South Africa


Restoring ethics, trust and compassion into South African politics

Professor Raymond Suttner. (Photo: Madelene Cronjé / New Frame)

Some struggle veterans and ‘elders’ are engaging the current ANC leadership, as they did during the Zuma era, with a view to restoring the ANC to its previous ethical pre-eminence. It may be too late to see the ANC as the sole or primary bearer of emancipatory values. This may be the time for people, from all walks of life to find a range of ways to take up the democratic challenge.

This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website:

Many feel “depressed” or “disillusioned” and do not know what to do with their vote and do not see a way out of the current dissolute politics.

There is no immediate response that will resolve this challenge, especially if we stare at the available electoral choices looking for an answer.

But one of the problems lies in vesting all hopes of recovering the values that excited those who believe in freedom, in the revival of the ANC. It cannot be the bearer or the only repository of emancipatory ideas and practices. One of the ways or perhaps the only way to rebuild trust and values like mutual respect for the well-being and dignity of all, care for the poor and marginalised, will be if this is not seen as the responsibility of the ANC or the ANC alone.

It may well be that the ANC will continue to exist, but it seems unlikely that it can be the bearer of these responsibilities or “return to its true self” and be seen as the custodian of a liberatory vision.

I am a “struggle veteran” in the sense that I devoted some decades of my life to serving the ANC and its allies. I have nevertheless not been part of any meetings of veterans or elders, though I have been invited to some of these. This is not out of contempt for those who are devoting themselves towards recovering what they see as the historical values and qualities of the ANC. I respect and have worked with many of these people. I just do not agree with their analysis or goals and believe that their hopes for a battle for “the soul” of the ANC leading to self-correction may be unrealistic. The ANC has gone too far down the road of self-destruction, not only as an organisation, but as a bearer of moral values, for it to recover that part of its being.

In the first place, the basis for action of these groups is a notion of an ANC to which we need to return, the “true” ANC, from which the leadership and many of their followers have departed during the Zuma period and to a significant extent today. I remember once remarking, at the time of Zuma’s election to state president in 2009, that the ANC in which I believed no longer existed. An academic colleague responded that that ANC may never have existed.

This remark raised the question of whether there is in fact a relatively pure, unblemished ANC to which to return, and whether those who are united in the veterans and elders’ groups are in agreement on what that means. I understand, better now than I did in 2009 and much better than I did when I first got involved in the struggle in the late 1960s, that some of the rot in the ANC did not start with Zuma and that there was abuse in earlier periods.

I was aware of some of this and insofar as I had influence, I joined with others in addressing it. Some I did not believe and thought that what was claimed was the work of “the enemy” spreading falsehood. I did not, for example, believe the allegations of torture in the ANC camp in Quatro, Angola, but came to understand later that extreme human rights violations had occurred and I in fact met and interviewed one survivor of Quatro. More of these examples of abuse are true than many would like to admit.

But I do accept that there were core values that drew many people into the struggle, often with little to gain and much to lose. Even if there is a basic set of values that drew all or many of us into the ANC, the question that has to be asked today is whether there is a possibility of return to those values. But it is immediately necessary to stress that returning to those values should also include debating their meanings and not treating them as obvious. Phrases like this or that conduct is “unANC” or “alien to the ANC” imply that there was in the past “one ANC” and one conception of its values.

Just as there is no denying that there is rot in the ANC there is also no denying that many, many people joined the organisation for motives that were pure, and saw the ANC as embodying a spirit of concern for all human beings and that many of its members were willing to sacrifice all in order to achieve freedom. Some who have succumbed to the temptation of corruption or committed other abuses, were also drawn by these values at one stage and it is important to ask ourselves how it was possible for them to have changed.

I believe we cannot simply say that there were some bad apples. Those of us who were in leadership or charged with the responsibility of inducting members into the organisation’s principles, need to ask ourselves whether some of what we did or did not do may have contributed to the erosion of the organisation’s ethical compass.

ANC dedication to the poor and marginalised turns to indifference

The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference” – Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

That the ANC appears indifferent, in many respects, to the pain and suffering of what used to be its core constituency, evokes a sense of cynicism, a sense that whatever else the ANC may be able to do, it will no longer devote much attention to the pain of those who remain oppressed or are newly oppressed as in the case of the foreign nationals, in post-apartheid South Africa.

Xenophobia is the litmus test of today and the ANC fails badly, as it refuses to take responsibility for the shortcomings in health and other sectors that derive from corruption and mismanagement by ANC-led governments. Instead, the influx of foreign migrants is blamed, and this xenophobic discourse often, as was the case recently, precedes xenophobic attacks.

That the ANC and government does not want to use the word xenophobia is significant. Any struggle for freedom involves the power of naming, naming who one is, naming one’s experience, naming an injustice. It is true of liberation struggles; it is true of struggles for gender equality and the visibility of women and others whose rights and voices are denied expression.

To fight as hard as the ANC and government does to deny that xenophobia exists is to deny the experience of those who are being scapegoated, who are being shifted further into the outer margins and whose lives are made even more precarious than before.

Any leaders, any organisations who are party to this, and it is not just the ANC who does this, anyone who is party to this is complicit in the dehumanisation of others and the promotion of a culture conducive to xenophobia and xenophobic violence.

One of the most shameful features of post-apartheid South Africa, a country that has fought a liberation struggle against the international crime of apartheid and that has a constitution that pledges the equal rights to dignity and bodily integrity of all, is that attacks are taking place on human beings because of their origins. But what is more shameful is the cowardice of leaders who worry more about publicity and connive in creating a climate for xenophobic attacks under the fig leaf of the law.

Any attempt to restore credibility to our politics must re-instill the ethic of care, towards all human beings, especially those who are, for one or other reason, marginalised and vulnerable. The ANC (and also the DA) are fighting the next election with xenophobia as one of their campaign planks. Elections are so important to them that they are willing to repudiate the values on which the new, democratic South Africa was inaugurated.

Our politics must be rebuilt on new foundations that draw on principles that were held dear in earlier periods. That means that we need the input of people from a range of sectors, beyond the party political, especially faith-based institutions and organisations, educators, students, workers, the poor, the marginalised and the homeless. All these people must fill the gap left by party politics and restore a sense of pride in standing for beliefs that respect all human beings. DM

Raymond Suttner is a visiting professor in the Faculty of Humanities, University of Johannesburg, a senior research associate at the Centre for Change and emeritus professor at Unisa. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His writings cover contemporary politics, history, and social questions, especially issues relating to identities, gender and sexualities. He blogs at and his Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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