Crises, and there have been many in South African political history, have a way of magnifying the role of metaphor in shaping consensus, or even in holding a political party together.
It is a mark of the current crisis that two defining metaphors of the post-1994 period — the “broad church” doctrine of the ANC and the “rainbow nation” concept of then Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu — are in serious doubt.
The slow atrophying of the latter has been widely reported on. As regards the former, a metaphor is only helpful if it remains meaningful. Is the ANC, one of the African continent’s most storied political parties, still a broad church?
The answer largely pivots around whether the ANC has finally negotiated its long-overdue passage from coalition-based politics rooted in shared values to that of a self-interested political party driven by the brutish political Darwinism that impels professional politics everywhere.
The ANC is a party founded on crisis. Its historical origins are directly traceable back to the doings of 19th-century black Christian elites who came together, in prayer, song, thought and contradiction to argue the rights of black South Africans in the emerging colonial state.
Since its launch in 1912, the ANC has lurched from crisis to crisis. Its present crisis is directly related to the December 2007 replacing of Thabo Mbeki as the party’s leader by Jacob Zuma, who, as party niceties required, was inaugurated president of the country in May 2009.
If we have learnt anything during the rolling crises of the Mbeki and Zuma years, it is that the stories a political party tells itself about itself are just as important as the ones pundits contrive — in good faith, or not — for a broader public.
Until recently, there has been remarkable symmetry between the authorised story of the ANC and the hullaballoo we call journalism. Both versions have emphasised the ANC’s durability and limber qualities as a political organisation. The ANC is, as the expression goes, a “broad church”.
A key article of faith in the party, this post-1994 dogma has been widely invoked in decorous speeches and policy documents. Its repetition has seen a convenient metaphor acquire the status of scriptural truth.
Even Zuma is a believer, or at least once was. Here is the president delivering the inaugural OR Tambo Memorial Lecture at the University of Zambia in December 2009.
“Apart from Nelson Mandela, Tambo remains the greatest symbol of our reconciliation policies. For him, there was no coloured or Indian, Zulu or Afrikaner, but a people united in the quest for a free South Africa.” He explained how, for Tambo, “unity and coherence” in the ANC was “sacrosanct”.
“If the ANC was a broad church, then Tambo fitted the role of the pastor like no other.”
Zuma’s analysis is uncontroversial and broadly consistent with an orthodoxy that the ANC is a broad-based coalition of comrades sharing a mutual agenda to do right by the majority of South Africans.
In 1997, in the lead-up to the party’s 50th national conference in Mahikeng, where Mbeki was elected party leader, the ANC released a discussion document affirming its “long-established traditions of building a broad church”. The document also said “the ANC has been, and necessarily remains, home to a variety of progressive ideological currents”.
At the fag end of Mbeki’s tenure, as factionalism and self-interest tested this faith, authors Marc Gevisser, William Gumede and Ronald Suresh Roberts relied on the “broad church” metaphor to account for the ANC and its peculiar ways.
“Ideologically, the ANC is a broad church, sheltering under its umbrella myriad political hues: liberals, Christian democrats, communists, socialists, social democrats, African nationalists and Africanists,” wrote Gumede in his book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC (2008).
That congregants sheltering under a capacious dome made of consensus and goodwill — not quarried stone, like Cape Town’s St George’s Cathedral — might sometimes quarrel is both unavoidable and necessary. At least such was the view of Pallo Jordan, a former member of the ANC’s national executive committee.
“From the day I walked in the doors of the ANC in the late Fifties, we were arguing, and we are still arguing today over everything under the sun. People in the ANC are … well, it’s not that they are fractious, but they don’t put up with a lot of crap,” he is quoted as saying in journalist Alec Russell’s After Mandela: The Battle for the Soul of South Africa (2009), another tome delivered from the ashes of the Mbeki years.
Nostalgia, like metaphor, is ambrosia to political elites.
Although the broad church mantra can read as political expediency given a fancy name, the ecclesial metaphor is not without some basis in fact. The intellectual roots and activist origins of the ANC are irrevocably linked to the mission stations of the Eastern Cape.
As is his habit, Zuma has tested the tensile strength of this truth. Addressing an election rally in Khayelitsha in 2008, he remarked: “Even God expects us to rule this country, because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed.”
Well, yes. The 1912 opening ceremony of the South African Native National Congress, out of which the ANC grew, was conducted by four church ministers — Edward Tsewu, Robert Mantsayi, James Tantsi and Reverend Rose, the latter a white pastor from Bloemfontein. But this is the least interesting detail about the religious beginnings of the ANC.
According to André Odendaal, a scholar of early ANC history, the Eastern Cape’s many mission stations and schools gave momentum to the country’s first proto-nationalist political organisations.
“One has only to consider the Dubes of Inanda, the Lutulis of Groutville, the Kumalos and Msanes of Edendale, the Morokas of Thaba Nchu, the Mosheshes of Lesotho, the Molemas of Mafikeng, the Sandiles, Sogas and Umhallas of Mgwali and St Mark’s, to understand how the mission station and schools became breeding grounds for 20th-century African nationalism,” writes Odendaal in The Founders (2012)
Tiyo Soga, a worldly intellectual who was South Africa’s first black Presbyterian minister, is a key protagonist in Odendaal’s origin story. Soga’s biography, which includes two stints in Glasgow, is also helpful in reconciling ecclesial fact with the ANC’s increasingly shop-worn metaphor that it is a home for all.
The “broad church” originated in 19th-century English religious history. Widely credited to the English poet and educationist Arthur Hugh Clough, the phrase refers to the liberal application of Anglican principles.
Its diffusion is credited to the influential English churchman Arthur Penrhyn Stanley, who first used it in a sermon in 1847, the same year an 18-year-old Soga travelled to Glasgow. After a second stint in Scotland a decade later, Soga returned to the Eastern Cape an ordained minister with a Scottish wife.
In an editorial published in 1865 demonstrating his pan-African sensibility, Soga confidently asserted the place and integrity of black Africans “amid the wreck of empires, and the revolution of ages”.
It is easy to lionise earlier political leaders, to diagnose in the sobriety of their olden-day beliefs and methods a rebuke of today’s lumpen populists. At the same time there is profit in revisiting this deep history: it clarifies the rickety certainties espoused by present-day ANC mandarins and their continued defence of the Zumas of Nkandla and the Guptas of Saxonwold.
“Whereas the mission-educated elite stratum of intellectuals were responsible for founding the ANC, the organisation today cannot be said to be a party where intellectualism and tolerance of debate and different opinions are flourishing,” argues Odendaal in a recent essay published in Sol Plaatje’s Native Life in South Africa (2016).
Rather than pursue the “inclusive nationalism and constitutionalism” of its forebears, writes Odendaal, the ANC’s current leadership has chartered a new course that has “conspired to make the influence of, and connection with, the first generations more tenuous today than they have been at any time since the insurrectionary conditions of the 1980s”.
It may be a disheartening analysis but at least we know where we are: the church has been toppled but the shopping mall is open for business.