I found the confrontation I was looking for after three days of paralysing seclusion at the ANC national policy conference. We’d been waiting all week, starved on a few two-fingered peace signs and the triumph of “phrase” over “transition”.
Of all places, the debate came in the commission feedback press conferences on legislature and provincial and local governance. I was listening with one ear while looking up the origins of the two dominating words.
I’d spent most of the week in the press room, confined by a grove in the doldrums of Gallagher Estate, chain-smoking and watching with great interest two white swans circle the pond. The ANC delivered rolling press conferences but the information was limited, a pinch of food to throw in the fish bowl.
When the confrontation came, it was hardly a cage fight between President Jacob “All’s Good” Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema “No Emotion” Motlanthe. But by Friday I was so hungry that even the policy documents were looking tasty. I needed a showdown.
The heads of the commissions finished their report and faced the media for questions. One of the proposals raised, they’d said, was that ANC members face disciplinary action for joining violent service delivery protests – burning down councillors’ houses, libraries, clinics and all that jazz.
The hand of a Beeld journo was raised at the rear of the room. The gist of his question was: “How can you discipline them for burning municipal facilities when you (the ANC) taught them to do that?”
“Tjo!” the journo next to me exclaimed into his hands.
The comrades were shocked. Lynne Brown, Nomaindia Mfeketo, Ayanda Dlodlo, Yunus Carrim and Jackson Mthembu stared the Beeld journo down as though they might scream “you bloody agent!”
I leeched forward from my seat, ducking under the TV cameras to get a photo and put my recorder on the desk, which was draped in a “Unity in Diversity” banner.
The ANC members took the question as an attack on the party and an insult to the democracy they’d helped create.
“I grew up in the ANC. I was taught discipline in Umkhonto we Sizwe. I was taught to love my people in Umkhonto we Sizwe. I was taught to hate and fight the enemy in the Umkhonto we Sizwe and that’s exactly what I did, as a little kid and as I grew up,” said Dlodlo, pausing with each clause. “Now it cannot be right that you come here today and say that the ANC taught us to destroy what has been put in place.”
Dlodlo asked the audience to part so she could see the Beeld questioner.
“Shockingly arrogant,” muttered Lynne Brown, staring over her glasses.
Carrim took his turn. “You can’t morally, intellectually or empirically equate the struggle against Apartheid, frankly, which was a repressive, authoritarian, neo-fascist regime against which a legitimate, morally sanctioned armed-struggle was being waged with the current system, where people have ward committees, IDP forums, budgetary processes that are consultative, school governing bodies, community policing forums. Yes, they don’t all work but there is space to raise your issues through these structures.”
Mfeketo said she wouldn’t warrant the question with a response.
It was left to ANC spokesman Mthembu to summarise the anger. This was the same guy who the previous night had revised his jingle against City Press as journalists gorged on takeaways. “Don’t buy KFC, don’t buy,” he had sung.
“Many of us who are sitting here, we sit with scars. We are trying very hard to forgive but not to forget, because we’ll never forget. There are some of our family members, some of our friends who are no more, who died in the struggle against apartheid. And it was a just struggle. The whole world called apartheid a crime against humanity.
“Now, for anybody to come here and say that we were not justified to fight that system, therefore all those who will be burning their own things that have been built by the democratic state are falling on our footsteps, I think that person, when he gets an opportunity, should apologise.”
I’m often a cynic. Somewhere between Sonic Youth, Nirvana and The Hellacopters, the hopelessness that drowns modern youth around the world sunk in.
But listening to Mthembu, it suddenly dawned on me that the ANC members were part of the same organisation that charted one of the most inspiring achievements in my lifetime.
How have the liberation leaders, many who were prepared to sacrifice their lives, come to be seen as incompetent hacks in government, I wondered.
We all know the shortcomings of the ANC and that there’s no space for nostalgia when it comes to scrutinising an elected government. But the media’s portrayal can feel like a vortex of pessimism.
In the whirlwind we forget one of the most important arguments for accountability: most of the party members joined the movement to serve the interests of South Africans.
As the ANC members left the press conference room I asked myself whether assuming ANC leaders are hopeless leaders, nefarious vultures or megalomaniacs creates a self-fulfilling prophecy.
I decided I would listen to Mthembu and keep in mind where the party comes from instead of searching for the great leadership confrontation. I would hold them to the values they claim to represent and the sacrifices they’ve made for our future.
But somewhere between poverty, unemployment, inequality and corruption, South Africans are losing hope. If we go deep into the heart of today’s ANC, we find most of the same values as in 1994. They just need to be implemented. DM