Albert Luthuli saw South Africa as a microcosm of what was possible: a country that could show the world it was possible for a nation of multiple races and ethnic groups to live together in conditions of a shared vision and common destiny. This was a revolutionary thought in the 1960s where the plight of black people, at the hands of white people, was dominating late-night news on all sides of the Atlantic.
This thinking was not unique to Luthuli and would consume many other ANC presidents in the future. This would become the glorious burden of the party – that South Africa must set standards for countries of the world. Successors such as Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki took the clarion call to all spheres of South African life. The nation would set standards for human rights, economic development, access to infrastructure and, critically, human development. This would be the duty and life of the ANC, and when the party finally took over the levers of government, it would use the force of the state to build the resilience that would enable South Africa to fulfil its goal of being a model country.
And then, in 2007, the ANC fractured, along with the country. What followed was a shameless uprooting of an enduring culture of the ANC obsessed with setting standards for society – morally, economically and socially. The nihilism that drove comrades to choose a leader who represented everything the ANC loathed and detested will be written about long after we are gone. What is true is that the ANC and its alliance partners were suddenly swept up by a zealotry and fanaticism that could never be subjected to rationality. The ANC and the country became derailed from that moment and we never truly found our way back – until December 2017.
The year 2007 proved that the Luthuli aspirations of making South Africa a model country for the world were not widely shared. Mandela and his de facto prime minister, Mbeki, had upset the alliance, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu by closing down the Reconstruction and Development Programme and coming up with pro-growth policies that were seen to favour business over labour. Madiba and Mbeki had told the SACP, in moments of irritation, that “no one should ever walk around thinking they have a divine duty to tell the ANC what to do”.
Unfortunately, Mbeki would bear the brunt of this anger from partners who felt their influence on ANC policy direction slipping from their fingers.
By 2004, this antagonism between Mbeki and leaders of alliance structures had reached a tipping point and he was depicted as a dictator hellbent on following only the voice that was in his herd. This was despite South Africa’s star rising in all world indices. The country was growing at an average of 4.5%, life expectancy was rising, the Human Development Index was at an all-time high and the country was becoming one of the best countries to live in. Even as this was happening, those who felt unserved by the good news – at least when it concerned power sharing and beneficiation – did not care.
This inability to appreciate the bigger goal of the ANC, of making South Africa a model country, would be the ANC’s hallmark of the past 10 years. The country was getting richer but its politicians were not, and this upset many who had thought access to government power and the wealth of the nation had to reflect directly in their private lives. In 2004, you could be a deputy president and still struggle to pay your bills. The temptation was becoming too unbearable for some.
When Mbeki relieved Zuma of his duties as deputy president, he had indirectly sealed his own fate. Every rational person knew Mbeki took that decision to protect the integrity of the ANC, our government and our young democracy and to set an example that we are all subject to the law, irrespective of our station in society.
However, Zuma would emerge as a victim, joining the SACP, Cosatu, the ANC Youth League and other individuals who had an axe to grind with Mbeki.
The self-centered approach of trying to get what you want out of the state, even if it brings the country to its knees, would be the defining feature of the Zuma presidency. South Africa would, for the first time, embark on a road to ruin, as it joined countries that had long made self-destruction their defining feature.
Madiba knew that as the chosen leader of the collective, he needed to set the standard for others. As a result, he would impose a soldier’s discipline on himself, identifying his own limits and placing those who were better skilled and much younger than him in positions of greater responsibility. Madiba then demanded that those he chose to his cabinet must also be above reproach.
Since then we have derailed our government and our progress by choosing leaders not on the basis of skill and capacity, but on the basis of loyalty and patronage.
The truth is that the ANC did set the standard for the country and the world. People know this and all they are demanding is for the party to return to its former glory and begin to take us once more into those lofty aspirations of yore.
The return of Cyril Ramaphosa into politics and his emergence as the president of the party has been a source of confidence because Madiba himself had anointed him two and a half decades earlier to be the next in line.
"Everything is becoming, nothing is" ~ Plato