South Africa

Don’t ask, don’t tell: the ANC’s own sound barrier

By Ranjeni Munusamy 15 October 2012

Deputy President and prospective presidential candidate Kgalema Motlanthe says he shared his life story with South Africa through a new biography to “generate debate and discussion”. But in what context what does Motlanthe want such debate? Is the deputy president suggesting that the public should be privy to what goes on in the secret chambers of Luthuli House? It is yet another crucial issue dependent on the outcome of Mangaung. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

During the liberation struggle, when the ANC was banned and its leaders were in exile or in prison, the organisation had to come up with many innovative methods to communicate. The undetected flow of information was essential to sustaining the fight against Apartheid and the transmission of news and intelligence required immense skill and ingenuity. 

The method in which Mac Maharaj, now presidential spokesman, smuggled a miniaturised manuscript of Nelson Mandela’s memoir out of Robben Island still beggars belief. ANC members remember fondly how broadcasts of Radio Freedom, the party’s radio propaganda arm during the anti-Apartheid struggle, inspired them during times of deep oppression. Many party leaders were detained and imprisoned for possession and distribution of propaganda material. 

Post liberation, the ANC has struggled with how to deal with the flow of information in an open society. After the honeymoon Mandela years, the ANC leadership has had a deteriorating relationship with the media as scrutiny of its inner workings and the party’s performance in government intensified. 

From issues like the arms deal and the Thabo Mbeki-Jacob Zuma political battles, the ANC has attempted to keep a lid on the controversies besetting the party, and has become convinced that the media has a hostile agenda. The relationship reached its lowest ebb after the Polokwane conference after sections of the ANC began to push for the implementation of a media appeals tribunal and the tabling of the Protection of State Information Bill in Parliament.

While access to information is constitutionally and legally entrenched, there are many people, even at the highest levels of the party, who believe that what the ANC does is its own business and that the media, and by extension the public, have no right to know what the ruling party is up to. 

Over the past 10 years, the ANC has increasingly retreated behind a veil of secrecy to keep its internal discussions away from the public. There are increasing efforts to keep whatever happens behind the walls of the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House, on a need-to-know basis, despite the fact that decisions taken there impact on the running of the country. 

The party’s national executive and national working committee meetings are now strictly guarded, with the media even prohibited from the vicinity. ANC leaders are required to check in their phones during the meetings in order to prevent information leaking out. 

Severe security controls and limited media access were enforced at the Polokwane conference, the ANC’s national general council in Durban in 2010 and the policy conference in June this year. 

There is talk that during closed sessions, the media may be kept off the university campus where the Mangaung conference will take place in December, and that cellphone signals may be scrambled. These measures have yet to be verified, but it is clear that the ANC wants to plug all possible holes which would allow the media to gain information from delegates and other sources. 

 The ANC’s retreat from the promotion of a free flow of information during the early years of democracy seems to be proportional to the escalation of factional battles in the party. Only the ANC’s authorised spokesmen or senior officials are allowed to communicate with the media on what happens in the closed meetings. Over time it has become evident that what they convey is not always an accurate reflection of proceedings.

But the shutting down of meetings and gags against members speaking to the media has not reduced controversies or encouraged the reportage of more positive information about the ANC. If anything, it has increased the propensity of selective information leaking to advance partisan agendas. 

A similar process is evident in the state where government is regularly embarrassed by damning exposes of corruption and maladministration. Instead of using such revelations to improve governance and root out bad apples sabotaging or exploiting the state, there is a tendency to close ranks, deny the scandals or fail to act on them.  

The factional wars in the run-up to Mangaung have seen information consistently flowing out of closed ANC meetings. The national policy conference was a fiasco of note, with the media kept far away from the meeting hall and journalists’ accreditation confiscated when they ventured beyond the restricted area. Yet the disputes were still widely reported on, despite repeated denials by the party that any such had taken place. 

The ANC is still trying to keep up the pretence that there is no divisive succession battle in the party now, and that there are merely different preferences over leadership. They also maintain that factional battles between those supporting Zuma’s second term and those advocating for leadership change are a media creation. Until the nominations process began this month, the NEC had embargoed talk on succession despite the fact that the country has been preoccupied with the issue for months. 

The ANC insists that all issues to do with the election of its leaders are the preserve of the branches of the party and the delegates who will vote at Mangaung. The fact that the leaders elected and decisions taken at the conference will decide the future of the country has not swayed the party to make its processes more transparent.

Motlanthe, it would seem, now wants to encourage more debate and discussion – though he does not say about what. 

Like the book by former presidency director general Frank Chikane Eight Days in September, which told the story of Mbeki’s recall from office from the perspective of one of his closest aides, Kgalema Motlanthe: A Political Biography has created fevered public interest. The reason for this is that there is a great hunger for information about what happens in the ANC and who its leaders are. 

In the case of Motlanthe, he has been shrouded in mystery for most of public life, and the possibility of him contending for the ANC presidency has only piqued curiosity about him. There was similar curiosity over Mark Gevisser’s book Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred, released in the midst of the epic political battle between the subject and Zuma. Mbeki, like Motlanthe, managed to reach the top of the pile in the ANC, but was still an enigma. 

Speaking at the launch of his biography last week, Motlanthe said he agreed that Ebrahim Harvey, who had in the past been fiercely critical of the ANC, could write the book, because he did not want just an account of his life history or a hagiography. 

“I did not want a book that is only about positive issues because I think if there is any value from the book, it is if it succeeds in generating debates, undermining our fixed positions, undermining us and everyone else, and to question the underpinnings of our institutions. Because if not, we won’t serve as a raising agent for change,” Motlanthe said. 

The book, for the first time, reveals that Motlanthe differs with others in the leadership of the ANC on a range of issues, even raging controversies such as the expulsion of former ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. The fact that Motlanthe wants these issues to be known by the public has not won him favour from his fellow leaders, either. 

Speaking at the same event, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe criticised Motlanthe’s view in the book that a political solution could have been found on the Malema issue. He said ill discipline and outright disrespect were not a function of political education, but about the upbringing of an individual. He said ANC leaders should be loyal to the decisions of the collective, intimating that Motlanthe should not have broken ranks. 

In the midst of the Mangaung battle, it is not known whether Motlanthe genuinely wants to pry open the doors of the ANC’s processes to the public or whether this is campaign speak. Whether this is an issue he will take forward within the ANC also remains to be seen. 

Ironically, Motlanthe can put his money where his mouth is by being more vocal about his candidacy for the ANC presidency. But if he does, he risks being punished by the party for displaying ambition. 

Whether the ANC can be more dynamic and transparent can therefore realistically only be tackled after Mangaung, and is wholly dependent on the leaders who are elected. DM

Photo by Reuters.


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