The ANC wants its white, coloured and Indian leaders to deliver more.
The time for the promotion of minorities in the opposition Democratic Alliance has expired, with the party on a mission to increase its black representation. And if ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe’s latest comments are anything to go by, minorities are not getting a free ride in the ANC either.
And it wasn’t just white men Mantashe was referring to, but all minorities, in a series of off-the- cuff comments that awoke that old monster in the ANC: racial representation.
"They get rewarded because they are minorities. It’s a wrong concept. People must work hard, and they must be rewarded," said Mantashe to laughs at a pre-election discussion last Tuesday. He was talking to a receptive audience at Regenesys Business School in Sandton, who chuckled at his characterisations of entitled and lazy would-be leaders.
The ruling party’s primary operator had released the party’s election candidate lists earlier that day to a roomful of hungry journalists. Now, his guard was down and he was unaware of any media in the room.
"They [the minorities] don’t organise branches of the ANC, they don’t organise activities," he said. "They sit back there, but when we develop a list for Parliament, we must look for minorities."
Call it reverse affirmative action, if you will. It seems that some white, Indian and coloured leaders in the ANC are getting a bit of a free ride and landing cushy positions thanks to being well known, and not necessarily doing the grunt work of community engagement.
His points were fair, but Mantashe was not pleased with the Mail & Guardian’s reporting of his statements online. He later released a statement clarifying that this sort of laziness was an issue among a number of ANC representatives, no matter what their race.
"That criticism is not reserved for the so-called minorities, but will apply equally to senior leaders who reside in [the] suburbs but do no organisational work in those areas," said an irate Mantashe afterwards, peeved at the reaction his original comments had elicited among those very minorities.
The damage control was important, given the sensitivity of the issue and the historical background.
The party has been trying to address the question of its rapidly dwindling support among coloured, Indian and white voters for some time. The drop in support is a slap in the face for Nelson Mandela’s vision of a nonracial ANC: a uniting force for all South Africans.
Despite the party’s repeated verbal commitment to the "creation of a united, nonracial, nonsexist and democratic society", it scores less and less votes with each election among non-Africans.
Before and after every election, expect ruminations from top leaders about the problem, and calls for introspection and discussion about the issue, as Zuma did in 2011.
But the reality is that Mantashe’s comment is not that far off, given the history of the party.
Mandela may have sold the idea of the ANC as a universally embracing party but it wasn’t always that way. Non-Africans were allowed to be full members of the ANC only in 1969, though they were barred from positions on its national executive committee. As late as 1985, non-Africans were not allowed to occupy leadership positions in the party, said historian Stephen Ellis, who has written a book about the party’s years in exile, External Mission: The ANC in Exile, 1960-1990.
And it made perfect sense, given the history of the movement.
"The ANC was set up as a kind of Parliament for black people where they could make their views known," said Ellis.
The year was 1912, and the Union of South Africa, as the country was then known, was premised on a Constitution that was an agreement between white Afrikaners and the British in the main. The black population was "disaggregated" as Ellis put it, scattered across the country and divided along ethnic lines. It was important to protect the African voice in this environment.
The ANC became radicalised around the time of the defiance campaign in the 1950s, and worked with minority groups, including its alignment with the largely white Congress of Democrats and the South African Indian Congress. "They became friends with each other, but they were not one [entity]," said Ellis.
It wasn’t simply a case of racial preference. The fact was that historical privilege and generations of education meant that minority leaders would dominate the top structures of the ANC if selected on merit alone.
So why the inclusion of other race groups as members? By 1960, the ANC had been banned. In 1963, the Rivonia arrests had taken place, and by the time a small remnant of exiles met in Morogoro, Tanzania, in 1969, the need for more leaders was dire. The 70-odd people who made it to the conference voted in favour of allowing other races to become
full-fledged members of the party.
That in itself set off an "enormous struggle", as Ellis puts it, and precipitated the walk-out of those who would go on to form the Pan-Africanist Congress, seeking African solutions and wary of the overt influence of white communists.
It was a difficult decision that was a product of necessity, and one that still haunts the ANC to this day. Grumblings have emerged of late about the lack of African ministers in the economic cluster.
"Even in 1985, when the ANC was thrown open to all colours, many people recognised that if this debate had been held in South Africa instead of in exile [at the Kabwe conference], this vote would never have been passed," said Ellis.
The question of non-African leaders became firmly entrenched when Mandela emerged from prison a changed man in 1990, determined to understand his jailers and their Afrikaner culture, and to unite South Africa.
He subsequently pushed for ANC leaders from minorities to be protected within the party, worried that they would fall down in building viable constituencies.
Today, the party prides itself on the inclusion of a number of non-African leaders among its top leadership and in government, often disproportionate to population figures.
But Mantashe’s point is precisely Mandela’s: leaders from minority groups, and any other leaders, should still work to bring votes in, but often don’t. Because, and this is the critical point, despite the ANC’s track record on representative leaders, this has not translated into
representative votes at the polls.
"If we want to break out of the shackles of the past, we need to get over the idea that our racial representative has our interests at heart to a greater extent than someone of another group," said Frans Cronje, the head of the South African Institute of Race Relations.
David Everatt wrote in his book, The Origins of Non-racialism: White opposition to apartheid in the 1950s: "The current generation of political leaders – and many of their voters – were all affected by apartheid, and may have a race-bred consciousness that will never entirely fade away."
But Cronje’s point, assuming that minority leaders will ensure minority votes, is simplistic. If that was the case, the majority of Indian voters would have supported the Minority Front, but instead they are increasingly being wooed by parties such as the DA.
"I think a far more forward-looking approach is the quality of their [representatives’s] character, to quote Martin Luther King," said Cronje.
This may be the case for younger South Africans, who have shown markedly different voting patterns at the polls and are less likely to vote for someone merely because they look like them. Everatt particularly hoped for a change for those born long after apartheid’s demise, who "deserve so much better".
"Our challenge is to find the courage to break decisively with the past, the mind-sets and the identities it created and ascribed to us all, and enter a new discursive space where it is, indeed, enough merely to be," he wrote.
To do that, the ANC will have to do more than rely on its white, coloured and Indian leaders. It will need to reach into the concerns of these communities, and work to bring them into the fold, as Mantashe has realised.