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. During the siege, he acted as a court interpreter.
An account of his life tells us that he was drawn to journalism and set up 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 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 on the land question. He played a key role in the founding of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, which would become the African National Congress (ANC) in 1923. He was its first secretary-general. Plaatje 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 importantly, in leadership and values. They also provide us with insight into those who founded the ANC and their ideals. Like any party, it was often riddled with 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.
Reflecting on all of this in 2020, one cannot help but notice the contrasts and how the ANC’s intellectual roots have diminished. The Zuma years in particular were rooted in a dangerous anti-intellectualism which persists. In the cause of populism, Zuma joked about “clever blacks” at rallies and the presidency itself became an empty shell. Today, the ANC’s so-called battle of ideas is safely a “battle of factions”.
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.
ANC policy debates are mostly mired in factional battles and debate about whether to use the term ‘white monopoly capital’ or simply ‘monopoly capital’. When President Cyril Ramaphosa penned an open letter to his fellow ANC comrades recently, it spoke volumes about what the ANC has now become; an organisation mostly bereft of values. The claims in the letter are irrefutable, given the information in the public domain regarding the near-decade of State Capture and most recently the looting of Covid-19 funds, which the Auditor-General described as “frightening”.
“The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as Accused No 1,” Ramaphosa wrote. It was a damning indictment of the party he leads.
Perhaps it was the reference to “No 1” that irked former president Jacob Zuma so much that he felt compelled to pen his own 12-page letter dripping with insult.
While we live through load shedding and its devastating economic impact, we feel the full effects of State Capture, we fully understand what the ANC has become and how that has hollowed out state institutions.
Recently we heard the former minister of water and sanitation Nomvula Mokonyane showing very little clarity on how she afforded an Aston Martin valued at around R3-million. She also could not recall who had paid for her 40th birthday party after former Bosasa COO Angelo Agrizzi claimed that Gavin Watson and Bosasa had been footing these bills. Her testimony betrayed an insouciance that would have been astounding had we not seen it in so many ANC leaders before.
It’s from the grand playbook of arrogance and entitlement. When Minister of Defence and Military Veterans Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula decided to provide her ANC colleagues with “a lift” to Zimbabwe on an air force jet, funded by the public, her department spokesperson justified it, as did other ANC members.
On the trip were Tony Yengeni and Ace Magashule. It is a sign of the ANC’s ethical bankruptcy that it would imagine either of these two men could speak with any moral authority in Zimbabwe. Yengeni has a criminal conviction and Magashule has several allegations of corruption swirling around his head. For its part, the ANC said it would repay the cost of the flight to the state. That misses the point regarding the act of an abuse of power, of course. Mapisa-Nqakula caused a similar controversy in 2016 when she allegedly “smuggled” Michelle Wege, a Burundian woman, into South Africa on an air force jet.
We have almost become inured to the ANC-led government’s abuse of power. At the launch of his book, All Rise, this week, former Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke asked:
“Is it cast in stone that leaders of a former liberation struggle will betray its followers?”
It’s worth pondering that profound question.
Given its ethical bankruptcy, the ANC cannot steer public debate on the crises we face; it is mostly in a state of disarray, given the factionalism and corruption.
Given that it is the governing party, it is reasonable for South Africans to hold the ANC to a standard that fulfils the promise of the Constitution. But, even in the face of increasing electoral competition, the ANC seems to have run out of transformative ideas and we now talk openly about the possibility of it either losing an election in future or the prospect of a coalition government.
Our greatest challenges remain poverty, inequality, unemployment, cleaning up the state and repurposing institutions hollowed out by State Capture.
This will take time, energy and a commitment to building cross-sectoral solidarity and linkages. That in and of itself will require the ANC to lead with integrity and clarity of purpose. But then it itself must be fit for purpose.
The obituary for Plaatje reads:
“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 2020, there are precious few within the ANC of whom the same can be said. DM
Terry Pratchett forged his own sword from iron and meteorites purely for the occasion of the awarding of his knighthood.