OPINION: ANC a far cry from founders' ideals

Sol T Plaatje's leadership and values played a key role in the founding of the ANC and one cannot help but notice the contrasts between the ANC then and now.

FILE: Winnie Madikizela-Mandela clasps the hands of President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC national policy conference at Nasrec on 30 June 2017. Picture: Thomas Holder/EWN

The diary of Sol T. Plaatje written between 1899-1900 makes for fascinating reading. It is the only account by a black person of the Siege of Mafikeng that took place during the South African War of 1899. Plaatje’s formal schooling was limited, yet he excelled at the then civil service examinations and on the eve of the war he was sent to Mafikeng and during the siege acted as a court interpreter.

An account of his life tells us that he was drawn to journalism and established the first Setswana-English weekly newspaper in 1901. He himself spoke at least eight languages and is considered one of South Africa’s great public intellectuals. It was Plaatje’s 1916 Native life in South Africa that provided an in-depth insight into South Africa after the passage of the 1913 Native Land Act. It details the disastrous effects of the act on South Africa’s rural heartland and the assault on the rights of black South Africans during that time.

Plaatje played a key role in the founding of the South African Native National Congress in 1912, which would become the African National Congress in 1923. He was its first secretary-general. He was part of a small mission-educated Black intelligentsia and was deeply opposed to narrow tribalism. The first president of the SANNC, John Dube, was a minister and educator (It is said that after Nelson Mandela cast his vote in 1994, he said at the grave of ANC founder, John Dube, ‘Mission accomplished.’ Poignant, to say the least), while Pixley ka Seme, a lawyer was regarded as the founder of the congress.

Plaatje’s life and his work provide lessons not only in activism but, more importantly, in leadership and values. It also provides us with an insight into those who founded the ANC and their ideals. Like any party, it was often racked by divisions. Any cursory reading of history shows this. André Odendaal in his detailed account of the ANC, the epic tome The Founders: The Origins of the ANC and the Struggle for Democracy in South Africa details those ups and downs.

When reading all this, one cannot help but notice the contrasts between the ANC then and now. One need only read the statement by the family of former lawyer, Justice Minister and ANC member, Dullah Omar, distancing themselves from the ANC’s Dullah Omar region, to understand how deep the rot is within the party and, indeed, how painful the ANC’s descent has been for stalwarts of the struggle.

The Zuma years, in particular, have also been rooted in an anti-intellectualism which has become dangerous. In the cause of populism, Zuma has joked about ‘clever blacks’ at rallies and the Presidency itself is an empty shell. The ANC’s so-called ‘battle of ideas’ is now safely a ‘battle of factions’. One might then be moved to ask, ‘What would Plaatje and others have done today?’

On Monday, National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete surprised us all when she declared that the vote of no confidence in President Zuma happening in the House today would be a secret ballot. It would be very surprising if Mbete made this decision without consulting Zuma or his proxies. The opposition now has the wind taken out of its sails and Mbete has staved off a possible legal challenge to her decision. Zuma himself will doubtless survive and – for the moment - be emboldened by that. All in all it makes for a pretty wily strategy. Yet, all of politics is about the ‘long game’. Zuma knows that as well as anyone. There will be many curves and twists between now and December.

And so we muddle along because the ANC simply cannot do the right thing and recall Zuma. Yet, something has stirred in our society that cannot be discounted. Ordinary citizens are starting to join the dots between corruption and poor services in their communities.

Last year’s local government election showed that South Africa’s electorate can indeed envisage being governed by a party other than the ANC. Marches across the country have enlivened citizen debate once more as society contemplates a post-Zuma future. The #Guptaleaks emails have also provided a steady stream of proof of the depth of state capture and the way in which this so-called ‘shadow state’ operates. It has also illustrated the power of a free and fearless media.

Zuma has captured the prosecuting authority and so, for now, he and his cronies have managed to evade prosecution. But in a democracy where information about corrupt activity is peddled so openly, justice will eventually prevail. The renewed activism we are seeing will take time to bear fruit simply because it is work and not a once-off activity. The ‘green shoots’ are there and society collectively has to build on them. We simply abdicate responsibility and rely on the ANC to do the right thing and so all of society needs to keep pressure mounting on the corrupt.

The ANC is a far cry from the values and ideals of its founders. The obituary for Plaatje read, ‘He was a man who, by force of character and sharpness of intellect, rose to the front rank of leadership…never have I found him autocratic, contumacious or narrow of outlook.’

As its members contemplate the secret ballot later today, one wonders who amongst the ANC MPs will rise to the occasion and heed Plaatje’s example?

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judith_february