In Mangaung last week, the African National Congress celebrated a rare milestone of reaching a 100 years, an unparalleled achievement amongst liberation movements and political parties in the African continent. Political leaders of diverse hues decided to put their differences aside and pour tribute upon the ANC and salute its remarkable achievement. However, apart from the pomp, style and ceremony, graced by luminaries from around the world, the event had a distinctive lack of substance, especially a forward-looking perspective from President Jacob Zuma who was delivering the keynote address.
Much of the speech drowned in historical detail, giving very little evidence of deeper reflection by Zuma on the state of the party and the nation at this present juncture. Beyond the ceremony, we need to pose three questions: what story can be told of the ANC’s future? While its place in history in a backward-looking sense is beyond dispute, does the ANC have a compelling vision and a sense of purpose regarding its place in the future? And what are its dreams for the South African nation beyond past accomplishments? It would have been expected that these questions would form the centrepiece of Zuma’s speech, yet this was not to be so.
These questions are made more urgent given the evident contradictions between the fine tradition and the illustrious history of the ANC on the one hand; and the acute crisis of leadership and identity that characterise the ANC under Zuma today. A different leader would have used the occasion to set a powerful and transformational tone that launches society into a conversation about the kind of future South Africans should envision and aspire to.
Transformational leaders are forward-looking and use history not to bask in past glory, but to tell an exciting story about the future. The tone of the centenary celebration, as reflected in Zuma’s address, suggests that the leadership of the ANC has run out of ideas on how to get the party out of its morass, and how to take the country forward.
The current leadership seems unable to connect the best of the ANC’s core values that helped to sustain its anti-apartheid struggles and the imperative of creating a new spirit and reference point for change that is not just inspired by the past but also draws on the best from both the present and future possibilities. While history may help to remind us of where we come from and of what not to do, it is not always a good handmaiden for animating a new vision and stimulating progress. More like a rear-view mirror, by its very nature, it does not provide clarity of direction.
In his brilliant book, Built to Last, Jim Collins the respected leadership thinker asserts that enduring organisations are able to ‘preserve core ideology while stimulating progress towards the envisioned future’. Core ideology, according to Collins, expresses the identity of an organisation and what it stands for. The ANC today possesses neither a coherent ideology nor the capacity to stimulate progress towards a better future. It is stuck in the past; and it is encumbered by a leader who is a divisive figure in the party and who evidently lacks conviction about the good of society.
The place of ideological self-renewal and vision that used to mark the ANC’s character in the past has been supplanted by factional battles, plots, and lust for state resources. State power is no longer seen as a viable tool to enact a different agenda for transformation, but a short-cut to self-enrichment for party cadres and cronies through tenders and placements in government positions or diplomatic posts abroad. Leadership battles are no longer about contestations over a superior vision, strategy or better ideas. We no longer have a battle for the soul of the ANC aimed at defining its essence, vision, and programme; but a battle for the carcass of the ANC, about who should be the chief undertaker to preside over its eventual burial.
As such, the centenary celebrations were really nothing more than a macabre dance, with party faithful putting a collective blindfold – to see no evil – and to pretend that all is well in the party. Yet the ANC is collapsing under the weight of its deepening internal contradictions, presided over by a leader who is out of place with the finest traditions of the movement as embodied in leaders such as John Dube, Pixley Seme, Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo. Zuma’s leadership image is an antithesis of everything the ANC stood for in the past.
The real ANC is dead, and what exists today is its mummified version – an ancestor – propped up through invocation of history, selective memory, symbols and myths to mask its anachronism and impotence. As the British Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm warns us, ‘History as inspiration and ideology has a built-in tendency to become self-justifying myth. Nothing is a more dangerous blindfold than this…’
The powerful lesson that should be drawn from the centenary celebrations is that an appreciation of history should not blind us to the fatal ills of the ANC and their potential to corrupt the future. Those who hope the ANC will change - as well as the best of its minds that still remain within - suffer from delusion and are betraying the future.
It is possible to draw a line between the ANC of old that waged a remarkable battle against oppression; that inspired anti-colonial struggles in the African continent; that boasted incorruptible and noble leaders; and that triumphed over the apartheid regime and brought democracy on the one hand, and the decadent ANC of Jacob Zuma that has spawned maladministration and corruption.
The tale of the two ANC’s and their different revolutions –one noble and the other perverse - brings to life the reflections of Edmund Burke on the monstrous progeny of the French Revolution which he penned in his Letters on a Regicide Peace: ‘’out of the tomb of the murdered monarchy in France has arisen a vast, tremendous, unformed spectre, in a far more terrific guise than any which ever yet have overpowered the imagination, and subdued the fortitude of man. Going straight forward to its end, unappaled by peril, unchecked by remorse, despising all common maxims and all common means, that hideous phantom overpowered those who could not believe it was possible she could at all exist.’ Zuma’s ANC is devouring the best that history has bequeathed us, and is threatening to decimate the future yet to be born.