By Njabulo Ndebele
Thank you for inviting me to participate in this important gathering this morning. In the midst of so many other commitments, I decided to prioritise an unexpected invitation to do what I was asked. I was asked to express my understandings of the current state of our country in my capacity as an independent observer. I am neither a Stalwart nor a Veteran of the ANC. Speaking on my own behalf, and carrying no mandate, I can speak with some freedom, albeit with no small measure of trepidation.
I would like to begin from the following premise. The scourge of corruption in South Africa today has gone beyond being a matter of law and order. The notion of law and order applies to a “state of society where the vast majority of the population respects the rule of law, and where the law enforcement agencies observe laws that limit their powers. Maintaining law and order implies dealing firmly with occurrences of theft, violence, and disturbance of peace, and rapid enforcement of penalties imposed under criminal law,” and, I should add, by constitutional mandate.
But what has happened in South Africa today is that the government that was elected to act according to, support and promote law, order, and constitutional rule, has abdicated that responsibility. It has itself become a thief that steals. Under this government, syndicated thieving has become the very purpose of government, because government has become an instrument that protects itself from the consequences of its own transgressions. Formidable sounding names such as “the security cluster”, “national joint operational and intelligence structure”, “the justice crime prevention and security cluster”, “key points”, have become a cloak behind which criminal, government transgressions against the state can take place with calculated impunity. The government therefore, can disturb the peace, commit state violence against those that stand in its ways, and will not enforce the law and penalties against itself after it has rendered dysfunctional the processes of state that would establish proof of its own criminality.
That is why it has become a matter of absolute importance that all South Africans recognise at this moment the necessity to rescue their country and themselves from a parallel, secret, security driven state that has consolidated in the last ten years into an organised criminal order that wilfully defrauds the state. This order has infiltrated the South African civil service, and other constituent institutions of governance, with a pervasiveness that has enabled organised criminality to aspire to function with a legitimacy akin to that of a lawful state. It performs outward gestures of legitimacy, such as government delegations flying all over the world to intergovernmental summits, but with diminished public trust in the legitimacy of their pursuits.
This enables me to make the following statement: the ultimate threat to South Africa’s achieved constitutional democracy, and which as a nation we have been consolidating with some significant progress, is the loss of freedom through a near total collapse of state capability. Regaining that freedom, protecting, deepening and increasing what’s left of it; regaining that capability and permitting the proven collective genius of the South African people to flourish through a sustainable constitutional democracy, is what makes our current situation no less than the imperative to embark on a second revolution.
If in the first revolution we struggled against something; in the second revolution South Africans must struggle for something. The value of what to struggle for may have been revealed to us by the current national crisis. It is this revelation, I would like to believe, that has brought this gathering together, today. The overriding purpose behind the modern South Africa as a visionary state is at risk of being lost.
I am fully aware that many in here are long standing and committed members of the ANC. I have enormous admiration and respect for you all. You seek to rekindle, promote, and preserve a heroic legacy whose history is a significant part of South Africa’s sense of identity. But it seems to me also vital to appreciate that there are other histories and legacies in addition to legacies that have been dominant both in the immediate past and in the unfolding present. And legacies do come and go. The predominantly Afrikaner Nationalist Party which, it once seemed, would be there “until Jesus returned”, was once a dominant feature of South Africa’s sense of identity at a time that its policies exercised a partly triumphant and partly brutal impact on South African identity. There is an impermanence in human history that counts significantly as a reality principle. Once recognised as such, such impermanence will call on human beings to make history-making decisions. Such moments signal the beginning of end or eras. Such a moment may be upon us in the history of the ANC.
It should be a moment fraught with anxiety on the part of many to be forced by circumstances to begin to visualise a condition when the African National Congress is no longer in power. Many in the ANC, or those outside of it, but who have read the Long Walk to Freedom, might remember that Nelson Mandela, who in 1952 was designated the First Deputy President among four deputy in the presidency of Chief Albert Luthuli, flew a kite among the ANC executive in which he visualised an anticipatory strategy to ensure the survival of the ANC should the state decide, in the wake of the Defiance Campaign of the time, to eliminate the organisation through legislation.
He was mandated by the National Executive to develop what came to be known as the M-Plan. An act of foresight, the thrust of the M-Plan was to develop an underground infrastructure for the ANC to operate below the radar in anticipation of a possible annihilation of the organisation by the state. Although it had mixed success it was an exercise in strategic anticipation, and in organisational ability to visualise alternatives to ensure organisational survival and sustenance in seriously threatening conditions. Such underground structures could be seen in the random examples of the Algerian struggle for independence between 1954 and 1962, and even earlier in the case of the Polish Underground between 1939 and 1945.
In a reflection back in 2003, I expressed the following thought: South Africans, who are in accord with the New Democratic order, particularly those in the governing party, the ANC, should anticipate the arrival of a moment when there would no longer a single, dominant political force as had been the case since 1994. The measure of its political maturity will be in how the ANC creates conditions that anticipate that moment, rather than ones that seek to prevent it. This is the formidable challenge of a popular post-apartheid political party in government. Can it conceptually anticipate a future when it is no longer overwhelmingly in control, and resist the temptation to prevent such an eventuality by means outside the of the visionary parameters of its intellectual resourcefulness and its deep seated philosophical and ideological beliefs?
Successfully resisting the tendency to enforce its dominance and presence through means that could subvert its own historic and self-imposed democratic and constitutional obligations, would force the ANC, whether in power or in opposition, to hold to account both itself and others to the legacy of a constitutional and democratic order introduced by it through its leadership, to South Africa. So how the ANC behaves today in Parliament may be laying the groundwork for how it could be treated in future once it is no longer in power. My understanding of the ANC over a long time was of an organization that believed in the standard that you strive to maintain visionary dignity even when under attack.
A political party confident of its historic role and of the resilience of its legacy into the future will not claim copyright over transcendent values that may be associated with it but which have taken a life of their own in the policies of other contending parties. If they fail in this measure of maturity they will have failed to recognise the greater part of their legacy in which those transcendent values have become the standard by which others interpret and articulate their own visions. Then political contests might stand to become less and less about visions in the short to medium term, but more about how to translate shared visions into a lived future. It is there that political parties will differentiate themselves from one another. A successful political convergence at the level of transcendent values stabilises a constitutional order and provides a stable environment for change and innovation at the level of delivery. The legitimate contestation occurs at the level of effecting change in the lives of people at various levels of government.
The rise and fall of political parties makes us contemplate the manner in which the broad citizenship effects major realignments among itself and changes its predominant concerns. How alive are political players to such shifts? While a powerful political party might retain an unchanging image of itself, the the illusion of permanent relevance, the broad social community that has given life to it and has supported and followed it, is constantly changing. This proves the reality that organisations cannot exist outside of people who support them. When organisations begin to substitute themselves for the people that have made it into what they became, they begin to lose grounding and focus. Over time they enter into a state of decay. On this understanding, the ANC is capable of being forgotten in real time as much as the National Party got to be forgotten in real time.
Generational disorientation where the veterans, for example, may be unable to reproduce themselves in a new generation unless they open up to the broad spirit of society that is changing all the time while the veterans might find it harder and harder to change. This might present them with a genuine dilemma. They need to determine the real purpose and objective for which they seek to revive their organisation. Is it to rebuild back to glory a once glorious organisation? What character will the revived organisation take? How would it ground itself in a new reality that might require a fundamental shift in organisational character? What would be the outlines of its shape and character?
Where would they look to reconstitute the ailing party? Would it be inside the “family” of the ANC and risk a “factional’ trap by another name? Would they look across and within the “tripartite family” despite its gradual dismemberment? Or would they cast an adventurous eye across the entire landscape of South African society that has been evolving in significant ways since 1994 and experience the prospect of a new sense of citizenship that could to be found in unexpected communities. A one hundred-year organisation may be trapped in constricting expectations within historical parameters not set in concrete. Habitual connections may need to be approached with care. These are hard questions and require juxtaposing the old and the new in resourceful ways, looking for unexpected connections and disconnections as a necessary background against which to make new choices.
Perhaps the urgency in the necessity to make fresh choices may be stated in the following manner. The moment may have come for South Africans to begin to think as a nation ahead of their received constituent identities. I do feel confident of an untested perspective. It is that the nation, bigger than the sum of its constituent parts, has become far more resourceful than the political culture it inherited since 1994, and whose imaginative perspective largely confined within inherited structures of government may have evolved slower than the unrestricted social creativity of millions of South Africans from which a new political order ought to draw its inspiration. We can see how across the border in Zimbabwe the Zanufication of an entire social and political order, in its inherent complexities, has over the decades choked the life out of an entire people, many of whom have left to find expression elsewhere.
This enjoins South Africans to remember that the criminal syndicate that is behind systemic corruption in their country has begun to function as a political party. It has systematically squeezed out its mother body and is steadily becoming a government in a process and its outcomes that may be designed to situate itself above the nation, having not been established by the nation, but capturing the nation, through simulating its mother body, to serve its own secret purposes. In that context to struggle to fight for the survival of a political party might be to work at a lower level order of intervention. What is now at stake is far more than the fate of a political party, but more urgently the fate of fifty million South Africans that require a new political vision to emerge grounded in a population whose current state of evolution we do not know enough about.
There is a historical angle to the current situation that is worth reflecting on. It is that particularly in exile, the ANC evolved into a strong political community bound by powerful affective ties. The metaphor of the ANC as a “broad church” often goes with that of the organisation as “a family”. These metaphors refer to intimate and intricate relationships forged out of oppression; out of common dangers faced; joys shared over marriages, births , and personal triumphs of various kinds; grief over deaths of comrades in combat, assassinations, suicide, sickness, or old age. All these and more may provide the validating intimacies of shared secrets, which sooner or later everyone in the network knows but always in whispers. Few outside would every get to know. The organisation would evolve into an ever expanding network of social siblings, nephews, nieces, uncles and aunts, and “family ties”.
Over time, in government, the suitability of the family ethos in the transaction of state business may by default exclude those who are not in family circles. In a constitutional democracy the family ethos can have devastating consequences. It can paralyse judgement and encourage indecision, until indecision and bias by default begin to characterise the very image of government. It can lead to easy assumptions of correctness and certitude. “Family members” may experience increasing opportunity at the same time as they do not equally feel the pressure of professional and ethical constraints imposed from within, even less so from within the family. The instinct of collective self-protection develops into a culture of shared expectation.
It is not difficult to extrapolate from this that an intelligence driven leadership mentality with deep insight into the power of affective loyalties may leverage such loyalties as a source of influence and power and distribute patronage as a political attribute of its indispensability.
The responsibility to uphold the rights of the constitutional public points to the unsuitability of the family ethos in the transaction of state business, or even private sector business for that matter. While this may not be the entire explanation I believe a great deal of it has been at play in the progressive syndication of government practice. We have seen its greatest and ultimate expression in what the ever linguistically resourceful South Africans have called “state capture”.
So, there is a personal and intimate dimension to corruption of the kind that has metamorphosed into the phenomenon of “state capture“. In a worse case scenario here is how the condition I am grappling with might pan out at the highest levels of the state. It is captured in a question.
What kind of mentality allows a head of state to be reduced to the indignity of sitting in a room, pretending not to be around, while in the next room illegal transactions are being carried out on his behalf, on his authority as head of state, by people who have no legitimate authority to so but have the appearance of having bought the power of the president to act on his behalf? They could let him do so on his own authority, but they will not. They want to feel and to demonstrate the power they have bought, in the very same way that they landed their wedding guests as heads of state on a military airbase.
At that particular moment, in the next room, the head of state is completely powerless and it is difficult to intuit his sense of personal of dignity in what might look like a complete capture of his body, mind, and spirit. At that precise moment he renders his country completely vulnerable, exposed; its citizens scrounging around, with an increasing sense of powerlessness, for legitimate avenues of self-defence. It is hard to deploy constitutional order and the rule of law where these are demonstrably not recognised and respected by the head of state and a structure of governance he has created to undermine the state.
The history of the family ethos may to a very large extent have contributed to a situation where a political organisation is unable to take strong disciplinary action against its leaders. President Mbeki tried, but a portion of the ethos fought back and began the tortuous track to where we are now are. So as a consequence you will have many meetings of the National Executive Committee where it is unable to take a simple corrective action to restore constitutional order to the country.
Moving towards a conclusion, what I have been struggling with up this point is to further suggest that our gaze ought to strive to look beyond a political party perspective, or at the very least, to reduce the intensity of focus on it, if only to strive to see a possible new grounding for a new politics. It to suggest that South Africans begin to have a self-conscious view of the plenitude of the human condition in our country. Against this plenitude, the definition of a South African today could never be as crass as the racial and tribal simplification of our apartheid past, which we have to work hard to discard.
The South African of today is an inherently complex being. South Africans are a product of migrations over many centuries. Even as far back as the last quarter of the nineteenth century, they traveled and lived far from where they were born; spoke languages other than the ones they were born into; married into communities and cultures they were not born into; worked in professions not commensurate with the legal and political status officially carved out for them, traveled the world and returned with doctoral degrees. They were simply too many and restless to be contained.
When in 1910 the British handed over to the Afrikaners a country with this kind of people made restless partly by an economy that needed them without any commitment to their dignity as people, they handed over to the Afrikaners the headache of managing it all with no prospect of peace, while making sure that metropolitan London would ever be the ‘city of gold’ towards which all wealth created in the colonial periphery would gravitate.
There is something wonderfully independent about the South African that emerged in 1994. It may speak to an entrenched protest culture, which at its highest moment toward the end of the struggle for liberation, called for South Africa to be rendered ungovernable. It reminds me of Václav Havel’s reflections on the prospects of a post-totalitarian system where he says “life, in its essence, moves towards plurality, diversity, independent self-constitution and self-organisation, in short, towards the fulfillment of its own freedom” (Havel: 29). In our post-apartheid case though while a culture of protest may feed off the spirit of independence, an important attribute of free people, it can run dry without an imaginative political project to give life and shape to it. And here I believe, we have a challenge.
Today, when I survey the nature of annual industrial action I am forced to reflect that a great deal of it not longer inspires public understanding and support they way it used to. Indeed, in the resulting public inconvenience it may become difficult for an inconvenienced public to distinguish between cable theft that cuts off electricity to home and trains, and annual industrial action that interrrupts hospital services and other institutions vital to public wellbeing.
By the same token, the demand for the next wage increase might be difficult to distinguish from a corrupt motive to secure a tender by all means. In both cases the actions could be indicative of a history of social activism that may have ossified into reflex habits that give little indication any longer, of being driven by transcendent purpose. In each case the intended monetary outcome reveals little connection with the pursuit of vital societal goals. What is revealed is a continuous contestation over the rules of economic practice that have a resilience of five hundred years of global economic history. It is not about changing it, but securing its benefits fundamentally within its terms of engagement.
Indeed, once progressive trade unions seem to no longer to care about the levels of inconvenience their activist action may impose on the public. The annual industrial action no matter how justified it might be, does seem to indicate a setting in of orthodoxy uninformed by fresh imagination. We could see then the manifestation of an independent spirit not sufficiently grounded in a political vision to inform its character, solidity, and integrity of purpose in the current challenge of national development.
It seems as if contemporary trade union activism increasingly displays less of the vision and the patience to explain to people their project and the long range rationale behind it, as used to be the case before. It may be that the project has become dim, and behaviour appears to have ossified into orthodoxy in the same way as the political organisations to which they may be affiliated. The devastating prospect is that structural corruption in the state can flourish at the same time as labour is trapped in orthodoxy simultaneously with the natural tendency for capitalism to continue to demand and access that same labour as cheaply as possible and that monetary outcomes in both directions have increasingly little to do with social transformation.
These observations do not take away my recognition of the fact that the South African trade union movement is one of the greatest human assets of our country with the immense potential to influence significantly the possibilities of our constitutional democracy.
A final question has to be asked. Has the post-apartheid project of liberation reached an impasse? It is indeed a question to ponder. But the more I have contemplated the springs of my current disaffection with the continuous and overwhelming effects of an unsustainable global economic system, with deep local effects, the more the system seemed impervious to critique not because the system ignores the critique, but because I myself began to experience the critique as increasingly banal.
It sometimes seemed as if continuous moral disapproval and even intellectual assessment of a state of affairs, because it was unending, and therefore predictable, the very capacity and power of critique to be expressed begins to be experienced as pointless. The very vocabulary of critique seemed to denounce itself despite its moral potency.
If any of this makes any sense, it suggests that South Africans and their country require entirely fresh perspectives from which to view and understand themselves and the geo-political space that is called South Africa. When the most trenchant critique seems to vapourise into itself, sometimes triggering orthodox behavior, it becomes urgent that a new conception of our world and country becomes necessary.
The situation calls for an understanding that transcends legacies of entrapment and for new language to emerge to describe the new environment, and with which to articulate change, what needs to be changed, and how to change it. It calls for a huge firm-minded effort across time. If it takes nine months for a new human being to be born after conception, the life of a nation is the work of time measured in decades and centuries that are nevertheless never a time of waiting but always of becoming, and always a product of little efforts now. I always think of how the great, intellectual, moral, and ethical effort behind our visionary National Development Plan has not been accompanied by an equally inspired political environment to draw maximum results from it.
The South African of today deserves a strong and imaginative political culture that, enabled by a constitutional order that is already is place, is grounded in the full complexity of who we have become now, as people.
I believe in the value of the discussions that will take place this weekend, the heart and convictions from which they will emerge . I believe in the the guiding wisdom that will emerge and take South Africa to new a future grouned a robust and hopeful imagination.
 Nelson Mandela. Long Walk to Freedom. UK, Abacus, 1995. pp. 165-169.
 Njabulo S Ndebele. “An Approach to Viable Futures” in Edgar Pieterse & Frank Meintjies Eds. Voice of the Transition:The Politics, Poetics, and Practices in Social Change in South Africa. Sandown, Hienemann, 2003
Veterans and stalwarts conference Johannesburg