Is the ANC really beyond redemption?

It is difficult not to imagine the tearing of some deep and important ligament in our body politic in the tone and content of this debate that starts in The Times, ostensibly between Pallo Jordan and Justice Malala and ostensibly about media freedom. The battle is joined – and complicated – by the ANC in its formal capacity in this unattributed article, by a reader’s reply to Justice Malala (K B Malapela’s article here) and a contribution by the redoubtable Paul Trewhela here.

My mother was taught at a Catholic convent in Johannesburg in the 40’s and part of the curriculum was a subject called “Apologetics”, which essentially means defending the faith and recommending it to outsiders. All of the contributions to this debate, to greater or lesser degrees, have the brittle quality of Apologetics. This is clearly not a debate designed to win over an opponent;  it is much more a debate designed to slag off the opponent – to influence perhaps separate audiences.

This does not mean that the opponents are all just political propagandists rolling out set pieces in an archaic ideological struggle. The anger, hurt and perhaps even fear are real and personal. After studying each spit and snipe, each appeal to history and every egregious character assassination (of which there are many) I find myself uncomfortably ambiguous about where my sympathies lie.

When we strip out all of the detail, at issue is the clash of these two broad assertions (this is definitely my formulation – the actual words or even ordering of arguments – will not necessarily be found in this form in any single contribution to the ‘debate)’:

  • The one view attacks Malala and defends the ANC – in the general context of supporting legislation to make the print media legally accountable. It goes something like this: ‘The ANC, admittedly imperfect and flawed, is the national liberation movement that led the struggle against Apartheid; the organisation whose members and supporters paid the overwhelmingly highest price in the struggle against Apartheid and it is currently the political party in which resides the main hope of building a South Africa free of Apartheid and its vestiges (which are still strongly present and primarily injurious to black South Africans). Given this truth, the depth and ferocity of Justice Malala’s attack on the organisation can only be explained by him having made a profession out of attacking the organisation for the benefit of a self-satisfied and confirmedly racist audience – or that he serves some darker and deeper purpose of enemies of South Africa.
  • The other view defends Malala and attacks the ANC – in the general context of opposing legislation that seeks to control the media. This argument goes something like this: “The ANC has no claim to an exclusive role in the struggle against Apartheid and in any case the ANC’s contribution to that struggle was always flawed and undermined by deeply anti-democratic (or Stalinist) traditions and brutal repression of internal dissent. Justice Malala is part of a tradition of journalism in South Africa that has fought government censorship and general government abuse of power. Abuse of power, in various forms, characterises the ANC government today and it is right, fitting and brave for Malala to continue to ‘speak truth to power’.

I was going to paraphrase each article and attempt to draw out each essence but it’s probably better that you do that for yourself.

But here, for those who are interested, are my considered opinions on the issues that I think lie at the heart of this debate.

Firstly, regimes can reach a point where the only strategic option is complete non-engagement; where the only way forward is the destruction of that regime and its replacement by an alternative. But it is ludicrous to argue that this is where we are in South Africa with regard to the ANC government. Much of our political commentary and journalism seems to be phrased in these terms – as if we are all revolutionaries now, beyond any hope or care of reforming the system. This view is both implicit and, to a lesser degree, explicit, in the words of Malala and Trewhela. I am all for gung ho evisceration (by written word) of corrupt and pompous politicians, but there is a not-so-subtle line between vigorous – even exuberantly irreverent – criticism and the argument that government per se is the problem and therefore cannot be part of the solution. Many aspects of this government’s performance are deeply disturbing – as is the seeming avalanche of cronyism in our political culture. But I am absolutely clear that a government that continues to command around 70% of national electoral support (primarily because that electorate perceives the government as the main heir to the mantel of national liberation movement) has got to be engaged with, has got to be encouraged to be “the solution” more than it is “the problem”. And anyway the ANC, government, Cabinet and ‘the state’ in all of its manifestations is not some undifferentiated monster that requires slaying. The most important debates that shape our future take place within the ANC and the government as much as they do in the national media or in Parliament. Who wins and who loses within the ANC remains a decisive question that we cannot abandon as “irrelevant”.

Secondly, the ANC’s claim to legitimacy based on its historical role as the leading organisation representing black South African’s aspirations for national determination and in opposing Apartheid is a false claim. That the ANC was the main formation thrown up by Apartheid oppression of black South Africans is indisputable and that legions of its supporters, leaders and members fought bravely and suffered deeply is equally indisputable. But how often in the world have we seen claims of historical suffering and historical struggle against oppression justifying present corruption and brutal repression? The ANC needs to hear the claims of some journalists and commentators that the ANC of today represents a radical discontinuity with that ANC of the past.  This is a legitimate assertion that can only be answered with specific claims to value based on present activities and achievements.

Too often the ANC’s claim to legend, previous heroism and fortitude, to banners and flags and songs, is the only answer it seems able to give to those who say it has become an unsalvageable cesspool of greed and self-interest.

The ANC needs to be reminded of the words of the great African revolutionary leader, strategist and philosopher, Amilcar Cabral (here I quote the first and last few sentences of this famous statement):

Always bear in mind that the people are not fighting for ideas, for the things in anyone’s head. They are fighting to win material benefits, to live better and in peace, to see their lives go forward, to guarantee the future of their children. . .

Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures.

Claim no easy victories…


5 thoughts on “Is the ANC really beyond redemption?

  1. Having read your comments for quite some time, often differing with you and what I understand to be your constant view that as wide a church as the ANC is, there is a strong cadre of traditionalists who hold it together and who hew towards the organisations best values, offsetting the Johnnie-come-lately brogade, I find it refreshing that you now state the ANC today is not the ANC of yesteryear. Can I take this to mean that you agree that whereas debate was always allowed and encouraged in past versions of the organisation, because there was always a firm enough grip to bring all viewpoints back to a semblance of inison, this is not necessarily the case now? That the centre may indeed not hold?

    1. Mark, good to hear from you again. In many ways, I think ‘the centre’ of the ANC is weaker than at any time of the organisation’s history. This ANC is uniquely – in terms of the last 50 years of history – weakly led (that’s about the specific characters in leadership, organisational coherence and the predominance of the “get rich quick agenda”). But are there good people within the ANC who are seeking each other out and seeking for ways of turning both the organisational decay and collapse around and thinking about ways of combating the same in the state and society itself? If this was the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) in 1936 and I was answering with the benefit of hind site: yes, but that might not be enough to avert the holocaust. But the ANC is not the Nazi party, it is the party that up until the last few years drew the best of what we had to offer in leadership and general humanity (think Nelson Mandela, Joe Slovo and OR Thambo if all this lot who have been tarnished by being alive and remaining active don’t do it for you … although bear in mind that those heroes are/were as mythologically bullshit as all heroes are, scratch the surface and you will always find narcissistic womanisers – its as predictable as death and taxes). Politics attracts narcissistic windbags like candles do moths – and yes, I think it makes of mediocre participants narcissistic windbags as predictably as any form of celebrity and wealth seems to make of most normal humans. But it would be a great luxury for anyone to conclude: well I therefore choose to know nothing about this party and its members for they are all caught up in the general agenda of cronyist self-enrichment. If the ANC is lost to cronyism and in no hope of saving, then that is it, it’s all over, just pack your bags and get the hell out. If there is any hope left, it’s the hope of winning the ANC back from the emerging cronyist elite. You look at this ANC and it is clear that one of the fractures has a cluster of mining type BEE plus allies like Julius Malema, Paul Mashitile and Fikile Mbalula on the one hand and a rash of disorganised but bright and serious democrats like Joel Netshitezhe and Jeremy Cronin (and a few others I could name but wont) on the other. The good guys scored some amazing and unlikely victories against the bad guys at the NGC. The good guys are outclassed and out-gunned at every turn. But they know how to play alliance politics better than any manipulative plutocrat ever did … because they understand that building alliances is ultimately about respecting who your allies are and allowing them to remain where they are … while shifting your mutual objectives towards each others’ … I am raving, that’s enough for now.

      1. Douglas Reed:
        “The plan, I think, is the old one of world dominion in a new form. The money-power and revolutionary power have been set up and given sham but symbolic shapes (‘Capitalism’ or ‘Communism’) and sharply defined citadels (‘America’ or ‘Russia’). Such is the spectacle publicly staged for the masses. But what if similar men, with a common aim, secretly rule in both camps and propose to achieve their ambition through the clash between those masses? I believe any diligent student of our times will discover that this is the case.”

  2. We are witnessing an unfolding “tragedy” , using the word ” tragedy ” as the philosopher Whitehead used it : “The essence of dramatic tragedy is not unhappiness. It resides in the solemnity of the remorseless working of things.” He then goes on to say, “This inevitableness of destiny can only be illustrated in terms of human life by incidents which in fact involve unhappiness. For it is only by them that the futility of escape can be made evident in the drama.” ( A. N. Whitehead, Science and the Modern World (Mentor, New York, 1948), p. 17. )

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