By Simphiwe Sesanti

It is again that time of the year when South Africa celebrates Media Freedom Day (October 19).

In 2008 the occasion takes place at a time of high political excitement and tension.

Former African National Congress national chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota has publicly served "divorce papers" on his organisation, which he claims has deviated from its true values.

When the media suggested there were "divisions" within the ANC just before its Polokwane congress, the suggestion was dismissed as a figment of journalists' imagination.

Indeed, Lekota dismissed these suggestions, emphatically saying the "ANC is not divided; it's normal, natural tension".

Lekota argued strongly that the ANC would meet in Polokwane and thereafter "we will not split".

He further pointed out that the "only person who speaks about a split in the ANC is our Mr Zwelinzima Vavi and we all know that he talks from the top of his head".

Less than a year after Polokwane, Lekota told South Africans the ANC was divided and it appeared that "a parting of ways" was inevitable.

What has changed? Lekota has cited ANC Youth League president Julius Malema's utterances (including killing for Zuma) which were characterised by intolerance and disrespect for others.

He has protested against statements made by some ANC leaders that the ANC sought a political solution to Zuma's legal problems, something Lekota says was not the ANC's decision.

In other words, Lekota said the ANC is developing undemocratic tendencies.

While these issues emerged after Polokwane, it is worth noting his claims regarding tribalistic tendencies (100% Zulu boy) and singing of songs (Umshini wam) not reflective of the ANC's policies in the democratic era, were made before Polokwane. The issues he protested against then, he raised again.

When it suited Lekota then, he said the "ANC is not divided; it's normal, natural tension".

Now that it suits Lekota, the ANC is divided and things are not normal anymore.

The lesson for us as journalists is that we must forever scrutinise politicians' statements and never allow ourselves to be victims of their sweet or stinging tongues - depending on circumstances.

Ours is to forever interrogate their declarations.

Interestingly, Lekota pointed out last year that "a split was possible only if there was no common ground".

He added this happened in the ANC in 1958 "when the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) broke away because of the ANC's insistence on the non-racial policy set out in the Freedom Charter".

Surprisingly, one did not come across any reaction from PAC leaders to rectify this distortion of history. I also did not see anyone from the first drafters of history challenging this false claim.

As journalists we have a responsibility to challenge untruths.

The truth of the matter is that the PAC did not object to the ANC's non-racialism. The ANC then did not speak of non-racialism but multi-racialism.

The PAC's first president, Robert Sobukwe, stated his organisation was opposed to multi-racialism because it meant "racialism multiplied", and favoured non-racialism, since the PAC recognised only one race - the human race.

Because nobody has challenged this, ANC leaders like secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and Minister of Arts and Culture Pallo Jordan have been emboldened to echo Lekota's false claims.

In an ironic twist, Mantashe likened Lekota to Sobukwe and those who left to form the PAC.

The latter, in Mantashe's view, perceived themselves as "bigger" than the ANC.

In an interview with a South African weekly, Jordan noted: "The irony is that someone such as Terror should have looked carefully at people who have done that (walked away).

"Robert Sobukwe also served divorce papers on the PAC in 1958. Where is the PAC today?"

Jordan further pointed out that those who left the ANC "always complain that the ANC has departed from its principles same rhetoric and they always end up as political nonentities".

To refer to Sobukwe as a political nonentity is not ignorance on Jordan's part, but being economical with the truth.

Sobukwe, despite the PAC's declining profile, continues to be a historical icon.

Nelson Mandela in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, attests to this when he remarks that Sobukwe's "consistent willingness to pay the penalty for his principles earned my enduring respect".

Mandela in his autobiography honestly tells us the PAC's African Nationalism made the organisation more popular than the ANC to the leaders of African states whose support the ANC needed.

So much so that when Mandela met the minister of defence in Tunis and was "explaining to him the situation in our country with PAC leaders such as Robert Sobukwe in jail, he interrupted me and said: 'When that chap returns, he will finish you.'"

So much for Sobukwe being a nonentity.

So much was the ANC reduced to being in the PAC's shadow that Mandela suggested to then ANC president Chief Albert Luthuli "to effect essentially cosmetic changes in order to make the ANC more intelligible - and more palatable - to our allies".

Mandela "saw this as a defensive manoeuvre, for if African states decided to support the PAC, a small and weak organisation could suddenly become a large and potent one".

Mandela is honest enough to admit how threatened the ANC was by the PAC.

Are the utterances by the Mantashes and the Jordans an echo of insecurities of the past?

To be insecure, anxious and afraid is only normal and human, but leaders of the ANC need to handle their emotions with care.

Denunciations and dismissals of others who hold different views are not going to help strengthen our democracy.

Such tendencies inadvertently give the wrong signals to young cadres that it is right to handle political opponents with knuckledusters instead of intellectual engagements.

As we celebrate this day, we the first drafters of history should remain on guard, and strive to the best of our abilities to tell it as it is, and to reflect as honestly and as best as we know how.

  • Sesanti, a lecturer in the University of Stellenbosch department of journalism, writes in his personal capacity.