It was in September 2007 when the North Korean media widely reported about the factory worker from the city of Ich’on, Kang Hyong-kwon, who, during severe flooding the previous month, managed to grab his most precious possessions, his five-year-old daughter, and portraits of the country’s leaders, Generalissimo Kim Il-sung and his son, Marshal Kim Jong-il, when he tried to escape his flooded house. Engulfed by a strong and dangerous current, he lost grip of his daughter who was then sadly overwhelmed by the swollen waters and tragically drowned. He however held on to the images of his national leaders.
It was not the tragedy that made the headlines. He was hailed as a real-life hero and his devotion made the news headlines. North Koreans were encouraged to emulate Hyong-kwon’s example.
To some it may seem as if something like this can only happen in what is perceived to be a maverick, authoritarian state. But upon reflecting on this tragic occurrence, is this a phenomenon that is absent in our democratic society and the formations that occupy our political space?
In the months leading up to the ANC’s poor election display in the Western Cape, we were confronted by what our former president Thabo Mbeki calls the “noxious phenomenon”, where leaders were considered more important than the organisation itself and where others saw a need to defend them at the expense of the organisation. Unfortunately, as we attempt to find reasons for the poor election results, we continue to be confronted by this “noxious phenomenon”.
As the ANC deals with its internal disciplinary matters, the absence of a particular leader from an election campaign, pending the finalisation of an organisational process, is now erroneously perceived to be the main cause for the movement’s poor results in the province. Even a basic understanding of the Western Cape’s political landscape and the ANC’s organisational decline indicates that the reasons for the poor results are far more multifaceted than the absence of an individual.
This is a time when members and supporters are willing to let go of what is really important and hold on to what is temporary and of no significant value, like Hyong-kwon did.
Hero-worshipping and cults of personality have no place in our organisation and society. It directly threatens our unity of purpose and our revolutionary tasks of ensuring that the ANC remains grounded in our communities and passionately pursues the ideals of a transformed society where social justice is paramount. As aspirant revolutionary democrats we must always be guided by the words of our former President Nelson Mandela when he said, “Leaders come and go but the organisation (ANC) will remain. It is not individuals who matter but the collective.”
Sadly, the “noxious phenomenon” of “friends of” or “bring back” certain leaders campaigns are currently confronting the ANC, particularly in the Western Cape. This tendency of undermining decisions and processes of constitutional structures and forums of the ANC is often characterised by racism, tribalism, sexism and rumour-mongering.
These divisive and counterproductive campaigns not only provide useful ammunition to those who wish to see the ANC and its progressive agenda fail, it also disappoints and discourages our voters, volunteers and supporters at a time when we can ill afford it.
Hero-worshipping also contributes to the stunting of internal critical debate. When members and structures of the ANC raise critical concerns about the conduct of certain individual leaders and those leading these demagogic campaigns, the critiques are perceived as factional.
Contributing to the confusion remains the irresponsible behaviour and utterances of many of those in whose name these small groups purport to act. It creates the impression that the leaders are in full support of these campaigns and consent to the activities launched and executed in their name.
That is typical of the worshipped hero or the personality around which a cult is built; it is not about the organisation or the cause, it is about them, their power, sway and influence.
With no regard to the damage done to the integrity or reputation of the organisation, when the “I” becomes more important than the “we”, that is when you realise the importance of taking back the organisation, as a continuation of such would ultimately lead to the alienation of its base.
This means that, as a branch-based organisation, the ANC should focus much more on the basics as we simultaneously listen to our people’s concerns, act decisively and popularise our progressive policies. We should continue to ensure that functioning branches that are open to all remain the most important and fundamental bases of all our activities. With that said, we should make sure that our membership joins “what” and not “who” and that as branch, regional, provincial and national leaders we are constantly schooled in what is expected of us and that we remain the driving force for accelerated and progressive change in the communities that we live in and serve.
More important, we should strengthen “Through the Eye of The Needle” to ensure that we do not create fiefdoms within the ANC or allow our internal processes to be dominated and exploited by those who wish to use it for personal attainment of benefit and that quality instead of quantity becomes the norm.
Last, we need to deal decisively with any incidences of divisive hero-worshipping and our disciplinary processes should deal as harshly with the worshipped who promotes it, as with the worshipper.
In the Western Cape we are seeing that factions are not formed based on particular ideological differences but instead around particular individuals. When this happens, the ugly cousin of patronage usually leads to the crippling of internal democracy and the reliance on favours and assistance for some from those whom they serve. For this reason, we need a special approach to deal with personality-based factions and make sure that it is rooted out.
We dare not be praised and admired for our commitment to a particular individual or leader. Our focus should remain the strengthening of our organisation through the building of functioning branches and the continuous efforts to unite all our people behind the vision of the Freedom Charter. DM
Muhammad Khalid Sayed is the ANC Youth League Western Cape provincial chairman and a member of the ANC Thornhill Robert Waterwitch Branch in Athlone, Cape Town. He writes in his personal capacity.
Muhammad Khalid Sayed is the Western Cape Provincial Chairperson of the ANC Youth League. He was a student activist, worked as a political affairs consultant, after which he worked as researcher for the ANC in the Western Cape Provincial Legislature. He holds a Masters Degree in Religious Studies from the University of Cape Town.