Mission Impossible: In search of the ANC’s incredible vanishing conscience
It emerged late on Wednesday that South Africa is withdrawing all its troops from the Central African Republic after a high-level meeting of the Economic Community of Central African States in Chad. The withdrawal will mark an awkward end to an ill-considered mission and post-Apartheid South Africa's biggest military disaster. Will President Jacob Zuma ever be held to account for the loss of life and embarrassment to the nation or will this crisis recede as the next inevitably emerges? Over the years, experience has shown that the ANC itself can call its president to order. But who in the ANC still speaks up and acts as the conscience of the party?
In early 2002, the South African government was able to turn the page on the madness of Aids denialism and started offering life-saving anti-retrovirals to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission and developed a universal treatment rollout plan. It brought to an end years of unnecessary debate about whether the disease existed at all and whether nutrition could be a substitute for drugs, which resulted in government holding back vital treatment, in effect causing hundreds of thousands of Aids-related deaths.
For this turnaround to happen, the ANC had to have a hard conversation with its former president, Thabo Mbeki, and advise him of the harm his policies were causing. Even South Africa's elder statesman Nelson Mandela stepped in, via the ANC leadership, to call Mbeki to order. But Mandela also spoke out publicly at the time.
"This is a war. It has killed more people than has been the case in all previous wars and in all previous natural disasters. We must not continue to be debating, to be arguing, when people are dying," said Mandela.
The statement of the ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting of 18 March 2002 sounded bland, belying the true nature of what happened behind closed doors:
"The NEC held a wide-ranging discussion on HIV/Aids within the context of the broad health and development challenges facing the country. The discussion was preceded by an overview of the development of government policies and programmes since 1994 to combat the epidemic. The NEC adopted a comprehensive statement on the ANC's approach to HIV/Aids which will be communicated to the structures of the movement and the South African public during the course of this week."
The impact of that discussion, however, was profound. After the ANC lay down the line, the powerful and feared Mbeki relented, Cabinet announced the dramatic turnaround and now South Africa has one of the best Aids treatment plans in the world.
Of course, the ANC did not come to the realisation on its own that it needed to pull the plug on Aids denialism. In fact, to their eternal shame, many ANC leaders and government ministers at that time chose to remain silent in public while they privately professed to battling with their consciences. But there was intense pressure from inside and outside the country, mostly from the Treatment Action Campaign but also from the ANC's allies, Cosatu and the SA Communist Party. The disease was impacting the ANC support base so there was a surge from inside the party to initiate the turnaround.
These days, as the Jacob Zuma administration lurches from crisis to crisis, Luthuli House has adopted pretty much the same posture as the ANC headquarters did under the Mbeki presidency - rubber-stamping whatever government does, attacking the media and critics and remaining silent when matters spiral out of control. As was evident from the reaction to the Marikana massacre, the non-delivery of textbooks in Limpopo last year, incidents of police brutality and exorbitant expenditure on Zuma and other Cabinet minister's homes, the ANC is flatfooted even though it bears the consequences of negative perceptions.
Zuma was re-elected as ANC president in Mangaung even though his leadership weaknesses have crippled the state and caused embarrassment to the party. But the deadly military expedition to the Central African Republic (CAR), against the advice of the military command, is by far the worst act of his administration - a decision for which he is personally responsible.
Speculation that the additional deployment to the CAR by the South African National Defence Force was to protect the deposed president François Bozizé and media exposés revealing business interests of the politically connected in that country have infuriated Zuma and provoked a peculiar response from the ANC. Party spokesman Jackson Mthembu claimed the Mail & Guardian was "pissing on the graves of gallant fighters who put their lives on the line in service of our country and our continent".
Speaking at the memorial service for 13 slain South African soldiers, Zuma hit out at critics saying there was "peddling of unfounded allegations and conspiracy theories" around the CAR deployment.
"The problem in South Africa is that everybody wants to run the country," Zuma said. "There must also be an appreciation that military matters and decisions are not matters that are discussed in public, other than to share broader policy."
This reaction is indicative of a leader on the defensive and feeling under siege. It also shows that Zuma does not feel he owes the nation an explanation for his decision to engaged the country in a foreign war at great human and economic cost. It also reveals, once again, that Zuma is out of kilter with the spirit of the Constitution, which upholds accountability and transparency.
But Zuma is also out of step with his own previously held beliefs. When he was campaigning for the ANC presidency in 2007, he projected an openness to vigorous debate. Delivering the Chris Hani Memorial Lecture on 24 March 2007 at the University of Limpopo, Zuma said:
"We as the ANC-led liberation alliance have nothing to fear and everything to gain from a climate of political tolerance. We do not fear open contest and free debate with other organisations. Open debate can only serve to uncover the bankruptcy of our political opponents.
"A climate in which we resist open engagement on issues of national interest due to political intolerance or fear, will never allow the growth of political consciousness. It is fatal to the democratic values and culture of debate on which our movement is built… We are witnessing in the world around us how the lack of political tolerance and debate lead to the disintegration of democratic values and the destruction of nations. That should not be allowed to happen in our country and in our broad movement."
It is difficult to believe now that the same individual uttered the words he did at the memorial service this week.
The tragedy of the situation, though, is that no matter how much noise there is in society about all of Zuma's leadership failures, he can only be held to account and forced to act in the best interests of the country by his own party - the way it did with Mbeki.
Like his predecessor, Zuma can stubbornly ignore the cacophony of protest until his own organisation forces him to listen. The difference, however, between the ANC in 2002 and the ANC in 2013 is the quality of people in the leadership and absence of voices brave enough to follow their moral conscience.
The ANC NEC elected in Mangaung has several fairly junior leaders and people only prominent because they campaigned on the pro-Zuma ticket in the succession battle. They hold very little moral authority in the organisation. Then there are the praise singers and henchmen, whose currency is dependent on their ability to fight off detractors and keep Zuma in power.
Between trying to meet the gender and provincial quotas, as well as the fact that delegates voted in slates, little consideration was given to including people on the NEC who hold moral authority and institutional memory, or who have the seniority to call errant behaviour to order.
Some senior leaders who did previously play these roles chose not to serve on the NEC. Others sit on the NEC but opt to remain silent, either out of concern for their own continuing enrichment or because the taking on a mob currently presents too great a political risk And, unlike the Mbeki scenario, the SACP and Cosatu are unlikely to publicly differ or take Zuma to task.
The party elders are fading and are no longer able to stand guardian over the ANC. The one person who did act according to his conscience, MP Ben Turok, who decided he could not vote in favour of the Protection of State Information Bill, was shamed and almost hauled before a disciplinary hearing for doing so.
In this context, the likelihood of the ANC demanding that Zuma explain any of his actions is close to non-existent.
With the Aids crisis, the ANC acted only when the pressure from outside and below became too much to contain. It took far too long, with too many lives lost and earned the country notoriety for government's contrarian views on science and treatment.
What will it take for reason to prevail and for brave voices in the ANC to speak up against the current madness? If Marikana and the CAR cannot prompt ANC leaders to examine their moral compass, what will? At the moment Zuma is as much a danger to the ANC and the country as Mbeki was with his Aids denialism. Although the ANC was able to force the turnaround on Aids, a lot more went horribly wrong before it decided that Mbeki should no longer head the state.
But this is 2013: The ANC is a long way from accountability and the appreciation of rational thought. Different times, different leaders, different rules. By rubber-stamping the ever-escalating irrationality and openly forcing down the throats of its members a ruling dogma that is so much at variance with reality, the ANC leadership is sowing the seeds of the organisation's future irrelevance. The problem is, there is lot more misery that that sorry process will bring to the people of South Africa.
This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.