Contrary to the promise I made two weeks ago, this article is not about economic policy. It is about the pulse of the nation and the sense of utter despair that has seized a growing number of South Africans. This sense of despair is about a cancer that is destroying the soul of the nation. This pernicious malady has already destroyed our sense of idealism and innocence. It’s name is corruption. It’s name is the African National Congress (ANC), or – to be precise – what the ANC has become. In essence, the ANC is going through a moral crisis – it is devoid of revolutionary morality. It is devoid of love for those with whom and on whose behalf it prosecuted the liberation struggle, a struggle the ANC, as a ruling party, still refers to as the National Democratic Revolution.
Indeed, the reach and scope of the nefarious, venal and corrupt impulses of members and leaders of the ANC is national in its impact on the lives of so-called ordinary South Africans who, to this day, are still being ravaged by apartheid and its colonial antecedents . For the better part of the past twenty-six years, what we have witnessed is a liberation movement that has become ambivalent towards democratic values. And, there is little to none that is revolutionary about the ANC today.
What went wrong? Has the ANC lost its soul? Can the ANC ‘self-correct’? Can the ANC be fixed? As I will try to show in my argument below, these questions miss the point to some extent.
In conversations about how the ANC has lost its way, it is not uncommon for people to ask whether the ruling party has lost its soul. What, therefore, is the soul of the ANC? For more than three decades, I have heard the soul of the ANC being described in various ways. These descriptions are a composite of the spiritual and religious, the mythical, collective and historical memory, the political, as well as, the ideological. From all of these, I, over a period of time, conversations and debates have come to settle for the description below:
The soul of the ANC refers to the spirits and spirit of its founding fathers (and mothers). When, in their gatherings, members of the ANC invoke the spirits of Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela, Charlotte Maxeke, Dorothy Nyembe and others, they are doing three things: First, they are engaging in collective and historical memory. They are remembering these ancestors as a matter of historical fact – as men and women who walked on this earth in their incarnation as human beings who were members and leaders of the ANC. They remember them as the light and salt of the earth, men and women whose example of self-less sacrifice members of the ANC must follow and emulate. Second, they remember them as the ancestral spirits of those who came before us. But it is not only them whose spirits they are invoking but, also, the ancestral spirits of those who came before them. It is partly in this respect that the human, the spiritual and the mythical become one, and this oneness resides in the ANC and IS the ANC. Third, by invoking those who were leaders of the ANC in this manner, what members of the ruling party are doing, in part, is to deify not only them but the ANC itself as an organisational manifestation of both the ancestral and the divine. It is partly for this reason, especially during election campaigns, that you will see the ANC engaging in rituals such as the burning of impepho by izangoma (indigenous healers) to propitiate the ancestors. In political terms, this is a variation on the theme of a chosen people. To vote for a political party other than the ANC, especially if one is a black African, is – as Jacob Zuma (in)famously put it, to go against the wishes of the ancestors and, therefore, it is to invite their ire. This – voting for a party other than the ANC – one must not do because, what resides in the soul of the ANC, is that which is immutably good, noble, ancestral and divine. This is the essence of what constitutes and is, in essence, the ANC itself. This is a powerful political myth which, together with the mythologisation of ANC leaders, past and present, captured the popular imagination for a long time and for too long after the 1994 democratic breakthrough. This, is the mythical canvass which provides the contrast between reality and the political construct. Corruption and other maladies of the soul, the mind and our body politic are, therefore, an embodiment , not of what the ANC has become, but of the gap between myth and reality. This gap is the powerful force behind the rising levels of anger and antipathy towards the ruling party.
Can the ANC be fixed? Can it self-correct? When one sees the shadow of a bent tree, should one straighten the shadow or the tree or the tree itself?
Some leaders of the ruling party have argued that fixing South Africa is contingent on and must, therefore, be consequent to fixing the ANC. At the centre of the notion of renewal and self-correction lies this belief. In other words, for South Africa to change for the better, such change is possible only if the internal re-engineering and re-alignment of the party is prosecuted successfully, a task the ANC will perform effectively because of its capacity for self-correction. To me, this kind of thinking applies more to the realm of religious dogma and zealotry than the political and is, therefore, an exercise in self-delusion and the illusory. However, it is not inconsistent with what are, to me, the religious aspects of the liberation movement model. According to this model, the liberation movement is the people, and the people are the liberation movement. The two – the people and the liberation movement – are inseparable to the extent that the liberation movement always acts in the best interests of the people because, at all times, it knows what is best for the people. In, turn, the people – the key motive force of the revolution – will always act in the interests of the liberation movement because their interests and those of the liberation movement are synonymous. But, the liberation movement knows better when it comes to understanding the interests of both which, given the fact that the liberation movement and the people are inseparable, these interests are themselves – the interests of the liberation movement and the people, that is – inextricably intertwined.
For the better part of the past twenty-six years this seemed to be true and this, in part, is what imposed on our political landscape the single-party dominance of the ANC as a ruling party and that of the Democratic Alliance (DA) and its precursors as the official opposition. But what we mist not forget is the fact that the National Party was in power for forty-six years between 1948 and 1994. If we take this into account, the reality of single-party dominance has been with us for seventy-two years. Three more things are worth noting: First, the single-party dominance of the National Party was not a product of the popular consent of the majority of citizens. Second, the single party-dominance of the ANC is sustained by the will of the majority of voters. Third, this country has not had a political culture of strong opposition for the past seventy-two years. Ours, therefore, has been a weak and uncompetitive electoral politics for too long since 1948. It is in this context that the scourge of hyper-corruption has arisen in our country. The weaknesses in our political system have insulated the ANC from the consequences of misrule in general and our systemic culture of corruption in particular. For too long since 1994 the ANC did not have to concern itself with the possibility of power alternating between different political parties. However, the pious indignation of President Cyril Ramaphosa and other leaders of the ruling party as they spew well-rehearsed condemnations of corruption suggests that the ANC has spotted some ominous changes in our political landscape.
What has changed?
The invocation of ANC ancestors is a beneficial exercise when ANC members and leaders conduct themselves in accordance with, and live by the moral code, values and principles of such ancestors as Mandela, Tambo and others. Otherwise, such an invocation of ancestors is a dangerous enterprise because it introduces an element of difference that forces the human mind of the observer to focus on the black spots which stain the white sheet. In short, it exposes them as that which represents the gap between the myth and the construct. Furthermore, we must not forget that the ANC was a powerful idea for a very long time, an idea which straddles our apartheid past and our post-apartheid and neo-colonial present. These ancestors represent what the ANC was, and the hyper-corruption of members of the ANC as a ruling party signifies what the liberation movement has become. This, however, is an incomplete reading and its incompleteness flows from the mythical dimensions of the complex identity of the ruling party. It is informed, falsely so, by the idea that members of the ANC, and the ANC itself in the minds of some, were incorruptible before 1994. In other words, it is the change in the relationship between the ANC and state power which, on its own, is responsible for the corruption we see today. While this is partially true, corruption in the ANC predates the 1994 democratic breakthrough. Another reason why the ANC is losing its sheen is the unraveling of both the mythical dimensions of its identity as well as that of the constancy of the liberation movement model. Enough has happened since 1994 to demonstrate to the citizenry that the interests of the citizen and the liberation movement have been going through a process of de-coupling. As a result, the people – the key motive force of the national democratic revolution – have not only reconnected with their free will but have, since the 2009 elections – been exercising it in ways that are detrimental to the parochial interests of those members and leaders of the ANC who are driven by the corrupt, venal and nefarious in their motivation. Added to this, is the arrival of a Black Swan phenomenon – the novel, Corona virus, Covid-19 global public health crisis. What this virus has exposed is the degree to which the revolution has been betrayed and deffered by those who are no longer revolutionary, who were not revolutionaries and were in the ANC and are still in the ANC to divert the course of our revolution by aligning themselves with trans-national and domestic forces that have always been hostile to transformation. Corruption in the ANC, aided and abetted quite ably by these forces, happens in two ways: First, the looting of state resources. Second, the distortion of policy content by policy Askaris who sit in leadership structures of the ANC.
What is to be done?
Citizens, particularly those who are victims of apartheid colonialism, must distinguish between the ANC and the revolution. The ANC, as an instrument, is not the revolution. What should follow from this is the need to decide whether the ANC remains the instrument through which revolutionary goals can be achieved. If it isn’t, the revolution must proceed without it. Otherwise, the ANC must go through a process of deep cleansing at a political, moral and spiritual level so that it can reconnect with what was virtuous and noble about its ancestors. As a matter of electoral politics, South Africa is in dire need of alternatives even if, at first, such alternatives emerge in the context of a paucity of credible choices in our political landscape. But we must accept that the electoral process, on its own, is not going to deliver fundamental change. In the end, change must result from active citizenry which, itself, must be part of the process of deepening the democratic experience and choices of citizens outside the limits of electoral outcomes. To consolidate democracy within the limits of our current constitutional order is to straighten the shadow of a bent tree instead of straightening the tree itself. Similarly, we may have to embrace the possibility that, when it comes to the ANC, we will succeed in straightening neither the shadow nor the tree because the tree is but a figment of our political imagination.