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More Opinion and Analysis

In the shadows of the ANC

2014-04-25 11:55

This weekend St Antony’s College, Oxford, is hosting the 20 Years of Democracy in South Africa Conference. The Conference brings together leading scholars, commentators and politicians all of whom have varied experience of South Africa’s journey to freedom. Antony Butler, Tony Leon, Merle Lipton, Kgalema Motlanthe, and Adam Habib are among the impressive list of speakers. Attendees are in for quite the treat – so rare is it to have as many big names gathered under one roof.

It comes at a fortuitous time. Not only is it near Freedom Day which, this year, commemorates the two decades of constitutionalism and freedom that we have enjoyed; but, it also happens just before a General Election. The kind of reflection, debate and analysis that the Conference hopes to achieve could not be better timed. It is regrettable that such a small audience is so far removed from South Africa – and the ballot box. This is the kind of ‘voter education’ that many dream of.

However, at the pre-Conference gathering, where three books were launched, the tone of assembled writers was interesting to say the least. In as much as the authors, who produced books focusing largely on the ANC, were critical – of the party, its record and its history – they were largely nostalgic in what seemed to be a forlorn way: it was like listening to ex-lovers bemoan the potential of a lost relationship. And not just any relationship. The best relationship they had ever had.

Whether this is will be the tone for the Conference as a whole remains to be seen. But the increasing trend for (political) commentators to speak of the ANC as a shadow of its former self is worrying. Not because they are mistaken in doing so – they are quite right, the ANC is no longer what it once was. It is worrying because the collective wisdom of many South African commentators seems to suggest that the ANC is, unquestionably, a good organisation and that it is temporarily wayward behaviour is as a result of its present leadership more than anything else.

Few voices take the long view. Gareth Van Onselen is one of them. In as much as his searing critiques of Mmusi Maimane, which regularly appear in BusinesssDay, may make the DA party faithful uncomfortable they do the DA and South Africa much good. By deliberately asking awkward questions around seeming hypocrisy in the way in which Maimane and, by extension, the DA have done a volta foce on Mbeki’s very questionable record, Van Onselen reminds the party – and, hopefully, South Africa – of the truth. No only about Mbeki’s record but about the party itself.

Moreover, while it may be easy to go after President Zuma because his errors are so glaring and easily convertible to headlines, in attempting to particularise the ANC’s problems to Zuma personally is inaccurate and untrue.

Firstly, the politics of patronage which Zuma is replicating is a political tool that has long been used by ANC leaders – whether in government or not. Factionalism is axiomatic to party politics, including the DA, and Mbeki was no different, if not worse, than Zuma. To try and suggest otherwise is plainly wrong. William Gumede’s authoritative account of Mbeki’s leadership of the ANC illustrates exactly that: Mbeki was very much a controlling centralist who accumulated much power and privilege for himself and his attendant coterie. And he moved brutally against those who opposed him. This is a trait of politics, generally, and the ANC, specifically, given how its internal leadership elections work. Patronage and the prospective of benefiting from it is how the leader gets the organisation to work in his name.

Ask Ronnie Kasrils how he earned his Cabinet post. It was not because he was an upstanding patriot asking people to vote no. He was part of Mbeki’s operation that reracialised the state, blurred the distinctions between party and government and bequeathed Zuma the legacy he builds on today. Voting no, from him, is about 15 years too late.

Secondly, the ANC’s political orientation is itself the problem. With Marxist-Lenninist roots the party believes that it should be at the centre of governmental power. It is a belief that also extends to the ANC’s view of itself at a societal level: it seeks to be integrated into every facet of ordinary citizen’s lives. The party is the person and the person is the party. Hence ‘My ANC’ and so on. That comes as no surprise then that within the party itself the person at the top seeks to dominate it so fully. The ANC’s governmental record shows exactly that: rather than reducing government bureaucracy and opening up spaces, the government inserts itself into them instead. And through cadre deployment the ANC makes the pernicious lack of distinction between party and state even worse. Zuma’s government is merely replicating over a century of history.

As a liberal, the ANC’s attempt to dominate the state and society so wholly worries me. Beyond the issues of personal freedom and agency it is also worrying when a political party starts embedding itself within a person’s identity and over time – through the generations – in people’s DNA. It is difficult to criticise something that feels so much a part of you that when political decisions are made – like abandoning the ANC for its abysmal record – much prevaricating and qualifying has to happen first.

But besides this, it is worrying that people seem to exist within a narrative that only the ANC can govern. In existing in the shadows of the ANC’s mostly deceased giants people seem to lack to critical ability to distance themselves from what the ANC is today. And that is bad because seemingly even when they do it is not for healthy democratic reasons like supporting another party – it is to make the ANC go back to ‘how it was.’ How it was is part of the problem. The ANC is designed, in philosophy and practice, to forever be plagued by these issues. Hoping that the ANC will change is like repeating the same flawed process and hoping that it will miraculously achieve some result. The remedy for South Africa is not to hope that a better ANC will emerge from the shadows. It is that the harsh light of truth will shine on it – in the process losing power. Even if that happens just once, it will send the party the right kind of message.

In a democracy the people are in charge and have the power. And now it is time that we as a people come out from living in the ANC’s shadow – and our own.

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