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
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
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
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
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.