ANC grows older but not wiser
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The ANC marks its centenary this weekend. And there is much in its long history for the organisation to celebrate. But there is also a tinge of sorrow in the air because, since coming to power in 1994, the question increasingly confronting the former liberation movement from many within its own ranks is a regretful one: how did the corrupt, incompetent government that is in office today emerge from the wonderful ideals we fought so hard to achieve?
The nation’s peaceful transition to democracy in 1994 will rank as one of the epic achievements of modern politics regardless of its sequel. Coming after the equally heroic, broad-based ANC’s 82-year struggle for equality following centuries of conflict in the country, the achievement of majority rule included some game-changing tactical triumphs such as the Mandela-led, Gandhi-inspired defiance campaign of the Fifties; the unifying Freedom Charter, which owed more to the ANC’s communist allies than to its own creativity; and the 1976 black consciousness-led students’ uprising, which the then-moribund ANC hastily enticed into its own clutches in exile. As Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu has noted, there are a lot of freedom fighters to thank for our liberation other than just the ANC’s. Keeping them all together was our ruling party’s key triumph, however.
Although the organisation’s struggle for liberty was supposed to have ended with the 1994 election that defeated apartheid, rampant unemployment, income distribution as skewed as anywhere on earth, catastrophic corruption, plummeting education and healthcare, and lingering racial tensions have cast shadows that lengthen with each passing year. Clearly, the ANC’s struggle to deliver “a better life for all” is going to take even longer than 100 years.
While there is no denying that the present is better than the past, SA’s liberation euphoria has faded to the point where almost everybody acknowledges that we are not living in the country for which Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and many others suffered years of police harassment and devastating imprisonment. Instead, we are left with a massive post-liberation hangover due to the arrogance of power having not only begun to claim its greedy victims, but now seeming unstoppable.
There have been some great gains since 1994, of course. The ANC’s successes in office outweigh their failures in the eyes of the majority of citizens, most of whom still vote for the party in regular, well-organised elections. Apart from the ascendancy of black rule having purged South Africans of the pain and indignity of apartheid, the government has provided welfare benefits for 15 million people, been welcomed back into the international community, cut its murder rate dramatically over recent years, almost eradicated severe malnutrition among the under-fives, increased primary school enrolment to nearly 100 percent and established the world’s biggest antiretroviral treatment programme for HIV/Aids.
Of the injustices committed by the ANC in office, though, corruption is extremely damaging to the organisation’s reputation. “I didn’t join the struggle to be poor,” declared Smuts Ngonyama when accused of unfair business practices in 2007 – a remark that epitomised the prevailing ANC culture of entitlement rather than the self-sacrifice that was so evident among the politicians of Mandela’s ANC.
Internal rivalry is another daunting ANC problem. The organisation has struggled relentlessly with factionalism during its transition from revolutionary movement, to the extent that it has sometimes seemed completely leaderless.
Its dubious act of “recalling” an elected president following a populist uprising at Polokwane four years ago set a questionable precedent that will long haunt our fledgling democracy.
Recent ANC attempts to muzzle the media and undermine the independence of the judiciary are worrying, to say the least.
However, a big question mark hanging over any analysis of the ANC in office is whether the organisation ever had much chance of success.
There is no doubt that the ANC as a government was set up to fail by its predecessor, who bequeathed it neither the education, skills nor work experience with which to run a country. Why we who supported the ANC when they were struggling to attain power didn’t see this chronic incapacity looming, and seek to modify it, is a matter for us all to contemplate.
During a recent discussion on the subject with a former MK guerrilla and survivor of the ANC’s ghastly prison-in-exile, Quatro, the once-ferocious soldier insisted that change had simply come too quickly.
How so? I asked, disbelieving that there was ever a workable alternative to the hasty “cadre deployment” that has cost us our credibility as a competent state.
My companion – who qualified in England as an engineer when released from Quatro, and joined Eskom in his first job on returning to the country in 1994 – initially insisted that mentorship would have averted the widespread state inefficiency that today bedevils service delivery and socio-economic progress in general.
Was he mentored himself? I wanted to know. The former freedom fighter nodded, but his face fell when I asked if the process had worked in his favour at Eskom. “In my case, no,” he admitted, describing how his “mentor” had barely spoken to him, let alone shared any knowledge.
Isn’t that what happened in most cases, I asked. Isn’t it human nature to obstruct a successor if you’re reluctant to go?
Looking suddenly sad, he recalled that the nation’s haphazard transfer-of-skills programme tended to have been successful only when the experienced employee was nearing retirement age and didn’t mind taking an additional mentoring bonus on top of a generous voluntary retrenchment package.
By the end of our conversation, I was wondering aloud if we weren’t all to blame for the ANC’s failure to honour the standards set by its admirable early role models, when I noticed that my companion had tears in his eyes.
l Heidi Holland is the author of 100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC, published this week by Penguin.