POLITICAL LEADERSHIP OP-ED
People in government are not listening to the cries of pain — they no longer hear them
Certain basic qualities are needed for a political movement to win the trust of the people. One of these is simply to listen very carefully to what people say, what they complain of. All the giants of the ANC used to listen, and they had compassion for the pain of the oppressed. That is no more, and why the ANC can no longer lead.
Many remark on the harsh conditions in which the poor and marginalised live in South Africa today. I don’t need to go through the list of ways in which their constitutional rights are not being met. What I want to refer to is another model of leadership, which is an alternative part of the legacy of the ANC, which purports to be in the process of renewing itself.
When one looks at some of the great leaders of the ANC — people like Oliver Tambo, Lilian Ngoyi, Yusuf Dadoo, Albertina and Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Moses Kotane and younger ones like Chris Hani — we can speak of a number of different qualities that they had.
But for me, what I learned most from knowing some of these people and reading about others, is a common quality — that they all listened carefully when any matter was raised with them. Even when Mandela and Tambo were attorneys, a partnership in Johannesburg between two young lawyers, what was remarked on about their conduct was not just their legal skills, but that they spent hours and hours listening to clients.
Now, when you are an attorney, you want to prevent your client from drifting into all sorts of factors, all sorts of parts of the history of a conflict that will not interest the court because these have no legal bearing on the case. This is what is called in the law of evidence “the facts in issue” so that if you start telling the attorney about what this person did to you 15 years ago, the attorney will try as tactfully as possible (or not so) to bring you back to the issues that have legal relevance.
Legal relevance is not the same as our logical sense of relevance or common sense of relevance but is a particular set of rules as to what is admissible in court. The court does not need to hear every issue for purposes of the law. It does not need to hear all elements of the conflict. But the late Ruth Mompati, who worked in the Tambo and Mandela firm, among other people, has remarked on how they used to sit and listen for hours and hours about the hardships of the people who came to them for relief through the courts or through other legal means.
“I joined Mandela & Tambo as Nelson Mandela’s secretary and typist at the beginning of 1953, just after the Defiance Campaign. Nelson was very busy so he was very demanding, but both he and Oliver Tambo were good people to work for, very considerate and respectful… Nelson was a very popular lawyer, not only because he was good and he knew his law — in most cases he won, and often in very difficult political cases — but also because he respected his clients. He made them feel they were very important and that he was there for them. He listened very well; he gave people time to speak.
“Many of his clients came from the villages. Chiefs would come because they had been removed by the so-called native commissioners for not agreeing with them or resisting being pushed around. They were proud men, confident in their chieftainship, and didn’t feel obliged to the native commissioner and this meant they got into trouble with the law…
“… This was the type of person Mandela appeared for, and they were attracted to him because he respected them despite the fact that some of them had very little schooling. Mandela made them realise they were right to defend themselves, that it was their right as human beings not to allow anyone to disrespect them. And I think this made people realise that he listened, that he was a man who respected people irrespective of their standing in life or in society.” (Ruth Mompati in Mandela. The Authorised Portrait, editorial consultants, Mac Maharaj, Ahmed Kathrada. Wild Dog Press, 2006, p. 58).
All reports of Mandela and Sisulu’s period in prison record the same willingness to hear and offer advice, where requested. Mandela used to keep a diary because so many people wanted to see him — from all political orientations.
Both Mandela and Sisulu felt compassion for others. I once met Eddie Daniels, a former Liberal Party member who was imprisoned for sabotage under the auspices of the short-lived African Resistance Movement (ARM). He told me that whenever he felt depressed he went to see Sisulu who would simply hug him and breathe warmth into him.
Thinking back on the short period that I knew Nelson Mandela and Mama and Walter Sisulu (I did not know Oliver Tambo that well, because most of the time he was around here, he was unwell, so I cannot speak as much of him but I observed the same qualities in him), I remember that they always listened very, very carefully before they offered their views on a subject. They knew when people asked for guidance it was in order to act, and ill-considered advice could have had serious or disastrous consequences, at various times.
They were conscious of the fact, modest as they were — of the weight they carried as leading figures of the liberation movement, people who were looked up to by just about everyone in the ANC.
In 1991, in the first national conference held after the unbanning of the ANC, there were reports that Thabo Mbeki was standing as deputy president and that if he stood, Chris Hani would also contest the post. The comrades with whom I interacted agreed that if this were true, it was important to avert such a contest that would be divisive and I was asked with another comrade (whose name I have not mentioned because I needed to check whether or not he wished to be identified) to go and see Sisulu and ask him whether he would stand for that position.
We met Sisulu at his then Soweto home. It was 11am and he was in his pyjamas. He sat on a bed and we sat opposite him and as we spoke his eyes would move from one of us to the other. He heard us out and I am not sure that he gave us an answer then, though it was clear that he understood the unifying role that he played. In any event, he did stand and was elected to the position, (contested by Harry Gwala).
These leaders, who I take as models of leadership, also prepared, if they had an idea of what they might be asked, before offering advice. I have heard stories about Moses Kotane — as would later be the case with Chris Hani — that when Kotane arrived at his place of work, people would be waiting to see him.
Before Kotane saw the first person, he would have a look at the newspaper headlines and skim through the stories because he said it may have been something in the news that was one of the reasons someone was coming to see him. He would prepare himself to respond, should that have been the case.
Why I mention listening is that people are crying out with the pain they are enduring, under the hardships that are continuing in post-apartheid South Africa with inequalities increasing, with conditions of living worsening rather than improving.
There have been some improvements. But in many respects, these have been reversed through neglect or fraud or other failures on the part of government. But people in government are not listening to the cries of pain. They no longer hear them.
They have grown indifferent to the pain of the poor. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the first white member of the clergy to march with Martin Luther King Jr once said: “The opposite of good is not evil, but indifference.”
What we have in South Africa today is a callous indifference, a breaking of ties with the people from whom many of the leadership actually emerged, a breaking of ties between a movement of the people and those very people. It is now a movement of an elite that is concerned about themselves.
I have mentioned that the press is doing the public a great disservice by fixating on the race for office in the ANC national elections at the end of this year. It is important who is elected but it is equally important for the public to understand what the political significance, if any, of the election of one or another person will be. My guess is that there is a generalised emptiness in terms of what is on offer in terms of political vision, orientation, strategy and tactics. For that reason, I believe that although I’m urging the media to unpack what people stand for, the answer will be that they stand for nothing except self-advancement and of those allied to them.
This is a very serious thing to say about people who were once very brave, who at one stage endured prison, torture, exile, danger as members of MK, or as members of communities fighting against apartheid. That is what some of these people were at one stage. They no longer bear a relationship of care and compassion towards the very people from whom most of them come. That connection is now broken.
Before we can remedy the conditions of South Africa, we need to go back and see where there was a “wrong turning”, not fixate on unifying the ANC and who will be in this or that position in the ANC, but look at where the ANC went wrong and what will need to be done in order to remedy not the ANC, although the ANC may be part of this, but to remedy the crisis of this country or the multiple crises of this country.
My belief is that an ANC that lacks all ideas, an ANC that cannot evoke excitement about what it wishes to do in order to remedy the crises it has created, the hardship it has created — that ANC cannot lead any renewal of South Africa. Whatever it may do to renew itself as an organisation, it is too late for it to regain the trust, the almost unqualified trust that it had among large sections of the population. What many seem to forget is that keeping the ANC “unified” and avoiding a split is not a national issue, but an ANC concern, a concern of an organisation that may well fail to command a majority of votes in the next election.
If one does not listen one cannot organise people. If one does not hear people, one cannot remedy their hardships. If one does not listen one cannot hope to regain trust.
The ANC may well play some part in rebuilding democracy in South Africa. But as written before, we need to draw on broader sectors that have proven themselves in the post-apartheid battle to defend and advance democracy. Just as we used to refer to the ANC as having proved itself over generations in advancing the Struggle, it is not the ANC that has been shown to be a reliable part of the advancement and defence of democracy after 1994. We need to identify those sectors, organisations and other people who have come together in a range of ways in order to defend the vulnerable, advance the rights of all and regain what has been lost.
These forces are often coming to the assistance of those without water or other basic needs, doing what the state ought to have done, others come to the defence of rights violated by the ANC-led state and some others build organisations of the oppressed and marginalised or as organisations in their solidarity, as professionals or members of the public who embrace their pain as their own.
No political movement that does not hear and have compassion for this pain can be part of the revitalisation of democratic life. DM
Raymond Suttner is an emeritus professor at the University of South Africa. 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 raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner. He is currently preparing memoirs covering his life experiences as well as analysing the political character of the periods through which he has lived.
This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za