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[OPINION] ANC a far cry from founders' ideals

The diary of Sol T. Plaatje written between 1899 and 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. As the ANC met as a collective this past week to discuss its election manifesto, irony abounded. Tony Yengeni, heading up the ‘Crime and Corruption’ commission as an example? Present too was former President Jacob Zuma, as if to remind us all of his detritus Ramaphosa is trying to clean up.

The Zuma years, now mercifully over, were also been rooted in an anti-intellectualism which had become dangerous. In the cause of populism, Zuma has joked about ‘clever blacks’ at rallies and the Presidency itself became an empty shell. The ANC’s so-called ‘battle of ideas’ is now safely a ‘battle of factions’ despite shows of ‘unity’ at gatherings. Ramaphosa is desperately seeking to turn the tide against corruption within the state - we are daily overwhelmed by the ‘clean up operation’ and what it will take to deal with the rot within our institutions and the cash crunch the country finds itself in - not to mention the deep levels of inequality, poverty and unemployment. Recent revelations about the shenanigans at the South African Revenue Service and SAA provide some further insight into the looting that has now become common place. In the same week, we also heard of Brian Hlongwa and the Gauteng Health Department’s abuse of money and power.

One might then be moved to ask, ‘What would Plaatje and others have done today?’

So we know that 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….’

Whether the ANC can regain some of Plaatje’s values, remains to be seen. That will be a long-haul battle but in the meantime, the spectre of elections 2019 looms over the landscape and it will happen whether the ANC is ready or not.

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

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