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Today’s ANC – through the Long Lens of Freedom


Ian von Memerty is a Zimbabwean-born South African entertainer, actor, singer, musician, writer, director and television presenter.

While lying in bed having been mule-kicked by the ‘flu, I reread Nelson Mandela’s Long Walk To Freedom. Reading it gave me some much needed perspective on the ANC today.

The party Mandela led in the fight for liberation, and then in the first heady years of democracy, has lost its way. I am not putting forward my own beliefs here – this is what leading members of the ANC say about their own party. Week by week, month by month, the chorus of dissatisfaction from within the ANC has become louder and larger. The one place where the ANC retains an unbreakable silence about its internal difficulties is Parliament.

For months now I have asked what it would take until the ever-growing list of public figures who have spoken up against Jacob Zuma take the next step (Trevor Manuel, Ahmed Kathrada, Cheryl Carolus, Mathews Phosa, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Mothlanthe, the Gauteng ANC leadership). To someone not born and raised in the ANC it seems there is only one logical option for these stalwarts, veterans and pioneers. Resign from the ANC and show South Africa that you care about the country more than you care about the ANC. 

However, I remember and respect that when you have sacrificed, struggled, suffered and given years of your life, to be asked to “resign” from a lifetime commitment by some arm-chair privileged observer is just insulting and presumptuous.

But in rereading Mandela’s book, aside from the power of his story, what I came away with was that this was a story of internal evolution, both for Mandela the individual, and for the ANC. And these two words and all that they mean are fundamentally intrinsic to the story of the ANC.

Evolution. Mandela’s life, and in parallel, the life of the ANC, was one of continuous evolution. Policies and strategies were constantly shifting within the party, as the leadership grappled with the greatest challenge every political party faces – holding to their core beliefs, but updating those beliefs to stay relevant. As the party and the man faced new challenges they had to change the way they fought for liberation.

The establishment of the Youth League (after 40 years of the party’s existence), and then the decision after 50 years of  non-violence to create Umkhonto we Sizwe, came about because the party knew that to achieve their goals, they had to adapt to a changing world. Likewise, the move from being the armed opponent of the apartheid government to becoming their constitutional collaborators in the formation of democracy was an enormous shift, and not universally welcomed within the party.

Internal. The changes that took place within the ANC were often divisive and confrontational but were taken collectively, almost without fail. Whether developing new strategies, arguing about the how, why and where of policies, or making decisions on discipline and direction, the ANC solved its problems from inside.

Mandela’s decision in the ‘80s to engage with the apartheid government, and begin the process of dialogue, was one that he seems to have made alone. He made it knowing that he would be held accountable by the exiled leadership and other ANC prisoners from whom he had been isolated. This seems to have been the one great exception, and I use the word great in all its connotations here. Without this, the story of our country might be horrendously different.

Publically, the ANC has always stood as one, whatever its internal differences, and then debated its way forward behind closed doors. It is, I think, a core belief within the ANC that the party will always correct itself, because it always has. As Minister Pravin Ghordan said on Thursday, in his calm and equable way, the party has faced “many challenges” before. So it would seem that Ghordan, and the many people who have spoken out about “President ZUMA needing to step aside for the good of the country”, and the ANC having become “an ignoble and corrupt parasite”, still have faith that the party that has always managed to solve its own problems will do so again.

Which is both heartening and frightening. It is heartening because if Finance Minister Ghordan, whose experience, integrity and intelligence are unquestioned, is standing firm while confusing winds from Luthuli House, the Hawks, Cabinet, and the Presidency howl like a hurricane around him, it’s because he believes that the ANC at its heart is the same party it has always been. That the ANC is still a patriotic, disciplined party dedicated to liberation and equality.

If he and the dozens of other ANC leaders who have criticised the ANC still remain members, then they must believe that the party will emerge from this crisis with its integrity intact. That the ANC will subordinate itself for the good of its supporters; specifically that vast majority of poor black South Africans who still remain disempowered – economically, educationally and structurally.

But if these veterans are wrong, then that is frightening. Because if they are giving historical discipline and loyalty to a party that no longer cares about discipline and loyalty, then their inaction will allow that party’s legacy to be stolen. If the DA, the EFF and the media are correct that President Zuma and Co have “captured the state”, and worse, that he in turn has been captured by the Guptas and Co, then history is going to judge these great men and women harshly.

By maintaining an outdated loyalty and commitment to a party that is rejecting the very people who have been its power and its purpose they will be seen as willing to stand by while the freedom they fought for is subverted, swallowed up – stolen.

If, heaven forbid, President Zuma should exercise his constitutional right, and remove Pravin Ghordan from the Treasury, would all of these great men and women still play by “party first, country second” rules? At what point do they root themselves to their patriotic past, prune themselves from this present pustulence, and fight once more for a fair and free future?

If the party that has been their home and church no longer follows that great golden thread of internal evolution that runs through Mandela’s book, will they, like Mandela did in the late 1980s, have the courage to act according to individual conscience?

In his book, Mandela, isolated and alone at Pollsmoor, relates how he had a revelation. “If we did not start a dialogue soon, both sides would soon be plunged into a dark night of oppression, violence and war… I knew that my colleagues upstairs would condemn my proposal, and that would kill my initiative even before it was born. There are times when a leader must move out ahead of the flock, go off in a new direction, confident that he is leading his people the right way.”

I can only pray that the custodians of his courage are choosing the right direction now. DM


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