Since the ANC’s national elective conference at Nasrec in December 2017, the party has made all the right noises about stamping out corruption, improving governance and doing right by the people who voted them into power.
But for all its proclamations about a new dawn, and its exhortations towards a spirit of “thuma mina”, the ANC still has not done enough to inspire confidence that it has come to grips with the many errors of its ways. This, after all, has become a party that has allowed itself to be a vehicle for a league of politicians who pay lip service to the historical ideals of the party while bankrupting entire municipalities.
Yes, the ANC will argue that it has taken action against those who abuse their positions. And yes, we will admit that it certainly does appear to be moving with greater alacrity against those implicated in wrongdoing.
But the true test is yet to come: the speed at which it moves now does not account for the velocity of its prior descent. Will it address how that descent was able to happen so swiftly? Will the clean-up be factionalised — touching only on those who lost out at Nasrec? What happens if it emerges that the rot is so deep that true accountability would mean half of its national executive committee should go to prison?
This is the same party that has allowed scandal after scandal to tarnish its reputation as a movement invested in the liberation of South Africans. It is the same party that has grown so complacent about its appeal to voters that it seriously considers an electoral campaign that consists mostly of a mobile phone network to woo young people into the fold.
This is the party that was formed by the idea of the liberation of black people in South Africa. It is a party that was historically able to weather its own political inertia, driven by the squabbles of its leaders, by the idea that the struggle for liberty was not just a worthy cause, but an urgent one.
And, ultimately, that is what the ANC appears to have lost sight of, the idea of freedom as something that we continue to strive towards. Instead, it has fallen back on platitudes about being the oldest liberation movement on the continent — platitudes that become increasingly hollow as more and more of its senior leaders incline towards liberating only their bank balances.
For many, many South Africans the ANC means something else, something that touches on the essence of our freedom. And, although the ANC has certainly helped itself to too generous a portion of history in this regard, its significance to millions of South Africans cannot be denied.
Right now, a significant number of people in the ANC do understand that the party needs to do better. But the party is stuck between a public display of change and an elaborate balancing of its internal contradictions.
At its national list conference next week, the party will continue to wage an internal battle against a faction loyal to former president Jacob Zuma, which is trying to claw back power. And for what exactly? What exactly does this ANC stand for?
A long, long time ago, the French-Greek philosopher Cornelius Castoriadis argued that what made democracy genuine wasn’t the ballot box or the politicians who so ardently court us each time a ballot box is in close proximity. Instead, for Castoriadis, the key to democracy was citizenry — people’s ability to imagine and reimagine and build and rebuild the society we live in. This vision for democracy is the ideal — an ideal that is certainly not realised in South Africa, or anywhere else in the world.
What we are left with instead is a bunch of politicians, both inside the ANC and outside on the streets where the Democratic Alliance (DA) memorably launched its election poster this week, in an ongoing squabble for our attention. This is what the emancipatory project has come down to — the ANC launching a meme challenge on social media platforms, and the DA making a song and dance about putting up a poster on a street pole.
We are not so free that we can afford to look away from the disaster. The price of liberty appears not to be discounted at January sales (we keep looking). It is still constant vigilance. Power will always try to usurp what it is not entitled to. As citizens, we must be ready to confront it. And we have to renew our zeal to do this nearly every day.
Happy New Year!