THE ANC can rightfully claim pride of place for being the first modern and resilient liberation movement in the continent. Like all revolutionary movements, it was formed by visionaries whose intellect helped to shape both the content and direction of struggle.
Writing on the intellectual legacy of pan-Africanism, Ngugi wa Thiongo succinctly captures this point by noting that in both the struggle, against slavery and colonialism “the role of the intellect, of the mind, of the idea, a caring idea, a committed idea, ideas that capture the essence of the historical moment, was an important, often decisive ingredient”.
In the diaspora, visions of liberation were articulated by the likes of Frederick Douglas, Marcus Garvey, Edward Blyden, Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.
Within the continent the likes of Kwame Nkrumah, Jomo Kenyatta, and Nnamdi Azikiwe come to mind.
The success of liberation movements hinges on their ability to craft messages that galvanise people into action. History teaches us that “ideas, once grasped by the masses, become the material force” that ultimately leads to revolution and change.
As it enters 2012, the year of its historic centenary as the mother of African liberation movements, the ANC faces an ironic challenge, in that it seems to have lost its critical edge in idea formation.
Its most abiding image lately is that of a party in seeming disarray, in conflict with and unable to rein in its militant youth, torn apart by internecine conflicts that are driven by factional interests.
Divisions cascade from the very top structures to local branches. The spirit of self-sacrifice and service has sadly been relegated to a mere footnote of history.
As if that were not enough, the centenary celebration coincides with a moment when the party is confronted by challenges arising from “sins of incumbency”. To its credit, the party has acknowledged as much.
Delivering the Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe warned: “Sins of incumbency comprise dangers attendant to accession to power, reflected in the misuse and abuse of power. Sins of incumbency are invariably marked by betrayal of the ideals of freedom, where a former liberation movement turns into a monster that devours the very principles of freedom that sustained it over the ages, and that it is supposed to uphold…
“Among some of these challenges are issues such as social distance between the governors and the governed; bureaucratic elitism; arrogance of power, careerism; venality and corruption; moral and ideological degeneration among rank and file; and use of state institutions to fight inner-party battles.”
Thus a party that used to describe itself as a “parliament of the people” now finds itself routinely at odds with the very people it purports to represent.
The conduct of significant numbers of its public figures is inconsistent with the values, moral posture and principles that have been a public signature of its previous generations. For these reasons, the anniversary provides an ideal opportunity for the party to undertake a serious introspection and set itself on the path of self-renewal.
Predictably, the ANC will use the occasion to flaunt its glorious past, telling of the courageous leadership of yesteryear. This leadership risked extreme forms of mental and physical torture, imprisonment, banning and exile, with some even paying the ultimate price.
As the last liberation movement to liberate its people, the ANC could also draw on lessons from the rest of the continent on what to avoid. Unfortunately, many a liberation movement suffered from a notion of “exceptionalism” and thus failed to learn from those who have gone through similar experiences.
But invoking the past should not be reduced to merely parading past heroes and heroines. This should instead involve a clear analysis and critique of the context, prevailing opportunities and capacities within the party. Such an exercise, if undertaken faithfully, should reveal the role that was played by the party’s intelligentsia in crafting galvanising and appropriate messages that were in tune with the people.
Indeed, such an exercise will reveal how various contexts spawned different challenges which gave rise to changes in tactics and political discourse. Most evident would be a movement whose confidence was fashioned in struggle. As the party grew confident, its language began to project a heightened degree of impatience and militancy.
The “class of 1944”, comprising Walter Sisulu, Anton Lembede, Lionel Majombozi, Oliver Tambo and Ashley Mda and others, is credited for “changing the character of the ANC from a petition-oriented entity to a vibrant organism commensurate with the exigencies of the time”.
This activism was a response to a seemingly futile approach that had shaped the struggle of the older generation. The class of 1944 had come to a determination “that a moderate, almost elitist ANC which was not mass-based, stood no chance against the oppressive regime”.
The ANC document, 1949 Programme of Action, re-oriented the ANC towards action-bound strategies which spoke to the urgency of the moment.
Within the space of slightly over a decade, the ANC adopted armed struggle as part of its war against the apartheid regime.
The adoption of armed struggle was not arrived at haphazardly – Nelson Mandela’s statement from the dock is an eloquent testimony to the intellectual rigour applied in arriving at momentous decisions. “I do not, however, deny that I planned sabotage. I did not plan it in a spirit of recklessness, nor because I have any love of violence.
“I planned it as a result of a calm and sober assessment of the political situation that had arisen after many years of tyranny, exploitation, and oppression of my people by the whites… the hard facts were that 50 years of non-violence had brought the African people nothing but more and more repressive legislation, and fewer and fewer rights.”
The banning of liberation movements in the 1960s led to a temporary lull in political activity.
The advent of the Black Consciousness Movement filled this gap and elevated the struggle against apartheid to the next level.
The 1976 uprisings marked the point of no return. Scores of young people were to later join the PAC and the ANC, thus breathing new life into seemingly moribund liberation movements.
So, when the ANC in the 1980s called for South Africa to be ungovernable and apartheid unworkable, it did so with the confidence that, thanks to the activists on the ground, mass mobilisation had already been carried out.
But another side to the political reality was that it was inevitably a different generation that would give impetus for change. Franz Fanon described this dynamic thus: “Each generation must, out of relative obscurity, discover its mission, fulfil it or betray it”.
As things stand, the ANC enters the year’s celebration on the back foot. Rather than being on the forefront of proposing and advancing ideas that will take the country forward, it finds itself having to respond to largely personalised and individualised attacks that masquerade as commentary.
It would seem that the ANC Youth League has exploited and filled the space abandoned by the mother body’s strategic thinkers. The ANC’s bigger challenge will be to respond intelligently to the grievances that underlie the campaign launched by the youth league.
The organisation has an opportunity to use this year’s celebration for self-introspection and advance the very best of its principles and values and usher in a festival of ideas necessary to respond to current challenges.
Avoidance can only increase the prospects of degeneration and will certainly not resolve, but is likely to further deepen, its moral, political and economic crises.
An unambiguous self-reflection would enable the present generation to define its own higher mission, explore innovative ways to raise political consciousness and aim to defeat the seductive appeal of consumerism and materialism that afflicts our society.
The temptation to bask in the glory of the past is always strong, and can even become a misplaced romanticist exercise.
First, it is easy to make claims about commitment to democracy when you are not in power. Conditions of struggle are rarely a fertile ground for inculcating a democratic culture. Second, the state of powerlessness introduces a particular form of innocence and simplicity. The condition of freedom introduces complexity.
Under apartheid black people had nothing to lose. Today choices exist between values and principles on the one hand and material interests on the other. Sadly, material interests tend to supplant altruism and idealism. Former comrades are easily intoxicated and corrupted by power.
There is a need to craft a new galvanising message for South Africa, the kind of message that would usher in a new era of responsibility that says: “We have duties to ourselves, our nation and the world, duties that we do not grudgingly accept but rather seize gladly, firm in the knowledge that there is nothing so satisfying to the spirit, so defining of our character than giving our all to a difficult task”.
The ANC has an opportunity, if it chooses, to use the centenary celebrations as a moment of reawakening. Tools and approaches required for attainment of political freedom are different from those required for attainment of economic freedom.
This calls for thought leadership. Time will tell whether the current leadership will rise to the challenge presented by conditions of freedom.
n Professor Seepe is a political analyst