Boesak is back

2008-12-24 00:00

The Congress of the People has acquired a major draw card in signing up the charismatic political cleric, Allan Boesak, who could swing a lot of votes its way at next year’s election. But Boesak also comes with baggage from a controversial past and Cope’s leadership will have to think carefully about how to use him if they are not to blunt a major thrust of their own campaign.

Boesak’s struggle credentials are not in doubt. He was a key figure in the formation of the United Democratic Front (UDF) which played a major — some would say decisive — role in the liberation struggle by mobilising mass demonstrations against apartheid during the eighties. At the same time he waged a forceful theological war against the Dutch Reformed Church’s support for apartheid, using his position as president of the World Council of Reformed Churches to isolate the South African church and put enormous moral pressure on the apartheid regime and its theological underwriters.

In the process, he became an iconic figure in the black community, especially among the coloured people of the Western Cape. Boesak became chairman of the African National Congress in that province after the organisation’s unbanning in 1990, and was set to become South Africa’s ambassador to the United Nations in Geneva after the ANC came to power in 1994.

Then he fell from grace. In 1999, he was charged and found guilty of theft and fraud in a case involving the diversion of donor funds given to him by Danish and Swedish aid agencies, as well as by the singer, Paul Simon, to help victims of apartheid but which the judge said he had used to fund his own lavish lifestyle. He was sentenced to six years’ imprisonment, which was reduced to three on appeal. He was released after one year and in January 2005 was granted a presidential pardon that expunged his criminal record.

It is this dark past that makes Boesak a double-edged asset, for if he were to be presented in a leadership role — as Cope’s candidate for the Western Cape premiership, for example — it could seriously blunt one of the new party’s sharpest criticisms of the ANC, which is that it is unacceptable to have a presidential candidate facing charges of fraud, corruption, racketeering and money laundering.

Yes, it can be pointed out that Boesak has paid his debt to society, that he has been pardoned and his record expunged, but in the bullring of election politics the dirt will fly anyway.

Cope will need to be careful, too, about how it responds to Boesak’s continued protestations of innocence in his fraud case. He did not give evidence in his own defence at the 1999 trial, claiming now that this was to protect “people in sensitive positions” in the ANC and the new democratic administration.

It appears, too, that before turning to Cope he was engaged in negotiations with the ANC, requesting it to honour what he claims was a long-standing pledge to clear his name and to apologise to him over the missing funds, which he says were used to sustain UDF activists on the run and the ANC’s underground during the apartheid regime’s emergency crackdown in the eighties.

It is a line of argument I find difficult to follow and it appears the ANC did also, for it turned down his request. But if Cope goes along with Boesak’s plea of innocence and if it takes the position that his conviction was a miscarriage of justice, a bad judgment by a bad judge, it will damage another major criticism of the ANC — that by disrespecting the judiciary and the rule of law it is undermining the Constitution.

It should be enough to say simply that the man has paid his debt to society and that he is now free to employ his considerable talents to serve that society once again as he did so amply before.

Boesak has kept a low political profile in the eight years since his release from prison, but has again built up a large following as a powerful preacher focusing on moral and social issues in the style of the late Martin Luther King Jnr on whom he modelled himself as an evangelical liberationist.

Four months ago, he emerged briefly to challenge the ANC leadership, accusing it in an academic lecture to mark the 25th anniversary of the founding of the UDF of sliding down the slippery slope of racial preferences with its affirmative action policy, to the point where it had “brought back the hated system of racial categorisation”.

In a veiled insinuation, shared by many UDF stalwarts, that the ANC was less committed to the principle of non-racism than the internal organisation had been, Boesak warned: “We shall regret the stoking of these unholy fires. The non-racism we believed in, fought for and actually practised is in danger of disappearing altogether in our new democracy.”

Rumours have been circulating for some time that Boesak might make a political comeback, but only at noon on the last day of Cope’s inaugural conference did he confirm this when he appeared to ecstatic applause on stage at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein to announce that he and his wife Elna had joined the new party a few hours earlier.

Boesak then launched into his acceptance speech, and it was instantly apparent that the old master orator was back in full form. The rafters rang with his richly cadenced rhetoric and the repetitive phrases that also characterise Barack Obama’s speeches (King’s “I have a dream”, Obama’s “Yes we can”.)

“There has never been a time like this,” was Boesak’s recurring phrase, uttered as a rhythmic chant to drive home the argument that unlike the great struggles after Sharpeville, Soweto 1976 and the great township battles of the eighties, this time the struggle was against the forces of disillusionment in the new South Africa as the hopes and ideals at its birthing have not been realised.

It was heady stuff and it brought the crowd of 4 000 Cope delegates to their feet with thunderous cheers and their own repetitive chant of “Boe-sak! Boe-sak! Boe-sak!” — nostalgic echoes of the eighties which was the decade of intoxicating revolution here on the home front. It was like a rebirth of the UDF, which to some extent Cope is — and therein lies a potent element of its potential.

There is a latent nostalgia among many who participated in those heady days, the so-called “inziles” who nurture a degree of resentment against the ANC exiles who returned in 1990 with what the locals felt, but suppressed in what they now feel was misplaced deference, was an attitude of arrogance and an assumption of seniority as liberation fighters that led them to claim and get the top positions. Boesak epitomises the old UDF and his explosive return in Bloemfontein seemed to unleash this mixture of nostalgia and resentment.

I have no doubt Boesak will be a major asset to Cope in next year’s elections. He is a political draw card like no other on the current electoral scene where oratorical skills are at a dismal low. But Cope must use him judiciously, aware of the negatives that come with his talents.

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