ANC is 95 years old

Is the ANC in danger of losing its role as moral compass to millions who have long seen it as the force for enlightened change in this country?
Today(January 8th), it is 95 years old and decidedly shaky. Over decades, it has been present, providing direction and hope to many. The slowly swaying compass that has held the middle ground through many tough years is in rapid oscillation leaving many hardened supporters dizzy and confused. What still the general public? What should it make of the political state of the majority party five short years away from its centenary?
The vigorous and vicious debate that has unfolded around the question of who should be this country’s next leader has created an opportunity of political fluidity that is both dangerous and exciting.
Dangerous since it threatens to create the kind of instability and paranoia that an intense power struggle could invoke. Exciting since it creates a rather unique opportunity for robust debate that potentially could push the country into fresh directions. Conspiracy theories abound and will continue to do so in the coming months unless a safety valve is activated to release the build up of steam in the pressure cooker.
The ill-disciplined outbursts at public events, the vilification of individuals and efforts to discredit both the president and those who oppose him are all indications of a deep sense of disquiet.
The human mind when it feels under siege is capable of all sorts of machinations. The line between truth and fiction becomes very thin.
Over the past month I have spoken to a wide range of individuals who are both members of the ANC, leaders, rank and file, young and old. I have chosen not to quote them directly since this once again would feed into placing different individuals into set “political camps”. Instead I identify three strands of thought that explain the tensions.
The first strand coalesced around the Cosatu/SACP and Zuma explain the present tension ideologically. They believe that GEAR and ASGISA, the economic policy frameworks driving the country, do not serve the interest of the workers and the poor. The fight is about the future economic direction of the country which could be greatly influenced by whoever becomes the next president. They are increasingly frustrated by the perceived lack of debate within the ANC on these issues, and feel that the President and those belonging to his inner circle have attempted to stifle debate and interrogation of the government’s economic policies, and been scathing towards dissenters, labeling them “ultra leftists” and painting them as fringe elements with little understanding of economics or what is good for the country.
The second strand arranged around the president support the policies of GEAR and ASGISA, will work closely with big business, and maintain constructive and close relations with both developed and developing countries. They believe that pursuing a more realist approach will be in the best interests of the workers and poor within South Africa, and will eventually result in broad based economic growth. They are determined to stay the course designed by Mbeki and are increasingly conscious that the state has to play a greater developmental role than it has up until now. They however say that the first strand of thought offers no concrete economic alternatives.
A third strand of thought warns against seeking a single explanation. However comforting, they argue this is not appropriate.  The present impasse represents a complex of ideological difference, factionalism and individual ambition, with a fair dose of past exile and internal politics thrown into the mix. All of this is not new to the ANC or to the UDF(the internal anti-apartheid movement) and the trade union movement. The difference now is that the stakes are much higher since whatever direction is taken would impact directly on the personal political fortunes of individuals.
The problem too is that a top-down approach has limited community participation leaving many dedicated community-conscious individuals with a feeling that they are powerless and have no meaningful contribution to make. Politics, they say, is now no longer about ideas, but about careers.
While potentially dangerous, this impasse, if skillfully managed could generate the energy towards greater progress.  Long traditions of open, democratic debate and wise leadership proved in the past to be the saving grace of  the ANC both before it was banned and in exile. Albert Luthuli and then Oliver Tambo were both leaders who drew on the strengths of many. The UDF leadership by its very nature was broad and participatory, very successfully giving everybody a sense that their opinions were important and that they had a contribution to make.
A variety of options are bouncing around. Some argue that the Policy Conference is June should be used as an opportunity for an agreement to be brokered that both Mbeki and Zuma stand back from the succession debate. This could pave the way for fresh, open thinking about what will be best for the country. Others are so concerned about the levels of frustration that they have suggested this must be accompanied by “bitterness sessions” – a Chinese construct developed to defuse political tension – to allow anger to be expressed and released. They say that the problems and tensions are persisting because people are not speaking their minds and they need to do this to begin to put aside the deep resentments and bitterness.
In the Cape, a group of younger activists and former activists have begun a series of meetings to encourage ANC voters(not necessarily members) to enter the national leadership debate. In the next few weeks they will lobby for similar initiatives to take place in other regions. They believe that ANC branches no longer adequately represent ANC supporters and the debate should be broadened to include the public. One response to this suggests that branches should themselves draw local communities into the debate.
A further rather innovative suggestion is for a team of leaders to emerge who do not necessarily have personal stakes in holding political office but are widely respected. This team should recommit the ANC to selecting a leader and a leadership team that would be the best for the country and the historical vision of the organization. This vision has been anti-tribal, non-racial, non-sexist and committed to the prosperity of all South Africans, not just a select few.
Should such an idea take root, who will be the men and women who will emerge from the women’s movement, from the trade union movement, from the youth, business, religious, health and education sectors that could stand up and be counted at this challenging time?
Two recent events indicate successful tension-breaking efforts that help to restore the belief that the ANC may not have lost its role as the country’s moral compass for driving enlightened change.  The removal of Mbulelo Goniwe as chief whip of parliament sends out a strong signal that sexual harassment will not be tolerated. The significant truce brokered between the government and the Treat Action Campaign has also been cause for enormous confidence boosting. One speaks of firm boundaries between right and wrong. The other speaks of broad participatory leadership that draws in all sectors of society and makes room for everyone to contribute their skill and talents.
Both events suggest a recommitment to its historic role. A refocus on the enduring vision to be implemented by a collective participatory leadership could bring that compass closer to the restful centre. It could choose over the next few months to squander 95 years of human effort or secure its position as one of the most veritable organizations this continent has ever known. Which will it be?


*This article originally appeared in the Cape Times on 8 January 2007


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