - the battle against a predatory elite and political paralysis”, Cosatu makes worrying observations about the government of the ANC. “This includes abuse of political influence to corrupt state tenders and procurement processes, and illegitimately win contracts; and abuse of political access and manipulation of BEE provisions to manufacture illegitimate business ‘deals’ (eg Arcelor Mittal, AMSA, and ICT),” says Cosatu.

Given this, it wouldn’t be a surprise for some to wonder if the ANC can still describe itself legitimately as a “parliament of the people.” What kind of “parliament of the people” would that be characterised by leaders who exercise influence to corrupt state tenders and procurement processes, illegitimately win contracts, and abuse political access to manipulate BEE provisions to manufacture business deals?

Carrying the hopes of the poor

What cannot be denied, though, is that the ANC still carries the hopes of millions of poor South Africans. In the 2009 elections, sixty-five per cent of voters chose the ANC as the organisation they thought would rescue them from hopelessness.  In the Kenyan story she tells through her anti-corruption book, entitled It’s Our Turn to Eat, Michela Wrong says something that many poor South Africans would identify with:

Nothing smarts quite like the dashing of raised hopes. It forces the deluded to regret the best part of their nature: their readiness to believe in a better world. (2010:82)



If Cosatu’s assessment of the ANC as an organisation leading us into a “predatory state” is to be believed, Michela Wrong’s words about Kenya should then apply also to South Africa. The dashing of hopes, here at home, might force the deluded masses to regret the best part of their nature: their readiness to believe in a better world.

How can a better world be possible for the poor, when South Africa is ruled by leaders who exercise influence to corrupt state tenders and procurement processes, and to illegitimately win contracts? Is the dream of a better world not a chimera, when we are led by people who abuse political access to manipulate BEE provisions to manufacture business deals?

If leaders and members of the ANC today were still as serious about the status of their organisation, as a “parliament of the people”, their NGC in Durban should be attending to these worrying questions.  For the future strength of the social contract between the ANC and the poor lies in the answers to the critical questions we have here posed. Unfortunately, the focus of the NGC is on leadership squabbles, and on policies whose implementation is most likely to be undermined by the very people who develop them.

Political drama

That neither journalists nor political analysts - as they attempt an analysis of the NGC - are talking about the gap between citizens and politics is as shocking as is true.

Could it be that our journalists and analysts are a case of darkness attempting to illuminate light - to use Thomas Paine’s words? Or, is Durban like a theatre, where performers are as involved as their spectators, to the extent that they all forget that there is a world beyond the walls of the auditorium in which the NGC is taking place?

However, as we answer these questions, we must be careful never to lose our capacity to penetrate realities beyond the twirl of the moment; for, if we allow that to happen, we might appear like a mind whose eyes are unable to see beyond the immediacy of political drama.

- Prince Mashele is Executive Director of the Centre for Politics and Research (www.politicsresearch.co.za) and a member of the Midrand Group

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