On the occasion of the African National Congress’s 100th anniversary early this year, there was a literary text that kept playing inside my subconscious mind every time I watched or read about this momentous event – one of the most significant of our time.
It is a passage from Chinua Achebe’s Anthills of the Savannah: “The prime failure of this government began also to take on a clearer meaning for him. It can’t be the massive corruption though its scale and pervasiveness are truly intolerable; it isn’t the subservience to foreign manipulation, degrading as it is; it isn’t even this second-class, hand-me-down capitalism ludicrous and doomed; nor is it the damnable shooting of striking railway-workers and demonstrating students and the destruction and banning thereafter of independent unions and cooperatives. It is the failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country, with the bruised heart that throbs painfully at the core of the nation’s being.”
As a literary text, of course, this passage is open to varied interpretation but it does paint an image that can now be presented as evidence of how the myth of South African exceptionalism has been busted. I say “now” because for close to two decades, South Africa – and the ANC in particular – has felt firmly insulated from the plague suffered by most post-colonies on the continent – cancerous corruption, a debauched machinery governance, economic exploitation, poor service delivery and rising unemployment, a cocktail so poisonous it can explode into civil unrest and bring about a revolution.
Speaking of revolutions, it was most interesting this past week to hear the ANC profess its commitment to ensuring that the revolutionary gains of 1994 – when the progressive forces of the time attained political freedom from the apartheid regime – had been consolidated and that to safeguard against these gains being reversed, the party would be engaging the second gear of seeking economic freedom.
It was most refreshing, for once, to see President Jacob Zuma – a leader who is always reluctant to make solid commitments to key policy – speak of the need to go back to the Freedom Charter so that the party could reshape itself as a viable 21st century entity within the political sphere by honouring its pledge to improve the lives of many South Africans.
Perhaps that is the genesis of the problem, that the latter-day ANC has been so fixated on 1994 and in so doing has forgotten about its founding mandate altogether. If anything has been lost within the ANC over the last two decades, it is the internal knowledge and understanding that this party is not just a Mickey Mouse movement but rather, a form of consciousness, a deliberate awareness of one’s bounden duty towards the persistent and continuous shaping of a moral and political philosophy that captures the dreams and aspirations of a free South Africa as envisioned by the Freedom Charter.
Out of this loss, regrettably, we have witnessed this “failure of our rulers to re-establish vital inner links with the poor and dispossessed of this country”. So, when President Zuma speaks about a national democratic revolution, makes reference to the Freedom Charter, criticises the land reform programme and declares that the state is the custodian of all mineral and petroleum resources within South Africa, he is essentially communicating the founding ideology of the ANC.
However, by also saying that the party must be engaged in the ideological struggle and lead debates in society, Zuma is confirming that there indeed has been a massive disconnection between the aspirations of those who lead the ANC at present and what the organisation stands for in principle. It is a kind of disconnection that has bred public mistrust of the party and also led to a massive loss of public confidence, never mind that it is still winning elections – primarily because South Africa lacks a viable and credible opposition movement for the majority who vote.
Yet the question remains: What should happen in this festival of ideas that President Zuma encouraged to flourish? Given the intra-party dynamics of the ANC – as we have seen them unfold of late – what specific guarantees are there that ideas will be respected as ideas and not lead to anyone’s expulsion from the party simply because they shared, well, a ‘bad’ idea?
Perhaps the biggest idea the ANC needs to debate is how it deals with its own victories at specific intervals, such as the political victory of 1994. The problem with winning is that far too often, there is not in place a strategy to contain and build upon the gains. It is like winning the lotto and getting broke after three months. Beyond this policy conference and beyond Mangaung later this year, the ANC’s main duty should be to resolutely guard against the movement being thrown into disarray.
But there is a clear problem and this problem was perfectly captured by postcolonial theorist, Frantz Fanon. The ANC should take heed going forward.
Said Fanon: “The living party, which ought to make possible the free exchange of ideas which have been elaborated according to the real needs of the mass of the people, has been transformed into a trade union of individual interests. Since the proclamation of independence [read political victory] the party no longer helps the people to set out its demands, to become more aware of its needs and better able to establish its power.
“Today, the party’s mission is to deliver to the people the instructions which issue from the summit. There no longer exists the fruitful give-and-take from bottom to the top and from the top to the bottom which creates and guarantees democracy in a party. Quite on the contrary, the party has made itself into a screen between the masses and the leaders. There is no longer any party life, for the branches which were set up during the colonial period are today completely demobilised.”
The media may be right, after all, to frame the recent ANC policy conference within the context of Mangaung. Yet they too – much like the ANC’s “trade union of individual interests” – have conveniently ignored the possibility that all the proposals being put forward are not about the upcoming elective conference in December but rather, about going back to Mangaung in 1912 and re-establishing the party and its vision in the spirit, hopes, dreams and aspirations of its founding ideology, making it possible, therefore, to discover ways in which it can confront key events such as Mangaung in 2012 in way that is mature, progressive and mindful of the need to prosecute current political, social and economic struggles in South Africa in a manner consistent with that founding ideology.
Anything less than this will not go far in building and strengthening public trust or even reviving public confidence in the ANC. Actually, it will be fatal to the party’s future success, rendering it yet another Marxist wasteland that has presided over yet another aborted transition.