/ 6 November 2009

When the ANC refuses to listen

This year has marked an important South African anniversary that no one has celebrated. It is 25 years since a tragic mutiny within the ranks of Umkhonto weSizwe mobilised hundreds of MK fighters in Angola against the ANC leadership from December 1983 into the first months of 1984. Many of the fighters were veterans of the 1976 township uprising who had gone abroad in search of military training.

The mutiny is remembered in ANC legend as Mkatashinga or by similar names derived from a Kimbundu word for an exhausted soldier. It was the most shameful episode in the history of the ANC. But, more to the point, it is vital for understanding the ANC today.

The reason for the mutiny was a refusal by the ANC leadership to listen to the views of its exile base — the hundreds of fighters who lived in squalid camps in Angola, subject to arbitrary punishments and the whims of their commanders, and made to fight the rebel movement Unita in a war that was not theirs.

The leaders of the mutiny, known as the Committee of Ten, were incarcerated after they had surrendered. With the exception of Zaba Maledza, who died in detention, most were treated leniently, being eventually released.

But a second mutiny broke out in May 1984 among the same rank-and-file fighters. This time the mutineers fought a pitched battle against ANC loyalists and executed a number of commanders. Some of those implicated were court-martialled and executed. At least one committed suicide. Others were detained in appalling conditions.

The only member of the ANC leadership to come out of this tragic episode with any credit was Chris Hani, who had himself been punished 15 years earlier for daring to send to his superiors a memorandum critical of the MK leadership.

Partly on account of this precedent, but also because of his popularity generally, Hani was trusted by the mutineers. With an ANC member writing under the pen-name Tsepo Sechaba, I described Hani’s role in a book published in 1992, Comrades against Apartheid. A new biography of Hani by Janet Smith and Beauregard Tromp misrepresents our views on his role in ending the 1984 mutiny.

The ANC argues to this day that during its exile years it was obliged to employ a military standard of discipline and that it had to use tough methods against apartheid spies. But the authoritarianism the ANC acquired in exile went so deep that, even after its unbanning in 1990, the movement never really adapted to the culture of accountability that was so strong in the internal opposition to apartheid, especially in the United Democratic Front (UDF) and Cosatu.

After 1990, many UDF members saw no point in maintaining a separate organisation now that the ANC was back home. The leaders of both the UDF and Cosatu, which together had played such a vital role in bringing down apartheid, joined the ANC and were given jobs. Some have become mainstays of the government. They were initiated into an exile culture of democratic centralism that was foreign to the internal opposition to apartheid.

According to Dr Mamphela Ramphele, former vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town, South Africans have become used to hearing the leadership react to criticism with comments along the lines of: “You must be careful about how you use the freedom we have given you.” The fact is that no one gave South Africans freedom. They took it for themselves in the end, not through a guerrilla campaign but through a political process that was never unconnected from the violence that had spread throughout society.

For some years black South Africans could take pride in seeing their leaders living the good life, in the belief that all would benefit in time.

Now, a new generation has arisen that doesn’t remember apartheid.

People may no longer see ministers in million-rand cars as shining examples, but more as an elite that serves itself first.

As Ramphele also points out in an important article in The Star last month, the culture of authoritarianism the ANC acquired in exile has led it to regard development as something the state or the ANC (the two have become confused) gives to the people. This is a top-down process that does nothing to diminish the arrogance of those in power. When the bureaucracy is staffed by political appointees and is short of people with the requisite skills, the result is what the government euphemistically calls “a problem of service delivery”.

The MK cadres in their camps 25 years ago, short of supplies and long on frustration, were also victims of service delivery. That is the connection between then and now.

South Africa has a democratic Constitution and vibrant democratic traditions. If these are to be used to advantage, bringing new hope and dynamism to the large number of people who feel excluded, then the political elites need to start with an honest self-evaluation. The memory of Mkatashinga is a good place to start.

Stephen Ellis is Desmond Tutu professor in the faculty of social sciences at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam