OPINION: The ANC & the state: The questions you may not ask
There is a reason the media pays attention to ANC national executive committee meetings. It is the ANC's highest decision-making body in between national conferences, and discusses the functioning of the organisation in power and the state it controls. When issues of national importance are not discussed, we ask why. When the ANC, the party of our liberation, does not express itself on violations of human rights, we ask why. ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe perceives this as "irritating" and "hostile". But questions on Marikana and Operation Fiela and whatever else the ANC government does must and will continue to be asked, even when the response is hard-core bullying.
When ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe began his Sunday noon media briefing, he mentioned that the usual three-day ANC national executive committee (NEC) meetings were a "luxury". The ANC NEC only met for one day, on Saturday, and discussed the political overview, the national working committee (NWC) report and an elections workshop report.
There was a lot to process in a day's meeting. The political overview is a report by President Jacob Zuma on the main issues in the country, covering matters in the state, the continent and international developments, as well as issues in the ANC. The NWC report would be on the day-to-day functioning of the ANC structures and leagues. Here, too, there is much to cover considering the problems with holding elective conferences in the youth and women's leagues, as well as the ANC eThekwini region. The NEC also discussed developments in Cosatu and decided to hold an alliance summit in June.
Mantashe said the NEC received an elections workshop report and discussed and adopted guidelines for the selection of ANC candidates for the 2016 local government elections.
The ANC NEC also received "a detailed report from the president and the NWC on the recent horrific spate of violence targeted at immigrants from other parts of Africa and government's intervention in this regard", Mantashe said.
"The NEC commended government for the bold and swift action that resulted in the restoration of calm in all communities that were affected. The NEC further appreciated the successes recorded by Operation Fiela to date, specifically the strides being made to discover and disarm those in our society with illegal and unlicensed firearms. That the operation has also brought to the fore immigrants who are in the country illegally should not be used to discredit the operation but rather as contributing to our efforts to regularise and document all people in South Africa," he said.
Mantashe went on to say that democracy and peace should be strengthened on the continent to reduce the influx of migrants into South Africa. He said the ANC was concerned that events in Burundi, following violence and last week's failed coup, would lead to more immigrants coming to South Africa. "There is a direct link between political instability and influx of immigrants in our country; hence the NEC is concerned about the recent developments in the Great Lakes Region."
The statement made no mention of widespread condemnation of Operation Fiela and the jackboot tactics used by the police and the South African National Defence Force during raids targeting foreign nationals. During the question session, I asked Mantashe whether there was any concern expressed by members of the NEC about violation of people's human rights in the course of the raids. I pointed out the outrage from NGOs and civil society organisations about how the raids were being conducted. One activist, Elinor Sisulu (a name Mantashe might be familiar with) called the raids a kind of "ethnic cleansing", but I did not mention this.
I also asked Mantashe about whether Zuma had discussed the Marikana report with the NEC, and whether the president had given any indication about when he would fill the vacancy in Cabinet following the death of Public Service and Administration Minister Collins Chabane.
Other journalists asked whether the NEC had discussed the situation at Eskom, particularly its position on privatisation of its assets, and plans by the ANC officials to visit the troubled Nelson Mandela Bay and eThekwini region this week.
In responding to the first round of questions, Mantashe said Operation Fiela "should not be dictated to by views of NGOs and civil society". He said concerns about human rights violations should not take precedence over the safety of society, and asked how human rights organisations could be opposed to the removal of illegal firearms in society. "We should not be narrow in defining human rights," Mantashe said.
He said it was "extremism" to say people's rights were being violated during an operation to deal with illegal immigrants and firearms. He also said there were disagreements amongst organisations representing foreign nationals and those bodies had a responsibility to ensure that "deviant behaviour" was eliminated.
While typing this extensive, rather astounding response from Mantashe, I missed his response to my other question, which was that the Marikana report was not discussed. As Mantashe sat down to take the next round of questions, I asked whether the Marikana question had been answered and my colleague Greg Nicolson, sitting next to me, told me Mantashe had said it had not been discussed. Mantashe then scolded me for asking Nicolson when I should be paying attention.
In the next round of questions, I asked again about Marikana, which prompted the following exchange, as transcribed by News24:
Ranjeni Munusamy: Sorry I missed the Marikana reply because it was one sentence but just to...
Gwede Mantashe: No. It wasn't one sentence... Did you get my point? You were not listening. No, we won't wait for you. (Ranjeni: But, can I ask one question?) Ask your question but... you were ill-disciplined. Ask your question.
Ranjeni Munusamy: On the Marikana report, if there are major implications for the ANC government, from the report, how would the ANC then process it after it is publicly released? Surely it has an impact on for example your deployment policy? Your monitoring, your oversight over what goes on in the State? That's why I am asking you. I don't know if it was because the NEC was too short and that's why you were saying you need seven days to discuss it so that you would have more time to discuss it or was it just....
Gwede Mantashe: Ask your question, Ranjeni, don't talk for the ANC. You are not a member of the NEC. Please, ask your question.
Ranjeni Munusamy: I'm trying to understand how these things...
Gwede Mantashe: Ask your question.
Ranjeni Munusamy: I'm trying to understand how these issues come up in the NEC. Does somebody have to suggest it, for it to be on the agenda, or does the national working committee when it sets the agenda, it doesn't believe that this issue should be discussed in the NEC. I'm trying to understand the process. Thank you....
(another question from another journalist)
Gwede Mantashe: Let me first of all just clarify this. One of the things that is irritating is when journalists want to be specialists on the ANC, more than us. We are running two operations. That is irritating because you are a specialist by default, you don't understand the ANC in detail but you want to be a specialist. If you want to be a specialist of the ANC, please study it and be involved in it. Please. It is better when a journalist ask [sic] questions, then we will explain them. So Ranjeni, I'm appealing to you, today and in future, don't pretend to be a specialist on the ANC because you are not. Okay? You are not a specialist on the ANC. Don't pretend to be an insider of the ANC... you are not. You are a journalist. If you want to be an insider, don't be a journalist, be an insider.
Mantashe went to say that the ANC did not have a license to tamper with operations of the state. He said the Marikana commission had submitted a report to the president of the republic, not to the president of the ANC. He said it was "undesirable" for Zuma to report to the ANC on Marikana.
Mantashe said when people are deployed to leadership positions in the state, they "cease to be the property of the ANC". He said Nathi Mthethwa had testified at the Marikana Commission as a member of Cabinet (former minister of police) and Cyril Ramaphosa as a representative of Lonmin, not as members of the ANC.
Mantashe's response, of course, undermines the ANC's entire cadre deployment policy. Why would the ANC "deploy" its members in the state if they do not represent its policies and mandate in the positions they occupy? It also ignores the fact that Ramaphosa's role in the events at Marikana related to his use of his high connections in the state, through his position in the ANC, to get the police to act in Lonmin's interests.
But here's the big problem. Mantashe completely contradicted statements he himself made previously regarding the ANC's relationship with the state.
In January this year, during the ANC's NEC lekgotla, Mantashe said the ANC would be "talking to its government" about the programme for the year. "This lekgotla must give feedback on the progress made on the challenges encountered, check if ministers and departments work as if they understand that these are priorities and therefore are funded or is this a priority on paper."
This shows how ANC representatives in the state are instructed to carry out the mandate of the party, which was elected to do precisely that.
In April 2013, when the plane carrying Gupta wedding guests landed at Waterkloof Air Force Base, Mantashe issued a statement saying the following: "We demand that those who are responsible for granting access to land aircraft in our country also explain the basis upon which such permission was granted, particularly to land at Waterkloof Airforce Base. Those who cannot account must be brought to book. The African National Congress will never rest where there is any indication that all and sundry may be permitted to undermine the Republic, its citizens and its borders. We again make the call, even at this late hour, to the SANDF to explain how this private aircraft landed at Waterkloof Airforce Base; our National Key Point."
This statement prompted an immediate response from government, which set up a high-profile task team to investigate the abuse of state facilities for the Gupta family. In this way, Mantashe acted immediately in the name of the ANC to pronounce on what he called "undermining the Republic".
In December 2013, after details of Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's draft report on Nkandla leaked, Mantashe made the following statement: "We have taken cognisance of the fact that the findings of the inter-ministerial task team report commissioned by the Cabinet to look into the security upgrades at Nkandla, have been made public. We are also aware that the findings by Parliament's joint standing committee on intelligence on the same matter have also been released. We call for the full report, not only the findings, of the inter-ministerial task team to be released to the public."
This was a move Mantashe deemed necessary so that the government report could counter whatever damning evidence was contained in Madonsela's report.
On Marikana, however, the ANC apparently cannot interfere or call for the release of the report, in "full", as it did with Nkandla. In fact, Mantashe's comments on Marikana were in contraction to what he said even in Sunday's statement on Operation Fiela. The statement, as quoted earlier, said the NEC received a "detailed report" from the president and "commended" government's actions. That shows government activities are reported to the ANC.
My asking about how it would come about that the NEC would even discuss the Marikana matter, let alone call for the release of the report, incensed Mantashe so much that he chose to lecture journalists about how they should respect the ANC.
In response to the Mail & Guardian's Qaanitah Hunter objecting to Mantashe "patronising" journalists, he said the ANC had the right to refuse interviews.
"If you project yourself as hostile, we refuse to give you an interview… it's our right. Continue with your hostile stance. I am sharing with you how we deal with you as journalists when you are reckless when you write stories; we won't give you interviews."
He also accused The Star's Lebogang Seale of continuously writing negative stories about the ANC. He said a question Seale asked about the state of ANC structures was actually a desire to see "disarray" in the organisation. Seale was also dressed down for saying the ANC chose selectively when to comment on government issues.
You do not have to be an "insider" or "specialist" to know that the ANC does not think it is necessary to discuss Marikana, and that the issue has been a hot potato from the time the massacre occurred. But as much as ANC wants to avoid responsibility, the police acting for the government it controls shot and killed 34 people on 16 August 2012. They were mineworkers, just like Mantashe himself once was.
After Mantashe's tirade, I pointed out that the reason we as journalists ask questions is precisely because we are not "insiders" and therefore can only get official information on what goes on at NEC meetings from him. I also said that I was definitely not an insider because the ANC I knew would be seriously concerned about people's rights being violated during a police and army crackdown targeting foreign nationals, including women and children. The ANC I knew would also be concerned about government using the same parlance and tactics of the apartheid regime that had deemed the ANC as a "terrorist organisation".
The ANC might be confused about its role and how it should hold government to account, but we are not. The questions might be "irritating" and uncomfortable but they will continue to be asked. The people of Marikana and the people who came to our country seeking the "better life for all" that the ANC promised us cannot ask the questions.
For now, we can. And we will, as long as we can.