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Op-Ed: Crossing Rubicon – the ANC versus the Nation


Mark Heywood is a social justice activist and former Editor of Maverick Citizen, a section of Daily Maverick. He is the former Executive Director of SECTION27 and has been a human rights activist most of his life.

The ANC is a venerable old party. It has a history unlike any other political party in the world. Through the last decades of colonialism and the nearly 50 years of apartheid, through massacres and dark days, through dislocation and deprivation “we, the people” clung onto it because it represented our ideals and hope. Although freedom was a long walk, its leaders embodied its ideals. They showed they were prepared to give the enemy their bodies and, “if needs be”, their lives for that ideal – but they would never surrender their souls. Never.

When all the regular checks and balances seem to be ineffective or a serious accountability breach is thought to have occurred, then the citizens’ best interests could at times demand a resort to the ultimate accountability-ensuring mechanisms.

Chief Justice Mogeong Mogoeng, 22 June, 2017

The ANC is a venerable old party.

For most of its 105 years it was a pole of attraction to people across the world who found in the nobility and fortitude of its leaders values that they yearned for as planetary values: resilience, resistance to oppression, non-racialism, self-sacrifice; the belief that eventually good will triumph – but until that day good people must set an example that offers hope to those who have succumbed to despair.

The ANC had its martyrs, its monuments, its myths; its intellectuals, its prisoners, its leaders; its mission. 

Characteristic of its members was an evident willingness to take risks and to make personal sacrifices. It was an embodiment of truth.

In recent years the ANC has become a venereal party.

Recent memory does not require that we recount its sins.

However, now that the Constitutional Court has spoken on the issue of a Secret Ballot, and reminded us of the values of public service, the Motion of No Confidence in President Zuma presents the ANC with a new moment of truth, its very own Rubicon.

The future of the Zuma wrecking ball has now been placed firmly in the hands of 249 men and women who represent the ANC in Parliament. They are the people now who have a chance to draw a line across a tragic and unexpected part of our history.

Yet, the vote of no confidence is a complex one. It is a high-stakes game, more so than many people will admit. It falls on men and women – mortals not Gods. We should all feel solidarity with them.

In contemplating this moment I am forced to think of the friends I have who are ANC MPs. I think of people such as Andries Nel and Ebrahim Patel; they are fellow journey-men – Nel once an activist in Lawyers for Human Rights; and Patel, for many years a working class hero, a leading and inspirational trade unionist in SACTWU and COSATU.

I think of those I respect and have worked closely with to help the government realise the rights in our Constitution – Dr Aaron Motsoaledi, Enver Surty, Dr Joe Phaala.

I think of those I respect by reputation and occasional encounters, Derek Hanekom, Jackson Mthembu, Makhosi Khoza, Connie September, Yunus Carrim, Pravin Gordhan, Joan Fubbs, Vincent Smith.

I think of those I have criticised for their failures in government but who I have to believe are men and women of conscience and good heart, Jeremy Cronin, Henrietta Bogopane-Zulu.

Looking through the list of the ANC MPs I see there are obviously many people I don’t know. But you have to assume they are mostly people of honour, people with unknown (to me, at least) life stories involving sacrifice, people who chose to be public servants, activists.

Each of these men and women serve in one of the most vital institutions created by our Constitution, our National Assembly. S42 of the Constitution says that they are:

“elected to represent the people and to ensure government by the people under the Constitution. [The National Assembly] does this by choosing the President, by providing a national forum for consideration of issues, by passing legislation and by scrutinizing and overseeing executive action.”

These men and women are given remarkable power to fulfill these heavy responsibilities. According to the Constitutional Court  “we the people” make them our “messengers or servants to run our constitutional errands for the common good of us all … errands [which] can only be run successfully by people who are unwaveringly loyal to the core constitutional values of accountability, responsiveness and openness.”

The court later adds that “the powers and resources assigned to [them] … do not belong to the public office-bearers who occupy positions of high authority therein. They are therefore not to be used for the advancement of personal or sectarian interests. Amandla awethu, mannda ndiashu, maatla ke a rona or matimba ya hina (power belongs to us) and mayibuye iAfrika (restore Africa and its wealth) are much more than mere excitement-generating slogans. They convey a very profound reality that State power, the land and its wealth all belong to ‘we the people’, united in our diversity. These servants are supposed to exercise the power and control these enormous resources at the beck and call of the people.”

But underneath their weighty titles and duties MPs remain ordinary men and women. They must dream, worry, consider their public reputations, have to explain their actions to their parents and children, have to account to their Gods.

As they contemplate the coming Motion of No Confidence in President Zuma, many of them must be wrecked by self-doubt. I wonder whether they will do the right thing. I wonder whether they will succumb to a party line that is contradictory, that requires them to affirm and approve of a corrupt President who is harming the nation? Or will they vote in the national interest and court risk to themselves from a leadership that has gone rogue?

The ANC is a venerable old party.

It has a history unlike any other political party in the world. Through the last decades of colonialism and the nearly 50 years of apartheid, through massacres and dark days, through dislocation and deprivation “we, the people” clung onto it because it represented our ideals and hope. Although freedom was a long walk, its leaders embodied its ideals. They showed they were prepared to give the enemy their bodies and, “if needs be”, their lives for that ideal – but they would never surrender their souls.


Many made the ultimate sacrifice. Many gave away years and years to prison, not willing to bow or bend to their oppressors.

They surrendered a million ordinary pleasures. Recently I have been reading memoirs, favourite quotations of and conversations with “Uncle Kathy”, Ahmed Kathrada. As I read I was struck again by the nobility of these men and women. The cruelty of the deprivations they faced was in their ordinariness. For Kathrada it was:

  • 14 years without sleeping in a bed.
  • 16 years without access to newspapers.
  • 13 years grinding limestone in a quarry.
  • 10 years without access to a garden.

But what I understood from Uncle Kathy’s memories is that the heart of their sacrifice, their iron resolve, arose from their adherence to noble and ancient ideals of freedom, equality and dignity. They knew these ideals pre-dated the ANC, but they clothed them with the colours of the ANC. Yet in doing so it was not that they were sacrificing their lives for a party, a set of offices, and a freedom fighter’s salary. The ideal – justice, truth and equality – was paramount. In fact, truth be told, until 1990 when the party had to be rapidly constructed the ANC was always more ideal than apparatus, sacrifice than salary.

The ANC’s greatest strength lay in the fact that it resided in people’s hearts. That was the guide.

These men and women suffered, resisted and died for the national interest.

The ideals of the ANC always prioritised the national interest. From its formation in 1912 the ANC and the national interest were always aligned.

It was always in the national interest that colonialism and apartheid be overthrown.

It was always in the national interest that non-racialism be promoted and defended against those that would have us forget our common humanity and destiny and instead tear ourselves apart.

It was in the national interest that Nelson Mandela led the ANC to a compromise to avoid a civil war.

It was in the national interest that the ANC pioneered a transformative Constitution and the rule of human rights law.

It was not as if, in all these years, the ANC did not make mistakes, that it was not corrupted at its edges, or sometimes even close to its heart. But these mistakes never diverted it completely away from the national interest.

Yet, today the ANC and the national interest seem at odds.

The ANC has become a venereal party.

The reason for this is now in plain sight: significant structures and individuals of the ANC have been captured and are being used to pursue a set of private interests. That capture is not just of the ANC’s President and party machine. The thieves have stolen the flag, the traditions, the blood of its veterans and martyrs. These too are being prostituted, necessarily so because the con depends on trying to appropriate the popular support and trust that still resides in the ANC – the heart that people don’t want to give up on.

It is this theft that causes the greatest confusion. It explains why – despite the mountains of evidence of corruption being exposed by the Daily Maverick and others – millions of people have not yet poured onto the street to protest; why the President is still in power; why the Gupta’s Saxonwold mansion has not been overwhelmed by the masses in the same way that the poor overran the mansions of their oppressors in Eastern Europe.

The tragedy is that when MPs are told to vote against the motion of no confidence they, the (mostly) good people of the ANC, are being asked to lend their names to and become active purveyors of this con. They are being asked to protect a party apparatus that is corrupted and infected. They are being told to sell off the ideals for which so many died.

They are misled by the likes of Gwede Mantashe to believe that the ANC is “anointed” and has a “historic mission”. But the ANC’s mission is only as historic as the nobility of the people within it. When those people betray the national interest the mission is lost.

The argument that the ANC will be “voting itself out of power” is part of that con. The ANC is divided. The house captured. A vote against the President would be voting the capturer-in chief out of his Constitutional office. The day after ANC MPs helped vote out a corrupt President, they would still be the majority in Parliament, they would still be in power. They would still have the power to vote in a clean ANC President and a cleansed ANC Cabinet.

They could pass the buck back to the ANC NEC, who have twice failed to do the right thing and remove the President. It would be incumbent on the ANC NEC to nominate a new President who would restore the integrity of the ANC and allow it to lead the nation once more through Parliament.

The national interest now is not in the fake unity of the ANC – which will perpetuate division. It is in the restoration of accountability, the charging, criminal prosecution and imprisonment of a long list of suspects and a plan of transformation to put our country on a path to social justice and equality. The ANC in Parliament has the power to do this.

Whatever the honourable Jackson Mthembu and the much less honourable Gwede Mantashe may say to intimidate the Parliamentary ANC, at this moment national interest and the ANC’s party interests collide.

Ke Nako!


Now is the time for ANC MPs to make their mind up  on whether they are public servants or ANC servants. Their decision will decide whether their names join the roll of honour led by Madiba or whether they are soiled forever and regarded by history as scoundrels, sell-outs and impimpis.

For people loyal to the ideals of freedom and equality that should not be a difficult choice. DM


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