The ANC has had 13 presidents since its founding as the South African National Natives Congress back in 1912. A big part of the lore of the ANC centres around these men and their various characters and achievements.
Oliver Tambo was the longest serving and over a period of 24 years built the structures of the movement in exile, turning the ANC from an outlawed “terrorist” organisation into a convincing alternative government with diplomatic reach and credible administrative capacity.
Nelson Mandela became a global symbol of defiance and later a conciliator, and then his country’s first democratic president.
Dr AB Xuma reached out across racial lines to unite all progressive people against the apartheid regime, at a time when reaching across the racial barriers of the time was no easy obvious thing to do. It cost him his presidency, but in doing so, he laid the foundations for the ANC’s adoption of the philosophy of non-racialism.
But over a period of 106 years and 12 leaders, it is obviously impossible for the ANC not to have one or two duds, men who don’t fit easily into the folklore of a glorious liberation movement led by men and women of undoubtable courage and fortitude, pursuing the noblest goals with determination and self-sacrifice.
Quite understandably, there are embarrassing hiccups, gaps in the narrative, and the odd figure of ridicule and scorn. To be fair, the ANC has always been honest in acknowledging these, it does not erase even where there is great cause for it to do just that.
Take, for instance, the sorry tale of Dr James Sebe Moroka, the seventh president of the party. Moroka took over the presidency of the ANC at a very sensitive time in 1949. The National Party government was just settling in, by which I mean that the entire edifice of Grand Apartheid was being constructed, and the repressive police state being established. State systematic violence would henceforth be the dominant response to black resistance against the laws and restrictions that DF Malan’s government was putting in place in the years 1949-1952. For black South Africa, and the ANC in particular, the period called for bravery and heroism.
Young leaders such as Anton Lembede and Mandela emerged and founded the ANC Youth League, to inject precisely this bravery and heroism into the then genteel, lawyerly style of the resistance movement. Largely at the instigation of this generation, the ANC launched the Defiance Campaign in 1952, intending to take on apartheid statutes directly in a campaign of mass civil disobedience. Moroka seemed perfect for the moment, being a Trotskyite with a reputation for radicalism that distinguished him from Xuma and the old guard.
But the reaction of the government to the Defiance Campaign was swift and heavy handed. African and Indian ‘instigators’ were rounded up and charged, not under civil disorder laws, but under the newly-minted, draconian Suppression of Communism Act. The consequences of conviction under that law were dire. Moroka was a wealthy and well-regarded physician, with a reputation and patients even among the white community in his native Orange Free State. The prospect of being a convicted communist, a jail term, the loss of his practice and his land, not to mention the white patronage on which he depended, must have refocused his mind. On the eve of the trial he abandoned his comrades and engaged his own defence. Worse still, during the trial he distanced himself from the Defiance Campaign, its leaders, the ANC, and even the very principles and goals for which the movement he led was fighting, including the very commitment to the notion of racial equality.
It was cowardice and betrayal at its worst and represented the lowest moment in the 40-year history of the liberation movement. Moroka, who had been drafted into the ANC by the Youth League in order to challenge the staid and conservative Xuma, was eventually expelled. He remains the only former president of the party to suffer that indignity. We now have the unfortunate distinction of living in a time at which a second such expulsion is and must be on the cards.
Enter the spectacle that has been the party’s 12th president, Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. The parallels with Moroka are not deep but are nevertheless striking. Zuma came to power as ANC president at a time of great turmoil for the party and its alliance. He was carried to office by an alliance of interests that was impeccably opposed to his predecessor, and as such gave little thought to the character and suitability of the man they saw as their best chance to dislodge the incumbent. As in 1949, the ANC Youth League was at the forefront of the assault. And as with Moroka, the Zuma era ended in reprehensible betrayal of the principles and goals of the ANC by no less a person than its president.
And perhaps most significantly, the ANC may very well have to face up to the prospect that its former president has so sullied its name and reputation that the party is left with no choice but to charge and excommunicate him.
If anything, Zuma during his time in party and state office has dragged the ANC through the mud in ways far worse than Moroka ever did. Like Moroka, he consistently and brazenly chose his own personal interests over those of his party. But unlike Moroka, Zuma sold both his party and state office to outside interests for personal financial gain.
The litany of his crimes since ascending to office in 2009 dwarfs anything he may have done in the period before. The impending judicial inquiry into state capture is likely to show that he was at the centre of a nefarious network of patronage and looting that systematically hollowed out institutions of state, bankrupted critical publicly owned companies, and enriched his friends and his rapacious family.
It is inconceivable that the inquiry, considering the weight of evidence already in the public domain and likely to be led there, will not lead to a new criminal probe with Zuma at the centre. That is quite aside from the 783 counts of corruption, fraud and racketeering that the ANC’s former president will likely face within the space of a month. Can the ANC, given its assurances to the electorate about its commitment to righting the wrongs of the Zuma era, afford not to act against him even as he faces charges on serious crimes against the state he was entrusted to serve and protect?
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy