As our democracy becomes more mature, our Struggle credentials should count less and, more and more, we should be judged by what we have contributed to our democracy, and continue to do, as opposed to what we did before.
This is not to say that, as South Africans, we do not value the contribution made by those who were involved in the Struggle. We realise, too, that many have given their lives so that we are able to enjoy democracy today, imperfect as it might be. We shall always be thankful for their contributions and, in many cases, sacrifices, but just because someone was involved in the Struggle does not give her/him a free pass to do wrong in our democracy.
Some people who might have been very involved in the struggle for liberation have disgraced themselves through their actions in our democracy and cannot hide behind Struggle credentials to defend their later actions. Some have been jailed for their actions in our post-apartheid democracy, like Tony Yengeni, but too many have been allowed to loot and plunder without being held to account, whether it is in the form of prosecution, conviction or serving time in jail.
The unfortunate thing is that the ANC, as the ruling party, sometimes attaches more value to Struggle contributions than to modern-day contributions. They seem to think that, just because a person was an honest and capable comrade during the Struggle years, s/he would be an honest and capable person during democracy.
The two periods cannot be compared.
The Struggle was all about destroying apartheid and part of that was making the country ungovernable at times. The Struggle was fought on several fronts, each contributing to bringing the apartheid regime to its knees and forcing it to the negotiating table. The tools used in the Struggle included mass mobilisation, international isolation and armed resistance. The opposition to apartheid was more successful in mass mobilisation and international isolation than in armed resistance, but they all depended on one another.
Because we had such a visible and hated enemy, it was easy for people to identify with the struggle against apartheid. Our basic value systems were never challenged or interrogated, meaning that you might have had an abusive relationship with your partner, but, if you were against racism and apartheid, you qualified to call yourselves “comrade”. You might have been disrespectful towards people who did not look or sound like you, or who did not share your sexual preferences or your religious beliefs, but, as long as you were against racism and apartheid, you were one of us and not one of the sell-outs.
Democracy requires different skills, which many of those who were involved in the Struggle do not have. These include the ability to lead and build society in an inclusive and participatory manner, and upholding the values so clearly set out in our Constitution, which remains one of the most progressive in the world.
Many of those people who so proudly call themselves comrades would not be welcome in a modern political organisation that embraces values of equality, decency, respect, fairness, non-racialism, non-sexism and non-judgmentalism.
Having to continually remind people of your contribution during the Struggle, like Police Minister Bheki Cele did this week, shows that you are unable to argue about how we should deal with current issues and that you realise your shortcomings, but you are hoping to deflect attention by pointing out your Struggle credentials. It is so easy when you are also able to use the race card in your defence. It also shows a lack of ability to lead in a participative manner. Democracy means that all of us should have a voice and that our voices should be heard and listened to, no matter how contrary our views might be.
I have no love for organisations such as AfriForum or the Institute of Race Relations, and a range of others that promote a narrative that hankers back to the “glory days” of apartheid. I know and understand their background and motives, but that does not mean that they do not have a right to exist and to express their views.
More than that, there are thousands, if not millions, of South Africans out there who do not care about the history of organisations that are opposed to the ANC. They have seen how much the ANC has messed up in our democracy, after being in government for almost 30 years, and they will listen to anyone who offers an alternative.
If you are an ANC member or leader, you should listen to criticism and respond with reason, not with anger and a regurgitation of your Struggle credentials. As Archbishop Tutu used to say, “Don’t raise your voice, improve your argument.” DM