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Bye bye, non-racial ANC, bye bye

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

It has been said often enough – what happens to the ANC has a bearing on all of us. We should be watching the ruling party’s slip from a position of progressive non-racialism to black racial nationalism with disquiet. But what needs to happen for the slide to be checked? Let’s pretend for three minutes that we are the secretary general of the ANC, tasked with keeping the party on the straight and narrow.

There are two ideas that have come to be associated with the African National Congress. One of those is almost as old as the party itself, the other has perhaps always been there but only recently manifested itself.

On the one hand, we have the progressive, non-racial party of Oliver Tambo, Joe Slovo, Ahmed Kathrada and Nelson Mandela – the party that fought for a truly equal society.

One the other, we have one of the “Now it’s our turn to eat” mentality – a party concerned most with black racial nationalism.

We know all about the first ANC, and we’re swiftly learning about the new one.

The new tendency by lower ANC officials to favour black nationalism over non-racialism has been red-flagged many times before. It has been called many different names. To me, it is a new manifestation of the “It’s our turn to eat” mentality.

In 2009, British journalist Michela Wrong published “It’s Our Turn To Eat: the story of a Kenyan whistleblower”, which detailed the struggle of Kenya’s Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics John Githongo to unveil corruption under Mwai Kibaki’s administration. The book is about much more than Githongo’s struggle – it tells the story of a Kenya flailing under the grips of ugly tribal favouritism and government corruption.

As Permanent Secretary for Governance and Ethics, Githongo’s role (he was previously a journalist) was to uncover corruption in the Kenyan government. Kibaki had run on an anti-corruption platform, and in 2003, he appointed Githongo as chief whistleblower in the government. “Under former President Moi, his Kalenjin tribesmen ate. Now it’s our turn to eat,” politicians and civil servants (of the Kikuyu tribe) close to the president memorably told Githongo, according to Wrong’s account.

It’s our turn to eat – it is a deeply evocative phrase, perhaps one that sums up the problem with African politics more than any other.

I’m both fascinated and deeply disturbed by how familiar racial nationalism in the ANC is looking to the mess that Kenya became under Kibaki’s first administration. Having won the struggle on a platform of inclusiveness, progressiveness and non-racialism, it seems the upcoming ANC has chosen the easier – and deadly – route of black nationalism instead.

On 15 May, in front of a full-capacity crowd at the FNB Stadium in Soweto, ANC president Jacob Zuma told those gathered that they shouldn’t vote for parties that “sought to reintroduce apartheid through the back door”.

ANC Youth League president Julius Malema was less delicate when he drove the same point home. He said: The DA is for whites and not for you. The ANC belongs to us black and white. As long as we live the ANC will rule. We will not betray what Chris Hani and Solomon Mahlangu stood for. We must fight the enemy.

The manner of conversation (if we can call it that) between the ruling party and minority groups in the country is no longer that of frank talk and comfortable dialogue, but rather confrontation and litigation. Minorities feel like they need to extract concessions from the ANC. They don’t feel at home there anymore.

We had AfriForum’s highly publicised case against Malema (the song was a coincidental participant in the goings on). We’ve knocked the Afrikaans rights group many times before for the case, but the point that they felt they had better recourse in court than they did by simply knocking on the door at Luthuli House and asking for a meeting speaks volumes about the perception of the ANC by some Afrikaners.

This week brings news of a possible court case against Malema by a group of Indians, this time for uttering the word “makula” in public – which depending on how you see it, is either a perfectly bland word or an extremely racist term. Again, the concerned group chose to approach the long arm of the law before it chose dialogue (technically, the threat of legal action was used to warm Malema to the idea of a meeting).

The realisation in the upper echelons of the ANC is that they have lost non-black groups. This may be more worrying to the generation of Kgalema Motlanthe and Gwede Mantashe than it is to the Malema group of leaders.

Not that this is terribly new information.

But what would you do, as Mantashe, the ostensive brain of the party? How would you preserve the ANC’s true philosophical roots?

The ANC has always had nationalist elements in its midst. Those who thought that the best way to counter apartheid was with some reverse apartheid. Those who are convinced that the only way to kill a monster is by creating a new one.

Simply put, their idea of justice is “It is our turn to eat. You had yours. Now let me get mine”.

The only way to “get yours” is through power. The ANC is the power in the land – hence it attracts these types like flies to poo.

Could it be that the only way for the ANC to retain its pure core is by losing the aura of indomitability?

We’ve seen it in the Western Cape. The moment the party lost power, or the glue that held all these ambitions and appetites in check, it all fell apart. People took their rapacious ideas elsewhere.

But what secretary general would wilfully cripple their own party to save it? DM



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