A time to learn when history goes walkabout

2011-07-23 08:39

Every now and again, history dusts itself off and goes for a little walkabout in public.

Perhaps it is in the slipstream of preparations for the ANC’s 100th anniversary, launched by President Jacob Zuma at Constitution Hill in Joburg, that history has made a star turn in the past two months.

There was Nelson Mandela’s 93rd birthday, which South Africans embraced as an opportunity to demonstrate the values of non-racialism, sacrifice and service Mandela represents.

Then there was the death of apartheid defence force chief Magnus Malan, which marked, as an unnamed ANC source said, “the end of an era in South Africa’s history of transition from the tyranny of apartheid to constitutional democracy.”

History too was a guest at the 48th anniversary of the 1963 Rivonia Treason Trial at Liliesleaf Farm, where surviving Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) stalwart Denis Goldberg warned those gathered that “it is easier to overthrow a government than to govern”.

And then, at the funeral of Zukile Fazzie in the Eastern Cape, Minister of Correctional Services Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula launched a stinging attack on the party’s provincial leadership. Charging that internal divisions were sinking the party in the province, she urged those gathered “to do their utmost in defence of the party of Mandela, Tambo and Zukile Fazzie”.

Then, apparently out of the blue, President Zuma appointed Mac Maharaj as his spokesperson. Now, if there is an individual who carries within him four decades of the history of the struggle and of the ANC, the SA Communist Party and MK, it is Maharaj.

Later that week, Zuma urged ANC members to use the party’s centenary as an opportunity for reflection and to become “more serious about protecting and projecting our image, history, traditions, culture and character”.

One of the most incisive and comprehensive studies of our recent history is Irish scholar and peacemaker Padraig O Malley’s Shades Of Difference – Mac Maharaj and the Struggle for South Africa.

The book is the product of more than two decades of research and should be compulsory reading for anyone attempting to piece together our past and who wishes to understand the “character and culture” of the ANC.

Nelson Mandela, writing in the foreword, opined: “New nations must have a memory bank in order to establish a strong sense of collective identity.

We deposit our stories into the memory bank and draw on our collective account in moments of uncertainty or crisis, or to remember who we are and how we got to where we are now.”

And so it is perhaps time to return to O’Malley and Maharaj’s life to reflect on who we are and where we are now.

In the book, he writes that his journey led him to “conclusions I would rather not have reached”.

“The ANC in exile developed a self-perpetuating inability to deliver on any aspect of its internal struggle against the apartheid government; the ANC in government continues to use the paradigm of exile to govern and transform South Africa, thus reinventing the exigencies of exile in post-liberation South Africa and similar incapacities to deliver on pledges it makes to the people.”

As far as I know, O’Malley’s conclusions have never been publicly contested or debated since their publication in 2007.

He ends his 500-page book with the depressing assessment that “there is a new terrain of struggle. The struggle for power, and that this struggle for what the pundits call for the soul of the ANC, is increasingly becoming the battle for a large empty space.”

The list of high-profile ruling party officials engulfed in allegations of corruption and impropriety (and who have not been called to account) is long and depressing, as is the tally of the government’s wasteful expenditure of public funds (almost R4 billion at last count).

Despite its many gains, the collateral damage from the bruising internal succession battle, the divided loyalties this creates and the culture of impunity it has cultivated in some, now threaten to become an integral part of the ANC “brand”.

You can be sure history will lurk around for a while in the lead up to the ANC’s elective conference in December next year.

It will be conjured, paraded and massaged, the memory bank will be raided, all in an attempt to define the very “soul” that O’Malley has suggested is at present more of a fata morgana (a mirage) than the moral compass it should be.

» Thamm is an award-winning columnist, editor and journalist 

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