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Pity the ANC's traffic warden

Richard Calland

ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe has an impossible job, but without him the party chaos would be worse, writes Richard Calland.

There are certain junctions or roundabouts in certain cities—usually busy cities in developing countries in Latin America, Africa or Asia—where, buried amid the cacophony of cars arriving at all angles, there stands a traffic policeman with white gloves, often pristine. While around there is madness, his crisp white gloves stand out.

In terms of the ANC, that traffic policeman is Gwede Mantashe. That is the fundamental purpose of his position as secretary general: to manage the traffic. And the ANC is a very busy, very messy, very noisy roundabout. Sometimes the white gloves are obeyed, sometimes not. But without them a greater chaos would ensue.


What sane person would want to be the secretary general of the ANC? It is an impossible task.

Comfort is derived from the traffic policeman’s presence; it suggests a level of order in an otherwise dog-eat-dog world. But however sharply pressed the uniform of the traffic policeman—and at this point, with due respect, the analogy begins to break down in Mantashe’s case—no one really believes that he is in control.

So, too, the ANC. Arguably, the leadership has lost control. Arguably, a point of no return has been reached and passed whereby the constituent parts no longer serve the greater whole. In Durban last year, a visiting former ANC activist, who served prison time for his efforts in the 1980s, put it bluntly: “Forget the ANC. In terms of what it once was, it’s done for, finished. It will never recover what it has lost.”

Assume for the purposes of this argument that the assessment is right—and, to be clear, it was an observation about values and principles and organisational coherence rather than electoral prowess and the ability to continue to win power—how should one react to the news?

One reaction, to be found most obviously in racist or otherwise reactionary circles, is: “Good riddance.” Another, in traditional liberal households, is to think: “Good, so weakened, the ANC will be vulnerable to a challenge for power by the opposition.”

A third, middle-class reaction, more nuanced, is to pause for thought and say: “Hang on, don’t we need an effective ANC to absorb the self-evident social pressures that exist in South Africa? Without the ANC, won’t the pressure cooker blow?”

The ANC leadership, or at least parts of it, is not unaware of the crisis that threatens to engulf the organisation. In truth, it has been aware of it for some years. Mantashe’s predecessor for 10 years, Kgalema Motlanthe, delivered a series of reports at national conferences and other occasions, setting out in staggering detail the nature of the crisis facing the organisation in terms of programmatic coherence, administrative competence, financial stability, mobilisational capacity, membership discipline and ethics.

In its 100th year, the ANC has to grapple again with these issues, following a period when disunity and ill-discipline have been the organisation’s most obvious public traits, thanks principally to Julius Malema’s efforts. Accordingly, it has published, as part of its preparation for its national conference in December in Mangaung, a document titled Organisational Renewal: Building the ANC as a Movement for Transformation and a Strategic Centre of Power (on its website).

Like previous efforts, the document cloaks the analysis in quasi-Marxist terms that will be mysterious to many: the “motive forces”, the “balance of forces” and so on. In 66 pages it essentially says, with commendable honesty: “We’re in a mess and we’ve got to sort it out.”

The document grapples with the role of the ANC at community level in the context of a still “distressed” local government. Interestingly, on the subject of protests, the document notes that a “key and recurring theme arising from our own research and independent surveys is that protests are not against the ANC, but are often in its name. Contestation among ANC local leaders, between ANC leaders and their counterparts in the local alliance structures often sparks the protests. The adverse socioeconomic realities affecting communities are used by disgruntled or opportunistic elements within our ranks to outmanoeuvre sitting councillors.”

And here is the rub: Is the ANC part of the solution—as in the third option above, which many progressive thinkers would likely opt for—or is it part of the problem?

This is not to suggest that there would be no anger and no protests but for ANC disunity and internal contests for power. As the document then points out: “Cumulatively, the socioeconomic conditions of the majority create a sense of grievance and social injustice, especially among the urban poor who live side by side with the rich. This also explains why people in urban areas quickly resort to protests, while the same or worse conditions in rural areas do not lead to protests.”

But, concludes that section of the document, “strong branches will be able to direct the frustrations away from violent protests, but they may not be able to entirely resolve the source of protest — The socioeconomic legacy of colonialism of a special type poses a serious danger to the sustainability of democracy.”

Indeed. Amen to that. The middle class needs Mantashe’s white gloves and has every reason to hope and pray that they are heeded. Born probably of his own frustrations with his impossible job, Mantashe knows this all too well, which may help to explain his virulent reaction to Reuel Khoza’s perfectly reasonable commentary on the quality of ANC leadership.

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