SEEKING NEW LEADERS OP-ED
Our multiple crises demand a new configuration of forces to break the paralysis of conventional politics
The ANC cadres captured state institutions, but the ANC itself has been captured by undemocratic qualities that make it unrecognisable compared with what marked its character at the dawn of democracy, at the moment of unbanning of organisations in 1990.
This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website polity.org.za
For a political organisation to win the confidence of voters or supporters, it requires certain qualities. These are not invariable, because it is possible to win support through cynicism and various forms of duplicity. That is found all over the world where promises and undertakings and programmes that politicians advance are often put before the public without any intention of realising or implementing them.
When the new democratic South Africa was established, very many people who had sacrificed a great deal to realise that watershed moment – often referred to as the “democratic breakthrough” – hoped that the type of democratic order that would be inaugurated would mark a break with the past. This would not only be a rupture with apartheid South Africa, but also be different from the cynicism that one finds in political systems in many parts of the world today, characteristics that were already evident or well established in the early 1990s.
If one wants to build a democratic order, where people experience an ever-increasing realm of freedom, where their talents are realised in a range of different ways, then one must impress them with one’s seriousness, the gravity and determination with which one addresses the tasks of the day. They must also see the integrity of the representatives, that leaders and members of the organisation do not simply say “we will do x” to get elected but have no intention of doing what is undertaken.
The public must have a sense of trust. Even conservative leaders like General Colin Powell, when speaking about leadership, say that an essential quality of leadership is trust.
Before people can have confidence in leadership and an organisation a relationship of trust must be built and maintained. Historically, the ANC grew from a small organisation with a leadership mainly drawn from professionals and clergy and self-taught intellectuals like Sol Plaatje to become a mass organisation with reach all over the country and people having more than a political link to the organisation, but a sense of it being almost familial.
People came to believe that the ANC belonged to them, and they belonged to the ANC. Oral testimony records that many supporters believed that they did not have to join and were members of the ANC long before they formally joined. This is part of the oral history of the 1950s.
For some decades after 1960 it was not legal to join the ANC. But many people, even in the harsh conditions of the Bantustans, did what they could to advance the Struggle of the ANC in various ways through listening to its clandestine Radio Freedom, and other ways of understanding what the ANC needed to be done. And they undertook these tasks as informal ANC members or activists – who could not be formally recruited.
That sense of trust is no more. The same organisation that won the first elections with the slogan “a better life for all” has shown over the decades, especially recent times, that it has come to see its mission as providing a better life for the few (especially its leaders at various levels), at the expense of the many.
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It has come to see itself as an organisation that is free to pilfer from the fiscus funds that were meant to provide for the poor, and divert these towards their own self-enrichment, whether through diversion of poverty-relief funds towards Nkandla or Covid-19 medical healthcare funds that were needed for saving lives and protecting health professionals, diverted into the pockets of ANC leaders or those associated with them.
This continues to this day as leaders and their associates continue to lead the good life – not only through illegal means. They are also indifferent to the “optics” of their living in luxury, including insulation from load shedding, while the rest of South Africa bears hardship or losses of various kinds.
It is undeniable that leaders do need specific facilities by virtue of their being tasked with serving the nation. They need regular access to power and internet connections and a range of facilities to undertake their public work. But since they often fail to do this work it angers many to hear that they are freed from the burdens and discomfort faced by the rest of the population.
Integrity and a programme that speaks to people’s needs
For people to have confidence in an organisation, it must have integrity and also a programme of action which is meaningful, which has derived to a substantial extent from hearing what people themselves want and incorporating that in the programme advanced by the political organisation.
People must recognise themselves as having contributed to what a popular organisation advances, as was the case with the Freedom Charter that derived from a long process of consultation where people’s demands were recorded and consolidated. That is why it is wrong to attribute “authorship” of the Charter to any one individual. (On the Congress of the People Campaign, leading to creation of the Freedom Charter, see Raymond Suttner and Jeremy Cronin, 50 Years of the Freedom Charter, UNISA Press, 2006).
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Otherwise, that programme will have been developed by a small group without proper participation. And we know that the ANC conference of December 2022, which continued into 2023, in fact devoted very little time to policy discussions and strategies for realising these and addressing broader pressing problems. Instead, it was obsessed with who got what position. Elections and holding office have come to define what the ANC is all about. Commitment to freedom and transformation is now a distant memory.
Regrettably, the media colluded in this, in the sense that all that matters in much media coverage is who is in what position, and who will be “reshuffled” in or out of Cabinet and so forth.
Ideas for the future and ways of making those ideas come true have been diverted by self-enrichment, by struggles to get positions rather than struggles to transform. This means that any organisation that has been “captured” in that way cannot attract the imagination of the population. It cannot win its confidence.
The ANC cadres, it is known, captured state institutions, but the ANC itself has been captured by undemocratic qualities that make it unrecognisable compared with what marked its character at the dawn of democracy, at the moment of unbanning of organisations in 1990.
Any organisation that wants to win the confidence of the majority of the population must have a programme that is clear and aimed at bettering the lives of all and can be seen to be that. But after 29 years of democracy, there must be a plan for realising that. There must be a sense that those who are advancing ideas for remedying the problems of today have really thought about what is necessary and are not grandstanding or advancing vague ideas that have already been there, or recycling a whole series of previous plans. That is the case now.
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People don’t have confidence, even in tackling one of the most serious problems of the day, the so-called load shedding question. They don’t have confidence because there is not a sense of seriousness in those in leadership. There’s not a sense that they really intend to devote themselves to the affairs of state, let alone using the levers of state to better the lives of all.
No alternative to the ANC?
Another reason for the general sense of despair among the public is that there is also no alternative to the ANC in formal politics. The DA has had the opportunity to prove itself in local government and has in fact done so in the Western Cape. But it has not been able to demonstrate a capacity to provide an adequate broader national alternative.
Its ideas are also limited and stale. Its leadership is uninspiring, and it remains primarily a party appealing to the whites.
The EFF has a capacity for drama but it cannot be relied on to pursue its own policies as with its inconsistent approach to xenophobia, and its macho, militaristic self-representation is unconducive to democratic life. No party that aims to instil fear can provide democratic leadership. We need to build a culture of respect for nonviolence in a society where violence is often a first resort in situations of conflict.
There are no other parties of significance at this point in time.
Including but also going beyond formal electoral politics
It is important that we recognise that a number of organisations outside of the formal political arena are playing an important role in the broader political and social arena. Gift of the Givers, for example, is undertaking many of the tasks that the state ought to be doing – filling scandalous gaps in what ought to be publicly performed tasks.
On a more political level there are, regrettably, very few mass social movements apart from shack dwellers movement, Abahlali baseMjondolo, and more local organisations like the Amadiba Crisis Committee and a limited number of others of varying size and effectiveness.
Organised labour, although not as strong as it used to be, may still have an important role to play.
It will take time to rebuild popular movements with a national base, although sections of the religious sector and some intellectuals are calling for broad movements to recover and rebuild our freedoms and re-dedicate public life towards social transformation for all.
Other sectors, some of which cannot be described as popular, can play an important part in reconstruction. Business is a powerful force whose weight needs to be felt in reconstructing democracy. It still seems reluctant to break from its conventional pattern of seeking access to government and a special relationship with the government of the day. But the current government’s days are numbered, and it no longer helps to focus on a close relationship with the ANC.
We need to ask ourselves how we can engender a discussion to broaden this impact of sectors and organisations outside of formal political parties to move us to a different space.
One cannot prescribe such developments from one’s computer. One thing is clear is that the current crises – which are multiple – are increasing in intensity and in their reach.
It is also clear that a new configuration of forces is required to break the paralysis of conventional politics. Those with broad public respect need to step in and propel such a development to save us from the current stalemate. DM
Raymond Suttner is an Emeritus Professor at the University of South Africa and a Research Associate in the English Department at University of the Witwatersrand. 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, violence, gender and sexualities. His Twitter handle is @raymondsuttner.