During one of those interactions that have become a regular feature among members of the club of Southern African liberation movements, a delegation from Namibia’s ruling South West African People’s Organisation (Swapo) posed a question that confounded some African National Congress leaders: how does the ANC go about grooming leadership and managing its succession process?
This question showed a level of desperation among Swapo members, who realise that their leader, Sam Nujoma, is mortal but have not been able to plan for his successor lest they alert him to that brutal fact.
It also showed that despite having been the last to assume power, the ANC was being seen as the senior partner in the club — the brother who others can go to for advice.
But just as the other liberation movements want to learn from the ANC, the ANC should be looking north and learning how to avoid the pitfalls that its counterparts have succumbed to.
Southern Africa has had a horrid experience with liberation movements that to came to power amid waves of euphoria and optimism, only to then turn against the very people they liberated.
The people of Angola will tell you how the MPLA, once one of the world’s most celebrated left-wing movements, today closely resembles the Sicilian Mafia. The people of Zimbabwe will tell of the pillage, rape and human rights violations conducted by Zanu-PF, a party which only two decades ago was a beacon of hope for many Africans. Namibians will tell of how the dream of March 1990 is slowly dissipating as the Swapo government becomes increasingly repressive and Nujoma daily proves that all is not okay up there.
Of course, we in South Africa like to tell ourselves that we are different, that our political culture will not permit our liberation to be betrayed.
In many ways this is true. We should take pride in the fact that we have a trade union movement that challenges government policies, that we have a civil society that campaigns vigorously on major issues and that we have media that do not bow and scrape before the powerful. We should also take solace that we have a ruling party that, as in the case of the Aids climbdown, can be defeated by public opinion on policy issues and respects the Constitution on which this republic is founded.
That is the culture that we inherited from our unique brand of liberation struggle. It was a struggle in which communities, civil society organisations and ordinary people rather than exiled leaders in foreign lands were the main players. The South African struggle bequeathed us a questioning culture, something we must treasure.
That is the culture that is our bulwark against tyranny and backwardness, the culture that will ensure that we do not, as some doomsayers, forecast, “go the way of the rest of the Africa”.
That is the culture that the 3 500 delegates attending next week’s ANC conference must fight to preserve.
There are strong indications that the culture of free-thinking is not necessarily the sort of culture that those at the helm of the organisation are comfortable with. Despite the protestations to the contrary by those at Luthuli House, the stifling of ideological diversity in the ranks of the ANC has been a noticeable trend in recent years. Since the government’s decision to adopt the growth, employment and redistribution policy, there has been an increasing intolerance of alternative economic views. Ironically, this was an intolerance that those of the liberal free-market persuasion tacitly encouraged, simply because it was the left that was being muzzled. The ANC must govern firmly and not be distracted from its path by economically illiterate trade unions and unreconstructed socialists, the chorus went.
But intolerance being the contagious disease that it is, it has moved to other areas. The debilitating fight over the causes of Aids and the treatment of the disease, the stubbornness over our approach to Zimbabwe and the not-so-subtle protection afforded to some public figures who breach ethics are by-products of this tolerance of intolerance.
South Africa is a relatively young democracy with great potential to become one of the most open societies on the planet. We are grappling with some of the most dire social problems and are capable of being a leader in finding solutions for some of the world’s intractable problems.
Within the ranks of the ANC, its allies and fraternal organisations are some of the most creative minds, a fact recognised by multilateral international bodies that recruit aggressively from our shores.
Yet the tendency is to herd South Africans into modal thinking — telling them that there can be only one solution to a particular problem and divergence from that is tantamount to dissent.
If the ANC, as the single most influential organisation in this society, wants this country truly to become the driver of an African rebirth, it should begin by encouraging free-thinking within its ranks. It should realise that there are always alternatives to any policy approach and that those alternatives will only come when you encourage innovative thinking.
It is from the ranks of these free thinkers that future leaders will emerge.