Ask a member of the Midrand Group whether their phones are being tapped and you'll most likely get a dismissive or joking variation of "yes". The "aspiring intellectuals" – all young, all black and all teeth in their very public criticism of the ANC – are largely resigned to a fate of being closely watched and perhaps even persecuted in future, especially because they seek to expand the group into a forum for cerebral public dialogue on society, outside of party political structures.
Security agencies will not comment on who is under surveillance, but for all their joking some in the group seem to believe that it is the case. Because none of them is in a government job or involved in government tenders, a little surveillance is a risk they're willing to take to spread what could be considered subversive ideas.
"If you let South Africans loose in terms of what they can talk about, that is inherently threatening to those in power," said Songezo Zibi, one of the founders of the collective. "You can set out to be subversive, or you can have a subversive effect on those in power. In that sense we are a subversive group if those in power choose not to assimilate what we have to say."
And when ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe came calling in September, the rumours that the group (and its harsh take on the ANC) had been discussed in the highest echelons of the tripartite alliance were confirmed. Somebody had taken notice of what amounts to little more than a few acquaintances who regularly sit around and discuss politics and books and football – and who happen to have a public platform.
In a sense the Midrand Group exists mostly as a self-applied label a few columnists add to the end of their published work in national newspapers. As an organisation it has one not quite official, who sends out the text messages that alert members to meetings. It has only one firm unwritten rule – anyone who joins a political party is wished a fond but immediate farewell – and only one implied mission: to provide stimulating conversation for five or six people who share a certain outlook and can make it to a meeting.
The labels applied by ANC loyalists are somewhat different: counter-revolutionaries, part of the liberal offensive, agenda-driven and, in a whisper, agents of foreign influence. Even if the party is, officially, not particularly bothered.
"Some of them are people who add value to the intellectual debate and we must welcome that," said Mantashe this week. "Whether they run a project that is their own or a project of somebody else – that is where the concern should be."
Intellectuals who expressed strong views and deep analysis were important in South Africa, he added, even if they sometimes got a little personal. And "if you define yourself as anti-ANC, as some of them do, we can only wish you luck".
Anti-ANC may be a fair interpretation of some of the writing that members of the group have published, which has criticised everything from service delivery failures to Jacob Zuma's character. But according to some of them, that's not necessarily what the party finds most offensive.
"The ANC has this major philosophical flaw. It thinks it should be the centre of society and everything and everyone should be its branch," said Zibi. "If, in what I wrote, I always said 'this is what the ANC should fix', that would be fine."
The Midrand Group has a unified position; its stance is that every member is responsible for his own opinion and writing, even if it is influenced by their discussions. They do not primarily argue for the reformation of the ANC and they do not take their arguments to ANC structures. Instead, they tend to postulate a post-ANC South Africa, trying to map the way to an ideal socioeconomic future, one in which the party of liberation isn't necessarily important. In fact, some among them think the party is already irrelevant.
"People tend to magnify the role of politics in the private lives of individuals," said Prince Mashele. "Life is not only, and not even mainly, about politics. I'm building a house in Mpumalanga in a village where the municipal officials should be providing water, but there is no water. What did I do? I made a borehole."
Mashele's argument is not only one of self-reliance. Underlying it is an assumption that South Africans, including the rural, disadvantaged poor, have the ability to fend for themselves economically and politically and either can or already have moved beyond a need for the ANC, either because the party can't deliver or is not strictly needed after democracy.
Tap of patronage
It is a view shared by his colleagues, although not necessarily at all levels. "There are many people our age who share our views, but their lives are dependent on the ANC," said Brutus Malada, referring to the fact that all the Midrand Group members are younger than 40. "Those people aren't raising a hand and saying 'this is wrong' because they are thinking about where their next meal is coming from. The ANC could close the tap of patronage."
By contrast, the Midrand Group is in effect ungovernable, from the ANC's perspective, and as fearless as it is disrespectful. A discussion with Mantashe and a high-powered delegation from the party, including national ANC spokesperson Jackson Mthembu and Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane, does not seem to have had any moderating effect. They continue to say that the ANC is falling into some of the same traps as other post-liberation movements, they continue to be highly critical of ANC leaders and they continue to predict that the party will lose its grip on power soon – perhaps as early as 2019 – unless it changes in ways that seem unlikely.
Unlike other critics, though, they do so with a fair amount of credibility.
The members do not lack academic credentials and most live in the Midrand area, hence the group's name. Yet some members have strong rural links. Zibi insists his spirit would not rest if he were not buried "at home", a small village in the Eastern Cape. Mashele maintains strong family and friendship ties in deep Mpumalanga, where he still meets with his former school-teachers, who are also local ANC leaders, when he visits. And although young, they are old enough to prevent summary dismissal.
"It pains the ANC that we are young and we are black and we are not the born-frees – we know what apartheid was and we had a part in those experiences," said Malada.
Rural support base
In the past, perhaps, these would have been traits that attracted them to the ANC, an organisation founded by the equivalent urbanised intellectuals of their time. Today, the Midrand Group tends to view the ANC as a party that is defaulting to an increasingly rural support base because it has given up on what Zuma, in his address to traditional leaders last week, jokingly referred to as "clever blacks".
In theory, that could make them the vanguard of exactly the kind of new demographic the Democratic Alliance would love to attract. In reality, their disillusionment with the politics of the day also extends to the opposition. Instead of looking for a political home, or a way to influence policy directly, they are thinking instead of ways of feeding what they consider to be an intense hunger for spirited discussion in a wasteland devoid of ideas.
"Why can't you have that kind of discussion in Diepsloot?" said Zibi. "Who says the people who live there always want to talk about service delivery? What makes us think people there don't want to engage in reflection about their circumstances? Instead, that space has been yielded to political parties, who want to use it to win an election."
Not that the immediate future holds mass public meetings or anything. But the group is considering moving beyond its by-invitation-only membership and making its proceedings open to the public, perhaps even offering its services as a think-tank to all who may consider it useful – even though there may be consequences.
"I wouldn't be surprised if my text messages to my many, many mistresses end up in the papers in the next couple of years," Zibi said jokingly. "That would be a great way to scare people away from a character like me."
The face of the counter-revolutionaries
The Midrand Group counts among its members a diplomat, a reverend and a student, but four among its number (which is less than 10 by any measure) also write columns that have made them the public face of the group since it was established in 2010.
Songezo Zibi has worked in communications for the likes of Volkwagen SA and has written for the Mail & Guardian, City Press, and Business Day.
Prince Mashele is a former speechwriter for the Mbeki presidency and an analyst and researcher for organisations that have included the Institute for Security Studies. He has written for News24 and the Sunday Independent and these days writes mostly for the Sowetan. A review of his book, The Worst Shall Govern, on the ANC Today website described it as "a pathetical [sic] poor workmanship that is lacking in prognosis and reflecting lazy intellectualism".
Brutus Malada's former employers include the Human Sciences Research Council and the National Youth Development Agency. He has been published in the Sowetan and Sunday Independent.
Mzukisi Qobo has lectured at Stellenbosch University and the University of Pretoria. He also did research for the World Trade Organisation after helping to draft South Africa's trade policy as a chief director at the department of trade and industry. He has been published in the M&G, but writes primarily for Business Day. – Phillip de Wet