As battles continue to rage behind the scenes in Luthuli House and in gatherings at various levels within the governing ANC, what we are seeing playing out before us is a farce that began as a tragedy. At its core lies not corruption; the fact that malfeasance is endemic in the governing party is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise that has afflicted the ANC since its earliest decades in exile.
In May 2017, President Cyril Ramaphosa summed up the cause of the malaise that has maintained the rot in the ANC for the best part of 60 years: unity at all costs. At a meeting with rating agencies, he noted:
“The ANC will not split. We are not going to allow the ANC to split. It will not split because the ANC has the responsibility to unite the county and it has its own responsibility of remaining united.”
That unity of the ANC is the overriding priority for the governing party was made even clearer in November 2015 by the then-president, Jacob Zuma, who stated:
“I argued one time with someone who said the country comes first and I said as much as I understand that, I think my organisation, the ANC, comes first.”
In other words, a Parliament and government elected by “the people” is effectively beholden to the bosses of the ruling party. Here, to a high degree, is a mirror reflection of the relationship of the racially exclusive parliamentary democracy of the apartheid state to the Afrikaner Broederbond. This secret society – a government within a government – effectively pulled the political strings in apartheid South Africa.
That the ANC may be seen in this light should not be surprising, since the movement has maintained, especially since 1960, that it is “the only legitimate representative of the South African people”. Faced initially with the challenge posed by the emergence in 1959 of the Pan Africanist Congress and then observing the factionalism and fragmentation of the PAC, the idea of principled unity as a tactic quickly morphed into the singular commitment to unity at all costs.
This was a tragedy in that it was a choice that could – and should – have been avoided. That it continues to be repeated makes it a farce, given the history.
And that history reveals that all manner of deviations from expressed principles about honesty, integrity and human rights had often to be forfeited, to hold together a movement comprising idealists and pragmatists of the political left, right and centre, but also rogues, thieves and con artists while dealing with assorted spies infiltrated by the apartheid state.
Perhaps the best-known example of how the rot had set in came as early as 1969 with the protest – now generally referred to as the “Hani memorandum” – signed by eight fighters in the ANC’s armed wing, uMkhonto weSizwe. Chris Hani – today hailed as a revolutionary icon by both the ANC and the SA Communist Party – together with seven MK comrades, signed that memorandum which castigated the “rot” in the ANC.
The eight maintained that “the ANC in exile is in deep crisis, as a result of which, a rot has set in”. Details were given of corruption, human rights abuses and lack of democracy. They were saved from execution by the intervention of ANC president OR Tambo who was aware that such lethal action against the eight could create still greater disharmony in the organisation.
But theirs was not the first such eruption of popular discontent. Nor would it be the last. However, it was by far the most important in terms of its impact.
Throughout, Tambo managed to maintain discipline and, therefore, unity, within the potentially fractious elements that comprised the “family of the ANC”.
He did so by negotiation and deft manoeuvring. It was a difficult balancing act in a movement that professed equality but was riddled with patronage and in which a political and economic elite enjoyed grossly disproportionate privileges.
Bribery, force and the threat of force or isolation were the main means of holding the ranks together. ANC members soon discovered that advancement to the privileged elite, to scholarships or even medical treatment abroad, depended on not falling foul of the leadership.
The party, not the people, became the guiding principle. Because, as the argument went – an argument supported fully by an SACP closely wedded to the idea of the fusion of party and state – the party was the people. Those who opposed the party, opposed “the people”, were “counter-revolutionary” and should be dealt with accordingly.
This was, in many ways, a mirror image of what had already developed in a more electorally refined and more secretive form in apartheid South Africa. There a party representing a specific and racially defined “people” had seized parliamentary control of the country in 1948.
But it came to power with a corrupt and undemocratic element effectively pulling the strings. A puppet master – an eminence grise – in the form of the Afrikaner Broederbond was in place. And this was where the real power resided.
Today, a similar situation applies. The ANC is the elected government, but the real executive power lies with the party elite in Luthuli House. And the situation will remain unchanged unless the myth of the party being the people is demolished. DM
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill