South Africa

South Africa

Op-Ed: As ANC abdicates a culture of debate, it is up to us to engage in ideas

Op-Ed: As ANC abdicates a culture of debate, it is up to us to engage in ideas

Current politics, especially that related to the ANC “succession”, is more or less devoid of serious debate. Insofar as ideas float around, notably that related to “white monopoly capital” and “radical economic transformation”, this is not part of a serious examination of how to take the country forward. Instead the ideas are simply used to signify one or other candidate, rather than another. But part of rebuilding our democracy is to recover the culture of debate. By RAYMOND SUTTNER.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Analysts repeatedly tell us that the contest between candidates vying for the ANC presidency has notions like radical economic transformation (RET) or white monopoly capital (WMC) used as proxies for one or other candidate.

The concepts are not up for serious debate in themselves or those who seriously debate them are generally not part of the contestation within the ANC.

If you are for WMC as a supposed explanatory device of a central problem in the inequality that continues to reign in South Africa today then you may well support Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or Baleka Mbete, or if you disagree you may well support Cyril Ramaphosa as a candidate for the ANC presidency. If the majority of a meeting supports one rather than another concept it tells us little about the concept but who is supported as a candidate by the majority of participants. This is symptomatic of the emptiness of contemporary ANC politics and also much of the media analysis because much commentary colludes in prioritising who will win this or that base of support. There is little concern with the vision or content that particular candidates may advance or more or less total absence of vision in the case of many of the candidates.

That is not to say that having Ramaphosa (whatever the gaps in the vision he has advanced thus far) rather than Dlamini-Zuma will not represent an advance over what we have now, should he be able to succeed Jacob Zuma as State President. (On the complications he may face, see here.) But what that advance entails is not seriously unpacked and debated because the main concern at the moment is not for what the candidate actually represents but winning the votes of delegates. Delegates are won through a range of means, and this does not appear to include serious examination of their ideology, if the specific candidates can be identified with any programme beyond generalised statements.

Certainly, Ramaphosa has undertaken to rid the country of corruption and to bring all who are responsible for state capture to book and even if there is not a clear plan on how that can happen, it will represent a qualitatively new situation just to have someone as president who is pledged to do that. Even if he becomes ANC president, as argued in the article of last week, cited above, there is no guarantee that he will overcome the obstacles in the way of becoming state president.

But that is not all that our politics or that of the ANC entails. As an outside observer (and previously an insider, in the ANC-led alliance) one has the impression that the ANC, previously known to host many serious debates, is no longer serious about arguing over ideas. National Democratic Revolution or “NDR” may still be described as the centrepiece of its strategy but there is little, if any, serious debate on its meanings and potential problems and what if any salience it has at present.

Those who engage in debate on NDR are generally not the candidates or those working for the election of one or other candidate. Assuming the concept is retained, what does it mean to build a nation, what is the relationship between building unity and encouraging diversity, in particular the coexistence of distinct identities? Are there not difficult questions attached to notions of unity, that we have seen sometimes lead to suppression of some identities and ideas or conceiving identities in a frozen, essentialist form, whether that be what it means to be an African or a woman or other qualities? It also applies to discussions of the ANC, the supposed main organisational force behind the NDR, when considering what it entails to be in or act in a manner that is “alien” to the ANC or “unANC”? These phrases suggest that the ANC itself is treated as something that exists in an unchanging form, that it has an “essence”, departure from which is “alien”.

If I am correct, is this notion of building unity, whether now or in the nation-to – be not something that ought to be discussed since it is a feature of the “National Liberation Movement project” everywhere, where unity of the people tends to be subsumed into unity of the liberation movement, standing in for the people?

What is the character of the D in NDR, as advanced by the ANC? What does it mean in terms of ANC internal democracy? How does ANC internal democracy stand in relation to loyalty to individuals and the party? Has the ANC taken time to revisit these questions in the current environment? How does it relate to intolerance of difference within its membership?

If the ANC is committed to building democracy what does it mean in relation to the militia-ruled parliament under leadership of an ANC majority and its national chair who is Speaker and also a presidential candidate?

In evaluating the democracy we are building do we still want to deepen and broaden it? If so, what does that mean in relation to popular participation? How does it relate to advancing “popular power”, beyond formal institutions and structures? Thus far none of the candidates have addressed these issues.

What does R or revolution mean in the present context? Is it something to fear or is it understood as a form of transformation that can build a new and enduring society? Who energises it and within what precise context and with what beneficiaries in mind? To what extent is revolution, in the present context, conceived as non-violent but nevertheless entailing substantial change in conditions of the poor In the past ANC cadres used to be taught about the ANC in a manner that drew lessons from its history and the example of its leaders. As indicated just over 10 days ago, the 50th anniversary of Luthuli’s death passed with hardly any mention from the ANC. (See my article and that of and that of Zweli Mkhize.)

Is this a conscious erasure of the legacies and meanings of Luthuli’s life? Is it because the ANC fears the example of Luthuli’s life or is it that the ANC is no longer equipped to communicate its own history?

Even the limited statements made by the ANC leadership create problems. When I first heard OR Tambo speak in a public meeting in London in late 1969 he referred to the death of Luthuli and said that the ANC did not believe that this was an innocent event. The ANC believed that the apartheid regime killed him.

The family continue to ask for a proper investigation. (A book by Dr Scott Couper, Bound by Faith, 2010 has gone to great pains to vindicate the inquest at the time of his death.). Yet Dr Zweli Mkhize, the ANC’s Treasurer General, in contrast with Tambo, refers to Luthuli having “reached his untimely death after an accident on the railway bridge in Groutville in KwaZulu-Natal on 21 July 1967”.  (My emphasis. See Mkhize’s article). Surely the ANC should not find itself positioned in a manner that supports the findings of an apartheid era inquest? Should one not expect the organisation from which Luthuli derived to join with the family in calling for a new enquiry?

Personally I have not done the careful study that is needed to come to a final conclusion. But calling it an accident sends the wrong message- a message that contradicts what the ANC of the time of Luthuli’s death believed and told the world. Has the ANC of today done any research into this matter, that justifies shifting its position and taking a stance that contradicts that of the Luthuli family? Given what has been revealed thus far in the reopened Ahmed Timol inquest, there is reason to believe that a thorough investigation may well uncover information about Luthuli’s death that could alter understandings deriving from the earlier inquest.

There are many other matters that deserve debate and enquiry. The ANC is abdicating such contestation and focusing on “succession without ideas”. This makes it very important for all of us who cherish democracy to re-ignite a culture of debate, wherever we are located and thereby play a role in rebuilding democratic life. Given the limits of formal political parties there is a crucial role to be played by organisations that are unaffiliated to political parties, loosely referred to as civil society. Some sections of civil society have resources to host dialogues. Various Foundations suggested they would initiate such a “national dialogue”. That idea needs to get off the ground in order to provide for a platform a where South Africans from all walks of life can debate their future in all its dimensions. DM

Photo of Raymond Suttner by Ivor Markman

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent “life outside the ANC” by Jacana Media. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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