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How do we understand and get out of the present political mess?

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How do we understand and get out of the present political mess?

Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

3rd July 2017

By: Raymond Suttner

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At critical moments, it has often been remarked that the ANC has sat down and reviewed its weaknesses and marked out a fresh course of action to remedy faults and in order to achieve its goals. 

Since 1994 the problems of the ANC have also become problems of the state in the light of its being the ruling party. For various reasons- quite apart from the real possibility that the ANC may be voted out of office, the future of the country can no longer be left to the ANC alone. The part that the ANC may play in resolving the problems of the present may be limited. 

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If we want to address the problems the country now faces, we need adequate tools for diagnosis, for making sense of the problems we encounter. That requires intellectual and analytical methods but also investment of our emotions. In addressing these questions we need to recognise that our concerns cannot be focused purely on corruption and state capture, crucial as these are. Nor can we restrict ourselves to addressing unemployment, lack of growth, high debt, failure to meet basic needs, education and multiple other facets of this crisis.

Achieving, defending and advancing freedom is not simply an intellectual or technocratic exercise, whereby we make things happen that achieve improvements in people’s lives, important as that is. If it were, we could leave everything to professional scholars and technocrats. It does not feature publicly but there are additional factors that need to be part of our understanding, if we are a society that cares about our fellow human beings.

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There needs to be a place for passion and compassion. One invests emotions, by virtue of what one feels about a situation but that emotional component needs to be informed by understanding. Equally understanding must be augmented by emotional commitment. This needs emphasis at a time when the ANC has turned cold on its previous constituency- the poorest of the poor- and often appears indifferent to their fate.

Our history is filled with people who dedicated their lives to ending apartheid and set in motion a process of freedom and transformation of the conditions of all the people of South Africa, especially the poor and vulnerable. They did what they believed was right and necessary no matter what the personal cost, that is, they acted with passion and compassion.Those qualities need to be recovered.

That our problems cannot simply be addressed through intellectual processes is not to say that there is not a serious problem in how we understand the present. That needs intense debate. One of the features of the decline in the ANC, not only since the rise of Jacob Zuma, but since 1994 has been intellectual, in the relative absence of serious debate. This has nothing to do with the limited formal education of the president. Some of the intellectual giants of the ANC and SACP like Moses Kotane and Walter Sisulu had very little formal education.

Even at this moment when the ANC has been engaged in a policy conference it is clear that the focus is not on debating ideas but as many commentators observe, using particular concepts as a proxy for specific presidential candidates. Contesting ideas are advanced in order to favour one or other presidential candidate rather than a serious engagement with the problems of the day.

But the type of intellectual qualities that the ANC used to value are different from the intellectual skills that many in the DA may have. The DA does not directly link itself with the longing for freedom and the unfolding of an emancipatory vision in qualitative terms. The party has many very intelligent people, deriving from academia and various professions. They focus on finding solutions that are the most efficient and cost effective ways of dealing with problems. They may be better in doing this than the ANC. This is pursued in a dispassionate manner, quite different from the passionate quality of the famous ANC leaders of the past, who were driven by a burning sense of their duty to the oppressed.

There was a time when many of us found the ANC and its literature and debates exciting. We were engaged and we cared about the impact that some ideas would or could have. We would stay up late at night debating these and asking what should be the content and direction of the unfolding liberation, how one should relate national oppression to class exploitation and later in the day, how gender inequality linked with these other “contradictions”? Ideas mattered because they affected people’s lives, not only “the masses” in books but the real people who were the oppressed in South Africa.

The culture of debate and intellectual production was part of the process of an organisation grappling to find paths that were most likely to take a process of liberation forward, to create what came to be called “a better life for all”. These comprised intense arguments in order to unpack the obstacles that were faced and how best to overcome them. And if one secured political freedom that was recognised to be part of a continuing journey, given that freedom itself was contested and debated and part of an ongoing process of widening and deepening its scope and meanings.

There was a lot at stake in these debates because people were emerging from the “nightmare” of apartheid and using that metaphor, embarking on a “dream” of freedom that we wanted to materialise, to turn into concrete reality, albeit a dynamic reality with definite milestones against which progress could be measured. The anxiety was not that it would turn into the “nightmare” we now experience –for few if any imagined this. But we needed to argue because we were not sure how best to negotiate the paths that lay ahead in broad terms as well as in specific policy and political interventions. Always we asked what would make a difference to the quality and meaning of people’s lives. We also asked what would safeguard and build the state and the wealth of the country-as engines for transformation.

Much of the tenor of what debate remains has sidelined this focus, with the ANC taking on many of the characteristics of a conventional electorally-orientated political party.

Until now securing our freedom has been seen as primarily the responsibility of the ANC. That ANC no longer exists.  Given its electoral losses and disarray it may well collapse. A lot more than an organisation may disappear with that. The ANC has embodied the hopes of generations of people who longed for freedom, who saw the organisation and its many exemplary leaders as embodying their hopes. That cannot easily be replaced in the minds, emotions and aspirations of the still oppressed majority of South Africans.

That sense of connection between the organisation and the people is now frayed and fragile, if it persists at all, given the level of betrayal that has been experienced in recent years. The current conduct of leaders does not manifest great concern for those who have until recently loved the organisation, and seen it as their only political home.

But there is no other organisation with a similar link and in the case of the strongest of these -the DA -there is no desire to have that sort of link with the people. The DA is focused on freedom as signifying delivery of the good things of life, and putting systems in place to achieve this. They are concerned with an objective process of implementation and verification, which is necessary but insufficient. 

It is not an ongoing thirst for more and more freedom extending into every realm of people’s lives. Ideas of this kind do not excite the DA. Plans or ideas either work or they do not. The idea of freedom is that which is in the constitution and applicable legislation, no more and no less and there are guidelines for realising this. 

Skill and merit matters more than excitement and that is how it wants to defeat the ANC, not through a better and broader vision of the future but a more effective way of developing and delivering “services”, within the context of the constitutionally agreed vision. The DA has a mixed constituency. It may wish to make forays into the ANC’s primarily African base, but it has no desire to form a connection of the type that the ANC enjoyed during the liberation struggle, where families treated the organisation as part of their cultural inheritance, prayed for leaders and loved the ANC.  They had a sense of belonging in their attachment to the organisation. The DA may not object to being loved, but it is more concerned to have voters, who pitch up to vote on election day. Defending freedom, for them, is a logistical question that you either get right or wrong.

Both the ANC and DA have moved into conventional electoral razzmatazz where display is seen as being as important or more important than the actual content of the message. So the difference between the ANC and the DA of today is not so great as previously insofar as neither is emotionally connected with the poor. The poor may want that link but the DA and ANC leadership both only seek episodic links at election time and for electoral purposes. The DA has never been “connected” though it may now supply some basic needs to the poor better than the ANC can do in some areas where it governs. The ANC had that connection but it ruptured this by its actions, including through non-provision of what is due to people.  It has manifested this betrayal more dramatically –as government- through Marikana, Nkandla, the social grants scandal and many more emerging scandals where the poor are robbed in order to secure benefits for the Guptas and their ANC and government associates.

If we are to recover the democratic promise of 1994 and also retrieve some of the hopes for something more than electoral democracy cherished by many in the 1980s and in the early 1990s then we need to generate debates that are engaged in not purely because they are intellectually or technically challenging. There must also be a real concern for those who still do not enjoy the benefits of freedom. If that is agreed, who must initiate this? Who must participate and how is it to happen and where?

My belief is that we need a broad consultation and debate over the way forward. It cannot be assumed as the ANC and its veterans do, that all roads ultimately lead back to the ANC, more or less purified. The way forward needs to embrace in deliberations people from a range of sectors and political movements, agreed on limited goals, but aiming to widen this towards a broader democratic consensus. In so doing it will also need to restore legality and in that process bring to book those who have undermined constitutionalism and set back the democratic and transformation process. There is no blueprint that can be offered. One needs to build from whatever limited consensus we can now establish into an ever-widening agreement on how we rebuild our democracy, for which so many patriots gave their lives.


Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison has recently been reissued with a new introduction covering his more recent life outside the ANC by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner

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