If it is true that history is written by the victors, then the African National Congress is uniquely positioned among the world’s ruling parties to offer a resonant and convincing narrative of its long struggle and rise to power.
Of course, the story of the struggle is not solely the story of the ANC, far from it, but the party and indeed a government led largely by its exiled elite have been effective in their efforts to build an official history of liberation centred on the black, green and gold.
On January 8, as the party kicked off a year of centenary celebrations, it had an opportunity not just to remind us of its leading role in our liberation but also to remind itself of its purpose and remarkable resources.
The ANC has always been a complex organisation, capable of sustaining itself in spite, or perhaps because, of the way it manages the contradictions between its very diverse constituencies, but there is no gainsaying that the party is in deep crisis, torn apart by a factionalism that barely cloaks money politics in the guise of ideological dispute.
The results are very bad, not just for the party, but also for a young country that, notwithstanding the Constitution, is structured in so many ways around the ANC’s dominance.
So the 100th birthday of this extraordinary and troubled movement is an important opportunity, not just for the party but also for South Africa, to look forward by looking back.
Certainly the material is rich and plentiful, from the deep commitment of the founders to the revolutionary courage and theoretical sophistication of its post-war leadership and the progressive constitutional vision of those who helped to remake South Africa in the early 1990s.
That history, treated as a primer for unity of purpose and commitment to democratic development, could be harnessed to begin rebuilding the party’s sense of itself internally and to project it to the country not as the home of tenderpreneurs and careerists but of committed activists.
Nothing of the kind was attempted in any meaningful way in Mangaung.
There was a brief pause in hostility but it was no more than that, as the warring barons arrived under a flag of truce, the better to plot their next moves.
President Jacob Zuma gave a dreary recitation of the ANC’s history to a fast-emptying stadium and did nothing to harness the energy of the past to any kind of project for the future. And those in the alliance who might have made a better fist of it were prevented from speaking for fear they might take the shine off the big man.
So we don’t hold out much hope that the ANC will return to the wellsprings this year. But that doesn’t mean South Africans can’t. In fact, the history of the ANC and of the struggle more broadly doesn’t belong to the ANC. It is part of our common patrimony and there is no reason that we can’t all draw on it as we seek models of leadership. Whether it is the ANC we turn to, opposition parties or extraparliamentary movements, we could do worse than to measure them against the standards of Luthuli, Mandela and Sisulu, and the people’s assembly at Kliptown. Our journey is to the future, not back to Mangaung.
Follow the Mail & Guardian‘s coverage of the ANC’s 100th anniversary.