There was a time not so long ago when the ANC dominated and led the national discourse, filling the public space with ideas for debate and further discussion.
For a while now, there has been an uneasy feeling that the ANC has slowly but surely lost its intellectual heart and that there has been a steady dumbing down within its ranks.
Before, many in the ANC welcomed policy debate as a battle of ideas, but now it seems that a greater number of its members have started to shun detailed debate about policy. Without romanticising the ANC’s history, its early founders were rooted in intellectual activity.
These days all manner of people appear to speak for and on behalf of the ANC, with some of its leadership found to be wanting. One needs only take a cursory glance at the Twitter feed of the sports minister, Fikile Mbalula, to see just how shallow some debates have become.
President Jacob Zuma himself seems to be caught with his foot in his mouth nearly every time he speaks in public, and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe often shoots from the hip.
Recently, the ANC Youth League in the Free State marched to have the Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) deregistered, which was an astonishing attack, not just on a nongovernmental organisation with a proud history but also on freedom of speech and association.
Is this campaign against the TAC sanctioned by ANC headquarters, or is it simply another one of those marches at which we shrug our shoulders in resignation while we contemplate the state of national debate and the ANC losing its political moorings as it becomes ever more insecure in power?
Failure to lead
In the face of increasing electoral competition (which will only intensify before the 2016 local government elections), the ANC appears to have run out of transformative ideas and more readily resorts to name-calling or using its majority more crassly than in previous Parliaments.
The ANC’s inability to lead public debate about the most important issues facing South Africa, such as the widening chasm of inequality, has created something of a vacuum.
So it is in this context that the ANC’s near-silence on the question of apartheid and colonial-era national monuments has been almost deafening. The minister of higher education, Blade Nzimande, issued a statement in support of the University of Cape Town (UCT) #Rhodes Must Fall campaign, and this week his deputy was set to join the UCT night vigil before the council decision regarding the Rhodes statue.
In addition, the Western Cape ANC Youth League found its voice at the 11th hour – rather Johnny-come-lately, reactive contributions to the debate, one might say.
It is hard to know what the ANC’s position is, in government or as a party, regarding the rather more nuanced debates we should be having regarding our past, heritage and monuments.
Of course, to limit the debate to one about monuments only is shortsighted. For it is about place, inequality, marginalisation and that elusive notion of transforming our society. Most significantly, the campaigns by the university’s student representative councils have sought to fundamentally question our negotiated transition and its compromises.
At a recent meeting of UCT students, Nelson Mandela’s role and the compromises struck in the early and mid-1990s were being vociferously challenged. It is this that should make us all sit up and take notice. For part of the negotiated transition was a Constitution that provides a framework for a deliberative and participatory democracy.
In many senses, the Constitution remains aspirational as rights are “progressively realised”, that phrase in it so loved by lawyers and judges, but which often means that socioeconomic rights to housing, healthcare, water and social security are to be deferred to those waiting, sometimes patiently but nowadays increasingly impatiently. Mostly, the waiting is a direct result of an ineffective state hamstrung by corruption and a lack of capability.
Perhaps this is why the ANC has been reluctant to lead this debate on monuments because it takes us to the heart of not only the negotiated settlement but also to its own record on socioeconomic “delivery” and its presiding over an increasingly unequal society.
In addition, any interrogation of inequality and the marginalisation of the majority will cut to the heart of power and the deals done that undermine the poor. It will surely take us to analysing a post-apartheid state that is sitting happily alongside the Lonmins of the world and is comfortable to use brute force against its own citizens on behalf of big capital.
And it seems clear that, if the ANC cannot lead the debate (why, some may ask, should we always expect it to?), opportunists such as the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) will continue to occupy the spaces left by the vacuum of leadership our country suffers from at present.
What we have currently is a disparate, divided public discourse with very little solidarity across class and race. We have a split labour movement, students on the rise and a weakening ruling elite doing deals in backrooms and manipulating state institutions against a backdrop of unsustainable inequality.
What is clear though is that the #RhodesMustFall campaign has touched a raw nerve in our society. It has also exposed that unique South African brand of intolerance. During a meeting at UCT, students “demanded” that UCT council chairperson, Barney Pityana, vacate his position, to which he acceded, only to be replaced by someone more willing to direct the discussion in a manner acceptable to those in the room. During the discussion, those who voiced even the slightest dissent were vilified.
On the #Rhodes Must Fall Facebook page concerns were raised about the university soliciting opinions from its alumni. Critics were quite clear about saying that this was a calculated move by UCT to drown out black voices with white voices, and that this was not a debate in which white people should or could realistically participate, because it concerned the “centring of black pain”.
So empathy was not required either, it seems.
Of course, the illogic assumes that all alumni are white and also that all black alumni (and students for that matter) agree with the campaign. The creation of “them” and “us” might have dangerous consequences for future transformation debates.
Many who have expressed doubts or misgivings about the campaign have been labelled (that other very South African thing we do) as reactionary, liberal and various other perceived “insults”. Some social commentators supporting the campaign talk openly of “calling out” or “taking down” those with whom they disagree.
We label each other because of a lack of trust and so, perhaps we should not be surprised at these ad hominem attacks.
There has been a strand of intolerance in this campaign that some might argue militates against the spirit of the Constitution. But this should not be the undoing of an important debate, and attempts to ground the student struggle in history and intellectual debate should be encouraged.
But it was also the ANC which started questioning the Constitution as mitigation for its own failures of governance. The EFF has also used the anti-Constitution sentiment to grab land and is using the current student struggle for its own narrow political gain. So, the accumulation of this uninformed, populist rhetoric can have all manner of meanings and uses, most of them dangerous.
Last week, Albie Sachs, a former Constitutional Court justice and struggle stalwart, added his considerable gravitas to the debate. He used the example of the Old Fort prison, whose bricks were used to build a new Constitutional Court. It represents the building of something new and powerful out of the old evil of the fort prison.
It is the kind of intervention that is welcome, for its calm wisdom and reach into the past. But one wonders whether anyone heard Sachs or listened to what he had to say.
The Constitutional Court and our Constitution were, after all, about trying to accommodate a diversity of viewpoints and should be the starting point of our deliberations on difficult questions. It might not provide the answers but it ought to act as a guide. The injustices of the present cannot be laid at its door.
Therefore, it would be a pity if, in questioning the negotiated settlement, the Constitution becomes collateral damage, because what would take its place? This is a question that has been repeatedly asked by the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (Casac) as it seeks to promote and entrench the Constitution and its values. This is the most fundamental question that now arises for South Africa, no matter how one tries to dress it up.
We are in a difficult political and social moment, one far bigger than university vice-chancellors and student leadership. It requires measured contributions by leaders across society if we are to change the status quo but still preserve what the Constitution requires.
Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies and is a member of the Casac advisory board