The ANC must stand its ground

This month’s ANC policy conference, and its national conference in December, inspire both concern and confidence.

The concern arises because the stakes are enormous: the outcome of these meetings will affect the course of South African history for many years to come.

The ANC has placed its policy documents boldly in the public domain; by doing so it stands out in comparison with other political formations that scarcely have distinctive or convincing policies, let alone rigorous policy conferences.

The ANC “cannot behave like a shapeless jellyfish with a political form that is fashioned hither and thither by the multiple contradictory forces of sea-waves”, in the words of the draft strategy and tactics document. And it is precisely this that gives rise to a feeling of confidence, eclipsing concern.

Our values are grounded in and have been subjected to the rigorous test of history. We are about to affirm policy directions, not only to sing revolutionary songs. This requires defending our country’s developmental growth path, taking advantage of a sustained period of economic growth to intensify the assault on poverty, boost development and renew South Africa’s infrastructure.

We must defend the domestic politics of liberation and the geopolitics of multilateralism that the ANC has pursued for decades. We must continue to consolidate the peace in my home turf of KwaZulu-Natal, not long ago soaked in blood. We must continue to build a nonracial nation as we deepen democracy. We must take all those who are with us forward in unity.

For inspiration I recall Sam Semetsi, a Tembisa-based ANC underground operative, who first brought me into the ANC-led struggle: “You must join the ever-heroic national liberation movement led by the African National Congress. You will never go wrong,” Sam urged me as a youth in the early 1980s. There were slogans, but there was ample substance to back them up. And victory was closer than we dreamt.

In 1914 our leaders described the ANC as “an organisation for focusing native opinion”. The present draft strategy and tactics document elaborates on this concept: “While the anti-colonial struggle could easily have been conducted as one against a racial group, it rose above these categories to embrace the principle of non-racialism: to see humanity as one and diversity as a source of strength.” That’s where we take our stand.

As the organic expression of non-racial native intelligence, exemplified by such figures as Ronnie Kasrils, Ruth First and others, the ANC stood its ground, even as powerful states attempted to topple popular governments.

Is it not ironic that Cuban President Fidel Castro, having survived numerous United States attempts to assassinate and/or overthrow him, was later able to send troops halfway across the world to assist in the humiliation of the apartheid military machine at Cuito Cuanavale in Angola, a known turning point in the freedoms we enjoy today? And that Cuba is able to assist us to this day with medical personnel and in other ways?

Our non-aligned credentials have contributed to winning the peace in Ireland and are of obvious value in the Middle East, not to mention our influence for peace in Africa.

We keep our relations with most countries of the world, including the big powers, on a sound footing, and we would be recklessly self-indulgent to make new enemies. But there should be no denying the fact that our tradition is firmly revolutionary, now committed to a national democratic revolution of reconstruction.  

Our traditions are internationalist and multilateral. The ANC’s 2001 national working committee discussion document, Through the Eye of a Needle?, explained that “the ANC’s objectives are informed by the aspirations of the people of SA, Africa and millions of others in all parts of the world. Over the years it has contributed to, and benefited from, struggles across the globe for a just, equitable and humane world order; and it remains committed to these ideals.”

It therefore makes perfect sense that our president spent Africa Day in the company of General Vo Nguyen Giap, architect of the successful defence of the Vietnamese people. Just as Cuba rather than the US was our closest friend in Angola, so too General Giap’s victory in the battle of Dien Bien Phu and beyond was part of our revolutionary tradition.

Yet we in the ANC are an inclusive force. We have wielded what Oliver Tambo called our weapon of unity. It is this unity that is under attack when people engage in media-driven contestation for high office. Surely now we dare not forsake the cause of unity and the tried-and-tested methods of deciding on our leadership.

But what does it mean, in present conditions, to safeguard unity? We are now approaching the ANC’s centennial and we play a more powerful role in South Africa’s daily life than ever before. The ground on which we continue the struggle has shifted. While our stamina was tested in the past by such crude threats as arrest, imprisonment, torture and assassination, today’s challenges are more subtle and perhaps more quietly deadly. 

Now parliament commands not only the old weapon of unity, but also the new power of legislation, our orderliness is a major part of our power. But we cannot afford to confuse orderliness with conservatism, because to disrupt democratic order is to weaken our own democracy.

There are communities, many with genuine grievances, which, with respect, should take note. While the anti-apartheid revolution required us to make the old repressive country ungovernable, without destroying the infrastructure that was the key to our future, a real revolution today requires the kind of radical stability that gives destabilisation no chance to gain a footing.

Our opponents now seek allies in unusual places to make us ungovernable to protect their ill-gotten spoils.  Our struggle was, above all, for the dignity and method of democratic governance. We must keep our heads cool and our hands steady.

As we moved from the adrenalin of revolution to the hard work of democracy, some people predictably became bored and tired; some perhaps have even dabbled in counter-revolutionary waters, conceivably in league with the remnants of former foes still in the state apparatus or society generally. The question is how our movement can sustain its revolutionary momentum during what Gustave Flaubert called “the most difficult and least glamorous of all tasks: transition”. 

The ANC is now visibly wrestling with the banality of good times.  Some of our best and brightest have already been tempted by the low-hanging fruit of their own unearned self-interest, while the worst, as WB Yeats warned, can remain full of passionate intensity. Our historical role as the organiser of nonracial native opinion remains vital. And in this we cannot simply rest with old instincts “like people who wear winter coats in sweaty December merely because we remember how cold it was in June”.

Sadly, there are more than a few old coat hangers around. Certain isolated voices, even within the governing alliance, are absorbed in what Marx called “the narcissism of minor differences”. They dwell on distinctions without a difference. These few undermine our unity and indulge in various cults of personality. In the service of a false radicalism, we heard not so long ago that our leadership was a “dictatorship”. Now Zwelinzima Vavi reportedly accuses our movement, in effect, of Nazi-style propaganda. Just analyse what that means!

The challenge of the conference season is to stand our ground, as in the past, and to safeguard the integrity of the ANC as “an organisation for focusing native opinion”. That way we serve this splendid country best.

Bheki Khumalo, formerly President Thabo Mbeki’s spokesperson, previously served as a member of the regional executive council of the ANC in Gauteng

Download the full version of the Bheki Khumalo interview.

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