We know that no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. Now you begin to understand me.
George Orwell, 1984
When I sit down at a Tasha’s table belonging to the martial artist who has just delivered the ANC a roundhouse kick to the jaw, I notice beside him a fresh copy of George Orwell’s 1984. Under normal circumstances, I slowly back away from people reading Orwell, because they are not in a happy place. But election season in South Africa does not constitute a normal circumstance—we’re all living the plotline of one or another of Orwell’s novels, Prince Mashele more than most, and I figure that I’ll sit it out and hope for the best.
“I lost my copy,” Mashele explains. “For some reason, I’m going back to the books that I read as a student. They help me understand things.”
If human history is just one endless postmodern meta-novel written by George Orwell—and I’m not saying that it isn’t—then the book Prince Mashele has recently co-authored with fellow academic, Mzukisi Qobo, functions as an addendum one of those dystopian classics. The Fall of the ANC: What Next? (Picador Africa) tells the tale of a ruling party on the cusp of becoming ZANU-PF with a budget. The party’s paranoia is derived from its venality and dysfunction; its enemies—Mashele very much among them—are hunted down one by one. And while the ANC isn’t yet adept enough a big brother to be Big Brother, that kind of expertise can be purchased. As The Fall of the ANC warns on numerous occasions, a dying organism is a desperate organism, capable of just about anything.
And it is Mashele and Qobo’s contention that the ANC is dying. There are more references to cancer than in an oncologist’s textbook, and the prognosis isn’t pretty: “Corruption”, write Mashele and Qobo, “has become endemic in the ANC and so the party cannot cleanse itself without first committing suicide. It must first die before it can have any hope of resurrecting itself with a new, purified soul.”
In other words, this isn’t an encomium. Mashele, a diffident man in professor’s spectacles, has long been one of the ANC’s most consistent critics. He comes from the cloistered worlds of South African academia and political think-tankery, and his own career has proved somewhat controversial. As one of the principals of the Midrand Group, he has recently been embroiled in some unpleasantness with a Mbeki—in this case the intellectual Moletsi Mbeki, for whom Mashele acted as CEO at the Forum for Public Dialogue. The falling out was due to a study of Cosatu shop stewards, which revealed that the union’s rank and file were markedly anti-Zuma in the run up to the Mangaung conference. According to Mashele, Mbeki did not want to publish the report pre-Mangaung, because it might compromise his alleged BEE dealings with Numsa’s financial wing, a powerful Cosatu affiliate. (The minutes of a contentious meeting between the two was leaked to the Mail & Guardian last year). The accusations are still dinging around boardrooms and legal offices, but the resulting distraction from actual political analysis has been welcome, at least as far as members of the ANC are concerned.
“It’s been ugly,” Mashele tells me. “Since then, I have even heard that I’m deep undercover for the National Intelligence, and I’m actually working for the ANC. But you know, if you read the book, perhaps you would feel otherwise.”
You almost certainly would. The Fall of the ANC is a rollicking, sick-making picaresque that drags us through the earliest days of this country, when “white minority capital” asserted itself of the shores of the Cape of Good Hope, all the way up to the building of Nkandla—a historical narrative that Mashele and Qobo consider uninterrupted by democracy in 1994. Rather, they take pains to portray a country that has always been run by elites for elites, regardless of whether the Big Men used the language of racial supremacy or neo-liberal mumbo-jumbo as their ideological cudgel.
And while no one comes out of this book looking good—not Helen Zille, not Nelson Mandela, not even the average South African, who has been content to sit on her ass for 20 years and watch the joint get fleeced by her so-called leaders—it’s not called The Fall of the ANC for nothing. The authors describe a liberation movement that is too incompetent to govern. And although the ANC fought for the end of Apartheid, it did not bring about the end of Apartheid—a vital distinction. The party was forced to scramble into the role of governing party, wholly unprepared for the task.
“What should have been done following the adoption of the Freedom Charter [of 1955]”, write Mashele and Qobo, “was the conversion of the Charter…into a practical programme for a ‘government in waiting’. There was ample time to do this. The party was more preoccupied with myth=making, however, toying with the impossible task of taking over the country through the barrel of a gun. Even when it had operated underground for more than 20 years, the ANC still did not imagine itself as a government-in-waiting. There is no documentary evidence to demonstrate that they did.”
In other words, myopia and hubris were genetic defaults that metastasised into systemic problems that cannot be cured by any means of medicine. Whether it was Mandela’s “over-moralising” or the “thick layer of mediocrity and incompetence behind Mbeki’s intellectual glitter”, the party was never worth more than the myth of its liberator status. Almost nothing they’ve done in power or out of it constitutes actual governance, according to the authors. Short of taking a principled and fearless stand against white supremacism 100 years ago, everything the ANC has done has been really, really, really bad.
But nothing—absolutely nothing—has been worse than the party’s wealth redistribution policies, the Black Economic Empowerment programmes that have proved to be the crony-capitalist’s bottomless ATM. Put the following on a green and yellow t-shirt and parade it about a rally:
The worst thing about the ANC is that the blacks it has been enriching are not really engaged in production; they wear suits and wait for deals and easy money from their real bosses—white entrepreneurs. Blacks who have benefited from BEE schemes are, in the main, politically connected to the ANC. [I]n truth, BEE has in our opinion been a redistribution scheme for ANC leaders and cronies; the word ‘black’ has been used to legitimise what is in reality a sordid money affair. To encourage them to co-operate in this dirty scheme, 17 million poor blacks are ‘bribed’ with social grants, grants that will never dig these poor black people out of their dark pit of poverty. So while the social structure has its origins in the Apartheid order, the slow pace at changing it is attributable to bad policies and wrong priorities of the ANC government. It is as if the ANC is intent on colluding with the past as a means of keeping its nationalism aflame.
In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, former Senior Editor Bill Keller noted that South African democracy is in its “adolescence”, as if political systems follow the same development patterns as human beings, or elephants. Time and again, Mashele and Qobo rubbish this idea, reminding us that 20 years is, in fact, a political eternity. It took Park Chung Hee 18 years to completely redesign South Korean society, negotiating geopolitical situations so complex that it’s a wonder the country survived at all. In three decades, China’s social institutions—to say nothing of its physical landscapes—have changed completely. And while those countries were reformed (or deformed, depending on your view of China) under authoritarian regimes that burned through humans like tinder, Germany managed to reintegrate its formerly communist east under the very system of social democracy that the ANC insists it practices. Twenty years ago, Keller’s own New York City was a war zone, with over 2000 murders a year. Now, it’s an open-air food court for Goldman Sachs employees.
There are functional democracies and unworkable democracies, but the idea that South Africa has to grow into a governance system is both demeaning and illusory. Very few nations have entered into a democratic age with as much fanfare and lofty rhetoric as this one did—the system was neither imposed from afar nor debated much from within, regardless of how many commies were knocking on the door brandishing copies of Lenin’s What is to be done? If, as the Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen believes, “freedom is development”, than the lack of basic service delivery constitutes a form of oppression no different in practice from that of the Apartheid regime.
According to Mashele and Qobo, the ruling party’s sins are clear: overreach and avarice, among dozens of other, smaller misdemeanors. There were no governance policies in place when Apartheid fell, and those that came into place later were developed on the fly, without any real consensus. Worse, ANC’s leaders and cadre members equated the nation’s borders with the walls of Luthuli House, and everything within those walls belonged to them. None of the inclusiveness and transparency that marks successful democracies are evident in our institutions or the behaviour of those who run them. The poison of corruption seeps into everything from school lunch tenders to the fluffed pillows in the presidential palace.
So, I ask Mashele, are we kaput? Should I shove a chopstick in my eye and be done with it? Is this country doomed to be flushed down the African toilet bowl along with Guinea and Eritrea?
Scenario A, according to Mashele and Qobo, is nightmarishly simple, an equation I’d describe as status quo + time over rage. Why not visit Bekkersdal to see how that turns out?
Scenario B is by no means utopian, just baseline functional: it sees accountable governing institutions emerging from the death of the African National Congress. This might mean a reborn ANC committed to a new path; a new party (or parties) calved from the old; a DA committed to developing viable black leadership instead of renting it; a combination of the above; or none of the above.
“I have no idea what’s going to happen,” Mashele tells me frankly. But there is nothing far-fetched, he insists, about believing that in the next 20 years, all of our maligned institutions—from education to service delivery to the mores of government itself—can be entirely reformed. And he’s right. History insists that two decades can prove an epoch. In South Africa’s case, it’s an epoch we’ve just blown.
If The Fall of the ANC is occasionally too glib, too shrill, and missing the precision needed for a definitive takedown; it’s clouded by melancholy and rage that make it a propulsive read. Prince Mashele clearly takes no delight in the death he takes 200 pages to describe. After all, watching a sun explode is a terrifying business. “I’ve got three daughters,” he tells me, “and their futures are tied to this country. I’m very worried. I would like to see a better South Africa, with better leadership. You can’t draw satisfaction when the country is burning.”
This is version of a statement many people have offered me over the course of this election campaign. Which brings us back to the copy of 1984 lying on the table of a sun-dappled salad restaurant.
“This guy—Orwell—how could he write as if he had South Africa in mind back then?” asks Mashele. “Because there are days with I think, no, I am the crazy one. This book and other books like it give me space to think dispassionately, and I think—wait! I am not mad! They are mad, but I am not. I am the sane one.”
He will take some small solace, then, from the book at his side.
“Being in a minority, even in a minority of one, did not make you mad,” wrote Orwell. “There was truth and there was untruth, and if you clung to the truth even against the whole world, you were not mad.” DM
Photo: Cover of The Fall of The ANC: What next? & Prince Mashele.
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