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What would Sol Plaatje and others have done today?


Judith February is executive officer: Freedom Under Law.

It’s easy when looking at the tired, tawdry ANC of today – bereft of leadership and ethics – to forget its history and its intellectual roots. Some mockingly refer to the “uneducated” Jacob Zuma and use easy analysis to discard the ANC’s history. Its founders were individuals who understood the power of engagement and of ideas, even when the ANC was divided and its own internal politics fraught. The same cannot be said of the current leadership.

The diary of Sol T Plaatje, written between 1899 and 1900, makes for fascinating reading. It is the only account by a black person of the Siege of Mafeking that took place during the South African War of 1899-1902. Plaatje’s formal schooling was limited yet he excelled at the then civil service examinations and on the eve of the war he was sent to Mafeking and during the siege acted as a court interpreter.

An account of his life tells us that he was drawn to journalism and established the first Setswana-English weekly newspaper in 1901. He spoke at least eight languages and is considered one of South Africa’s great public intellectuals. It was Plaatje’s 1916 Native life in South Africa that provided an in-depth insight into South Africa after the passage of the 1913 Native Land Act. It details the disastrous effects of the Act on South Africa’s rural heartland and the assault on the rights of black South Africans during that time.

The opening lines in Chapter 1 are as powerful as they are relevant today:

Awaking on Friday morning, June 20, 1913, the South African native found himself, not actually a slave, but a pariah in the land of his birth.”

He later goes on to write,

Mine is but a sincere narrative of a melancholy situation, in which, with all its shortcomings, I have endeavoured to describe the difficulties of the South African Natives under a very strange law, so as most readily to be understood by the sympathetic reader.”

Still today, the land question remains precariously unresolved. In 1919 Plaatje took part in a meeting with then British Prime Minister Lloyd George regarding the land question.

Plaatje played a key role in the founding of the South African Native National Congress in 1912, which would become the African National Congress in 1923. He was its first secretary-general. He was part of a small mission-educated black intelligentsia and was deeply opposed to narrow tribalism. The first president of the SANNC, John Dube, was a minister and educator (it is said that after Nelson Mandela cast his vote in 1994, he visited Dube’s grave and simply said, ‘Mission accomplished.’ Poignant, to say the least), while Pixley ka Seme, a lawyer, was regarded as the founder of the congress.

Plaatje’s life and work provide lessons not only in activism but, more important, in leadership and values. It also provides us with an insight into those who founded the ANC and their ideals. Like any party it was often wracked by divisions. Any cursory reading of history shows this. Andre Odendaal in his detailed account of the ANC, the epic tome, The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa, details those ups and downs.

When reading all this one cannot help but notice the contrasts and how the ANC’s intellectual roots have diminished over the decades. The Zuma years in particular have been rooted in an anti-intellectualism which has become dangerous. In the cause of populism Zuma has joked about “clever blacks” at rallies and the presidency itself is an empty shell. The ANC’s so-called “battle of ideas” is now safely a “battle of factions”. One might then be moved to ask, “What would Plaatje and others have done today?”

It’s easy when looking at the tired, tawdry ANC of today – bereft of leadership and ethics – to forget its history and its intellectual roots. Some mockingly refer to the “uneducated” Zuma and use easy analysis to discard the ANC’s history. Its founders were individuals who understood the power of engagement and ideas, even when the ANC was divided and its own internal politics fraught.

For a while now, there has been an uneasy feeling that the ANC has slowly but surely lost its intellectual heart. The recent ANC policy conference was mostly mired in factional battles and debate about whether we use the term “white monopoly capital” or simply “monopoly capital”. Though the feedback was provided by ANC stalwart and intellectual, Joel Netshitenzhe, one could not help but feel some sympathy for Netshitenzhe who may well have wanted to tackle the economic debate somewhat differently. That conference was instead overshadowed by “state capture” and the party’s inability to deal with the allegations of corruption swirling around President Zuma and many of his Cabinet members.

The final day of the conference was dominated by the proposal to “nationalise” the South African Reserve Bank (SARB). It can be argued that there is a need to relook at the mandate of the SARB to include a socio-economic mandate, just as the US Federal Reserve does. The problem is that with Zuma’s reckless decision-making in firing Gordhan and Jonas and inserting two ethically dubious men at the economic helm, the trust deficit between government, the ANC itself and business is at an all-time low. In the wake of the Public Protector’s meddling regarding the SARB mandate, the bank is now viewed as a political target. It is therefore difficult to have a proper discussion on the role of the SARB when the political shenanigans seem to overshadow much of the discussion.

Equally, there is a debate about who benefited from apartheid and those who were donors to the apartheid state. Many of those companies and individuals still exist in some form or the other today. The national conversation is so confused and often so toxic, making a sober discussion about the past and its effects on the present almost impossible without it being hijacked by those who have ulterior motives. The leadership that is needed to take these conversations forward with insight is sorely lacking. Zuma himself uses populist rhetoric to advance his own political interests, creating even more complexity. We have seen how a small group of paid protesters like BLF has managed to do exactly that regarding the land issue and so-called “white monopoly capital”. The ANC itself has tried to use populist sway with phrases like “radical economic transformation (RET)”. So-called ‘RET’ means whatever the ANC decides it does on a particular day. Zuma has tried to come across as more “radical” on the land question yet what is lacking is a meaningful public debate that deals with the land issue systematically, the flaws of post-apartheid land redistribution, the amount of land which is state-owned, training and support to emerging farmers and the degree to which urbanisation and the housing challenge need to be integrated into any thinking about land reform and redistribution.

After the recent ANC lekgotla, it was announced that Enoch Godongwana would be looking into the mining industry as a whole and how to ensure that it remains an engine of economic growth. One might ask where Mineral Resources minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s disastrous Mining Charter fits into this ANC subcommittee’s work? Where is the policy clarity within the ANC and what is business to make of all this back and forth which has its roots in an organisation which has no real leadership and a fast diminishing intellectual centre? The ANC cannot steer public debate in large measure also because it is in a state of disarray and held captive by the corrupt and inept. In the face of increasing electoral competition, the ANC has run out of transformative ideas and we now talk openly about the possibility of it either losing an election in 2019 and beyond, or the prospect of coalition government.

Our greatest challenges remain poverty, inequality, unemployment and fixing the corruption and governance crises we have. Zuma has lamented low economic growth and said the economy was “in duress”. Whatever the latter means, it is Zuma’s incoherence, corruption and disastrous governance decisions that have aggravated the situation tenfold. Added to this, no one seems to be able to provide a coherent explanation about whether the National Development Plan still drives government policy? Or how the work of Rob Davies at Trade and Industry fits with the work of Economic Development Minister Ebrahim Patel and his New Growth Path, launched in 2010. These are important questions if we are to rescue this economy and create much-needed jobs. This confusion, incoherence and mismanagement of the economy have real consequences for real people. The latest economic figures make for dismal reading as the agricultural sector sheds jobs and companies like Pick n Pay ask 3,500 workers to take voluntary retrenchment packages.

As the ANC muddles along, it will be up to the other sectors of society – business, civil society and the media – to persist in trying to steer the national conversation into a more constructive and honest direction and to expose corruption in all its forms. This will take time, energy and a commitment to building cross-sectoral coalitions. It will also mean challenging the ANC at the ballot box in 2019 if it is unable to clean up its act. Recently Pravin Gordhan said he was still hopeful about the future and our collective ability to self-correct. He is right when he said we must not become cynical but develop an understanding of our challenges and push in all corners for proper policy conversations that will bring meaningful transformation. It will be a long, tough road ahead.

The obituary for Plaatje read,

He was a man who, by force of character and sharpness of intellect, rose to the front rank of leadership… never have I found him autocratic, contumacious or narrow of outlook.”

Sadly, in 2017, there are precious few within the ANC of whom the same can be said. DM


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