Ranjeni Munusamy: The ANC at 102
There are few people who can talk about the state of the ANC without sighing and shaking their heads. The transition from a liberation movement to a political party in government has not been kind - the organisation appears to be on a mission of self-destruction with lure of power and wealth tattering its fibre, and factionalism and patronage constantly diminishing its stature. The ANC has been able to reach the grand age of 102 because of the strength of its leadership and its popularity throughout its lifespan. But now it is difficult to hold up the ANC in 2014 against the organisation with a progression of heroic leaders which took power in 1994. Most bizarre is the way it has turned on itself.
Lieutenant General Sean Tshabalala died of a broken heart. His body was found in his locked office at the police headquarters in Pretoria on Christmas Eve. Tributes at his memorial service and funeral tell the story of a once proud Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) soldier and one of the first line of VIP protectors when the ANC returned from exile, withering in a state of depression after being marginalised by the police management.
A furore erupted after Tshabalala's funeral where former national police commissioner Bheki Cele revealed a list of 18 names of former MK combatants serving or formerly in the South African Police Service who were allegedly on a target list, presumably of the current national commissioner Riah Phiyega and her political bosses. Tshabalala's name allegedly topped the list. His friends and former colleagues had earlier told of Tshabalala's heartbreak at being shifted sideways from Protection and Security Services division of the police to the information technology division and later to a non-job at the police inspectorate.
Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa acted swiftly to meet with some of the people on the list and dismiss the claims as rubbish. Phiyega denied knowledge of the list. However, the perception exists that experienced ANC and MK members were being steadily hounded out of the security services since President Jacob Zuma won power at the ANC's Polokwane conference.
There has been a deluge of early retirements and resignations from the Department of State Security, the military and the SAPS in recent years, most of which involved people who served in MK or ANC intelligence structures during the liberation struggle. Some of these people went into exile in their teenage years, some were involved in dangerous intelligence missions at great personal cost, some were trained in the camps under the ANC's most iconic leaders.
Their departure from the security services has been a curious phenomenon. Zuma, formerly head of intelligence in the ANC, has always seen security and intelligence as high priority. But after the recall of Thabo Mbeki, it would seem that paranoia set in and people perceived to be loyal to the former president were systematically weeded out, irrespective of their skills, service to their country with distinction or role in the liberation struggle.
Cele is well aware of the purge because he was instrumental in implementing it while he was national commissioner. In one case, he called a high-ranking officer who was on a mission abroad immediately back to the country and informed him he was being transferred to another job. It did not take long for the officer to resign from the police service. Cele was also the one who transferred Tshabalala out of the Protection and Security Services division.
Tshabalala, unlike most of his comrades, stuck it out in the police despite being sidelined - a decision which probably eventually cost him his life. Shortly before his death, Tshabalala had received a letter transferring him to the Northern Cape province (viewed as the Siberia of deployments), and this is possibly the reason his depression became too much to bear.
Tshabalala is just one of many of people whose lives have been destroyed by the organisation they dedicated their lives to. Others have been able to move on with their lives but their disillusionment with the ANC is profound. For many of them, the ANC was not just a political organisation but a way of life, a reason for being. To see the organisation self-destruct is worse than a family feud or divorce because they had chosen the ANC over their families and their own safety when they joined the struggle.
There are various explanations for the purge. The first is that ANC people in the security services would refuse to use state institutions to fight power battles in the party. There is always the risk that loyalty to the ANC would outweigh loyalty to the individual in power, which could lead to instructions being ignored, undermined or disclosed. The theory goes that this is why Zuma and Mthethwa saw use in Richard Mdluli - as a person who worked for the apartheid era police, he has no affiliation to the ANC and is loyal only to those who pay his salary.
The second theory is that the security ministers felt threatened by the seniority, knowledge and experience of the commanders serving under them. In terms of ANC hierarchy, many of the officials were senior to the current batch of ministers and this was a source of tension, particularly when there were differences of opinion on operational issues. But while there might have been underlying resentment, it would be strange if Zuma allowed the security services to be depleted of loyal and experienced officials on the basis of his ministers' inferiority complexes.
The third theory is more complex. A former senior member of the security services says the success of South Africa's transition was partly due to the fact that security of the country was in the hands of the "doves".
"This ensured that national security was based on human security. Now the focus is on state security. For the first time, security is now in the hands of the 'hawks', just like during the Apartheid era when the hawks saw a red (communists) under every bed. So we have come full circle with the hawks again in charge," he said.
He said the current crop of hawks are fixated on external threats to the country, such as from foreign governments, imperialist forces and lobby groups, and they trade on conspiracy theories. "The real threats to the country are unemployment, inequality and poverty, and our failure to deliver. But anyone who puts forward that view is hounded out, marginalised or made redundant.
"They do not want to hear about our own failures; they prefer nonsensical stories about plots against the president, like what was in the Mdluli report. The plot is the failure of delivery. That is the biggest threat to national security," the retired member said.
The theory is consistent with how the state and ANC views the personal security of the president and the state as interchangeable - as exemplified by the handling of the issue of the security upgrades at Zuma's Nkandla estate. But the retired security official says people often overlook how the Constitution defines the governing principles around national security: "National security must reflect the resolve of South Africans, as individuals and as a nation, to live as equals, to live in peace and harmony, to be free from fear and want and to seek a better life".
The Constitution says nothing about the President and his Cabinet receiving special protection in their homes and cars as a principle of national security but dictates that ordinary people should be "free from fear". It would appear that the organisation which drafted this Constitution has these days lost sight of these principles.
To the ANC at 102, it would seem, people, even their most experienced and dedicated comrades, are expendable. It has become a pattern that factional battles need to be fought till one group is hounded out and the organisation belongs only to the victors. From branch to national level, battles are fought for dominance of leadership positions, and those who lose are treated as pariahs and purged from positions in the state.
At the ANC national conferences, voting for the top six positions and the national executive committee takes place according to slates, dependent only according to loyalty to those who control the faction. As a result, the organisation is controlled by the winning faction and those outside the faction are marginalised, irrespective of their seniority, credentials or what they have to offer the party or the country.
Both Mbeki and Zuma appear to believe that the best way to protect their presidencies is to surround themselves with loyalists who tell them what they want to hear and fight off dissent on their behalf. It is this very tendency which builds resentment in the ANC and leads bad decision-making.
As the ANC celebrates its 102nd anniversary, it is also in the process of compiling its lists of representatives to serve in Parliament and the provincial legislatures. The list process is also likely to be defined by factional politics, with loyalists able to get higher on the lists and stand a better chance of becoming a member of Parliament. Those who refrain from factional battles or who campaigned against Zuma's second term at the ANC's Mangaung conference are less likely to be elected.
But there are also a number of people who are declining nomination because they cannot in good conscience agree to serve the ANC in its current state. "It is a bloody nightmare for us," said one high-ranking member who has declined nomination.
He said if the party was serious about its future and that of the country, they would ask the president and other ANC leaders steeped in scandal to step aside. "But in the NEC, few can stand up and impose their integrity. The rest will be found wanting themselves," he said.
Others, however, believe that they should remain in the fold and the ANC will self correct at its next conference in 2017. But what is the likelihood of it and how much damage would have been done by then? With the organisation a shadow of its former self now, what will it look like with four years still to go under the current leadership?
Despite the many problems in the ANC, there are only few people who are able to speak up and confront the issues besetting the organisation. The leadership seems to believe that the organisation is resilient and can withstand the scandals and strife. And those who do speak out are treated as disgruntled elements that should be disregarded. ANC and South African Communist Party veteran Ronnie Kasrils wrote in The Guardian last year: "The ANC's soul needs to be restored; its traditional values and culture of service reinstated. The pact with the devil needs to be broken".
The ANC simply ignored him.
And so, Africa's oldest liberation movement turns 102 on Wednesday. It is a momentous occasion for the organisation with a proud history and iconic leaders to still be going strong and enjoying the support of the majority of South Africans. While the current leaders mark the occasion with celebratory rallies, doubling as campaign events, many people will be looking on from the outside, mourning for days gone by when the ANC was a home for all.
Perhaps it is normal for any political organisation to find itself unable to keep its soul once it gets touched by the spoils of uninterrupted power. It has happened many times before, and it will happen many times in the future. What is surprising, though, is how history always fails to teach the ones at the top. At 102, the ANC is drifting into the darkness, increasingly disconnected from the lives and reality of those they are sworn to protect: the masses that continue to exist in the tough reality and fearing a hopeless future.
This column appeared on Daily Maverick.