In a memorable encounter, we find the returning guerrilla on a train, bound for the Cape in the late 1980s, dwelling in a reverie of nostalgia.
“It was still dark,” he writes, “when I left my compartment to catch the early breeze of the Karoo and the aroma from the herbs in that part of South Africa.”
He is bewitched by the scenery, the glimpses of the yellow blossoms of mimosas, of buck out in the veld.
He remembers his Cradock childhood – we learn later that he used to sew and darn socks to boost the poor family’s income – hankering just then for the Merino sheep tripe that was a delicacy of his earliest years. It was, he recalls, “a pleasure to be back home”.
It was also, doubtless, a perilous time to be dreaming of such things – but Charles Nqakula survived that grim climax of conflict, and flourished in the period it delivered.
The writer started out, fittingly enough, as a journalist, covering politics in the Eastern Cape from 1966 to 1982. His focus shifted to activism in the early 1980s, when he joined the United Democratic Front, and deepened when he went into exile in 1984.
His express wish was to train as a guerrilla, in which capacity he returned to the country in 1988 to build underground cells in Cape Town. After the transition, he worked for the SACP, rising to become deputy general secretary to Chris Hani in 1991, and general secretary after Hani’s assassination in 1993.
He went into Parliament in 1999, serving twice in the police and defence portfolios, was ambassador to Mozambique until 2013 and, under President Jacob Zuma, a presidential adviser and worked on African mediation efforts.
He returned to Parliament three years ago, and is chairperson of the joint standing committee on intelligence.
The People’s War, though, goes well beyond a fleshing out of his bio. Nqakula’s account, which is as much his own story as it is a tribute to those around him, draws widely on the recollections of others and sources far from the inner circles of his own activism, exile and insurgency – chronicling even the observations and experiences of white conscripts deployed in the townships at the time.
Though it is titled How Did We Get Here?, what it really asks is, where do we go now?
Nqakula writes, with uncompromising clarity, noting that the question – (which “is asked whenever small groups of serious ANC members meet and try to assess the political damage that has been caused to the movement over more than 20 years of freedom”) still stands.
With candour that can only be unnerving for the movement, he responds: “I have an answer: we walked away when wrongdoing took root and its putrid smell permeated all our endeavours.
“We wanted to keep our hands and noses clean. We are to blame as much as the current leaders are.”
If the error lay in drifting away from the organisation’s founding principles and practices, that was possibly where the solution might be found. Drawing on Pixley ka Isaka Seme’s essay of 1906, “The Regeneration of Africa”, which sets “high morality and deep-seated humanity” as the incipient ANC’s primary objectives, Nqakula writes: “When the founders established the ANC, they never thought it would one day degenerate to the level where it finds itself today – penetrated by members who are bent only on financial gain and ready to use crooked means to get their hands on it.”
Citing Zuma’s call at the ANC’s 105-year celebration earlier this year – that: “We are clear that we are not calling for unity in defence of corruption or other negative tendencies” – Nqakula observes: “Those tendencies, unfortunately, have grown exponentially in the ANC and Zuma and the other senior leaders have not intervened to put a stop to them.
“To weed out corruption and the other negative tendencies, a new commitment is needed among the leaders.”
History, he suggests, provides two options; the 1912 process of finding trusted leaders from across the provinces to restore the virtues and principles of the organisation, or the 1949 expedient of resolving internal divisions by bringing in a trusted outsider, in that earlier case, Dr James Moroka.
Nqakula laments, however, that in contrast to 1912, “political discussions at the (December) 2017 ANC conference will be dominated by the election of the new leadership core rather than the mission of a better life for all. Thousands of rand will change hands to buy votes. That, unfortunately, is the level to which the ANC had degenerated – a far cry from the first conference in 1912.”
The consultative conferences of Morogoro (1969) and Kabwe (1985) reinforced the lessons of history the ANC ought to heed today.
Yet, the current leadership “has no appetite for such a consultative process”.
If something were not done, however, disaster loomed.
“They have been immobilised by their own culpability for the wrongs that have become almost second nature at every level of leadership.”
Nqakula’s postscript concludes with a “personal plea” to Zuma to step down as president when his term as party leader ends in December to enable the new leader to become national president, and “show the entire population he or she is fit to continue as president after the 2019 elections”.
Such a leader should be able to lead not just the ANC, but the country, “towards ‘a new life, embracing the diverse phases of a higher, complex existence’, as Seme put it. That is what the ANC calls a better life for all of South Africa’s people – black and white”.
The ball, he writes, “is in Zuma’s court. His conscience should tell him what to do”.
In an interview this week, Nqakula spoke bluntly, asserting that “if the ANC goes back and does what it does best – interacting closely with the people, delivering services, engaging all South Africans, black and white, in growing jobs and building a better life for all – it stands a good chance of recouping its losses”.
But, “if all we do is try to manufacture lists on the basis of factionalism we will be in trouble. If we do not do these things leading up to (the elections in) 2019, our situation will be very precarious.”