First published in the Daily Maverick 168 weekly newspaper.
In holding the ANC accountable today, do we distort its history? A distortion both in its favour and against it? Is the ANC of today more a reflection of Jacob Zuma’s than Oliver Tambo’s ANC? Or is it a reflection of us, the people? Is the ANC simply a reflection of our own complexities as a nation?
A couple of years ago, Paul Trewhela’s book, Inside Quatro: Uncovering the Exile History of the ANC and Swapo, was recommended to me. It introduced me to the dark underbelly of the liberation struggle.
The book details how the ANC, in the early 1980s, used torture in its camps on those it deemed “secret agents, spies, agents provocateurs and hired assassins”, who it believed were in the employ of the South African government’s security services. Within the human rights tradition, there is no exception to torture – even against apartheid-era spies. But writer and poet Antjie Krog’s words may help us understand but not justify these transgressions: “The tyranny of the oppressor invites the tyranny of the oppressed.”
When Tambo, the then president-in-exile of the ANC, learnt of the torture in the camps, he summoned Albie Sachs, who recalls, “I could hardly believe it: The chief organisation fighting for human rights in South Africa, a cause to which so many of us had dedicated our lives, was using torture.”
Sachs also points out that “the ANC was fighting a just struggle to create a democratic and non-racial society and it needed to remain true to the principles it was fighting for. Tambo wanted my help working on a code of conduct that would regulate the manner in which captives were treated, in keeping with the humane traditions of the ANC.” Under the orders of Tambo, Sachs went on to draft the ANC’s code of conduct.
Action followed the adoption of the code at the ANC’s Kabwe conference in 1985, when Tambo saw to it that the heads of security were replaced. Institutional processes based on fairness and legality were created. The torture stopped. But what about the accountability of the ANC’s security personnel responsible for the violations?
In a further effort to correct its course, the ANC, through its then deputy president Nelson Mandela, undertook in 1990 to fully investigate the treatment of detainees in ANC camps. In March 1992, the appointment of an internal commission of enquiry was announced under Advocate TL Skweyiya.
The commission stated “that the limited evidence placed before the commission revealed … shocking and persistent violation[s] … by certain members of the security department of the ANC”. The Skweyiya commission recommended that compensation be paid to victims.
A further commission was established, this time under SM Motsuenyane. In August 1993, the commission reported that the ANC was guilty of torture in its camps and that specific individuals were responsible for these abuses and should be held to account.
The ANC’s national executive committee accepted the recommendations, but resolved to broaden the enquiry to include the violations from all sides in the political conflict through a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). This was to be established on a national basis by the new democratic government. Once in government, the ANC went on to set up the TRC, where it acknowledged that its security forces had collectively been responsible for grave violations of human rights in its camps.
I commend the ANC for challenging itself and not giving in to its depravities, but it is unfortunate that, at the end of the day, its members were not held accountable. Now, as the ANC once again wrestles with its conscience, Sachs reminds us that Tambo’s message remains relevant: “[Tambo] inspired us to be on guard not only against our enemies but against ourselves.”
It is on us, the people, not just the members of the ANC, to ensure that the ANC’s deeds live up to what it claims to be about. Our constitutional democracy depends on it. DM168
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for free to Pick n Pay Smart Shoppers at these Pick n Pay stores.