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Who will lead us out of the present morass?

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

9th November 2016

By: Raymond Suttner


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Many people say they are demoralised, and some have been so for some time. They had hoped that post-apartheid South Africa would lead to something of which we would be proud, where we would flourish and grow and learn from one another, debate ideas, and enhance mutual respect.

That was not to be, and it would be wrong to say that it can all be put at the door of Jacob Zuma. Zuma grew out of the ANC and flourished within the political system that was created after 1994, although it was a society still marked by legacies of apartheid colonialism. This was a constitutional state, but one whose constitution has not proved strong enough to prevent him from defying, bypassing and undermining it in many respects.


Much of the discourse around the resolution of the current crisis revolves around what the ANC NEC or NWC decide, or the calls of veterans for a consultative conference, or a meeting with the top officials in order to remedy the state in which the organisation finds itself. I do not wish to disregard the concern and suggestions of people who have devoted their lives to the ANC. I do not see their advice as something that can simply be dismissed. Nevertheless, in line with the tradition of constructive debate that I learnt from many of these people, I register my disagreement.

The crisis talks within the ANC result from a recognition that it no longer enjoys the confidence of large numbers of people who previously supported the organisation, some of whom would have considered it unthinkable to break away from or oppose the ANC only 10 years ago. The ANC has been the life of many people: a mother, a father, a companion, a home. The ANC was everything to many who gave it their youth and their personal freedom.


The assumption behind the need to leave the resolution of the problems to the ANC itself is based on history and, I would suggest, an element of mythology. Historically there have been key moments when the ANC faced serious crises and it held together, partly because it identified and thrashed out its problems sufficiently in order to continue to struggle as a relatively unified organisation, in contrast with the PAC, whose internecine battles more or less disabled it for much of its years in exile.

In the case of the PAC, one never really saw what its full promise could be. It existed as an ideology to which many adhered, but was never embraced in a sustainable organisational form. That also explains why, despite this organisational weakness and lack of electoral success, Africanist ideas still resonate with many people.

Africanism still speaks to many who feel that it is an outlet for those whose dignity as a people has been trampled on, and who have been dispossessed of their land. This evocation of the return of the land is of course also part of ANC discourse, evoked especially in the slogan “Mayibuye iAfrika!” translated as “Come back” or “Return Africa!”)

Returning to the ANC, those who call for self-correction, aided by one or other mechanism such as a consultative conference, refer to the need to return the ANC to its “true self” or to “self-correct”. There is an assumption that there is an essence that represents the ANC; that there has been a departure from that essence and, put in the right hands with dedicated and proven cadres, the organisation can be returned to what it is meant to be – that we can pick up from what it used to be and put this nightmarish episode behind us.

There are many problems with these assumptions. The notion that there is an essential quality attaching to the ANC will not hold for the past or the present. There are basic principles that have been associated with the ANC, but their meanings have always been contested. Not everyone who did so acted in good faith, then and now. Not everyone was the selfless cadre that the organisation commended, whether in the present, during periods of open democratic struggle, in prison, in exile, in MK or in other aspects of legal and illegal struggle.

In understanding the emergence of tendencies to corruption, the seeds can already be seen in some experiences in the past. Equally, in all these phases there were counter-tendencies against misuse of power and corruption.

But does the ANC have the capacity to resolve the current crisis? The ANC has just lost key metros with budgets that are astronomical in South African terms. Those elections left more than 1000 former councillors in the branches, presumably feeding into the existing dissatisfaction.

We know that in KZN and other areas intra-ANC violence pre-existed the local government elections and we saw repeated postponements of the eThekwini elections in KZN. Later there were intra-ANC murders of some 20 ANC councillors.

There are no meaningful ideological disputes dividing what are called factions. When Thabo Mbeki recently alluded to the expulsion of the “gang of eight” after the 1969 Morogoro conference, he was referring to people expelled because they objected to non-Africans holding positions in the ANC. The later expulsion of the Marxist Workers Tendency grouping related to their wanting to foreground socialist struggle at the expense of national liberation. The “[Chris] Hani Memorandum” that was a key impetus for the Morogoro conference related to dissatisfaction over the place and deployment of cadres and overall strategy. The earlier PAC split related to disagreement over the Freedom Charter, inter alia, because of the declaration that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.

The current divisions in the ANC have nothing to do with doctrine! The decades since 1994 have opened opportunities for enrichment. Some of these have been related to patronage and corruption, which have seeped down to every level of the organisation, and insofar as the ANC has been dominant in government, to every level of administration. There is no need to rehearse this.

In order to retrieve a politics that is concerned with our present and future we need to ask how the ANC can lead such a process, and what ideas it brings to such a venture, if it has an interest in it any more. Frankly, there is no reason to believe that the ANC can initiate or lead such a process. That is not to say that the ANC or individual ANC members cannot be an important part of such recovery. Indeed they should be encouraged to play a part.

If that is the case, who is to initiate and lead such a process? Who do they represent and why do their ideas carry any weight with anyone, if they only “represent their jackets” (to quote a remark of the late former ANC leader Comrade Alfred Nzo)?

I do not have the answers, and indeed it is not for me to provide them. The answers must emerge from a process that builds on identified areas of commonality in order to develop a unifying emancipatory vision and programme. This must be limited at the outset in order to draw in as wide a group of citizens as possible. Non-citizens should also be welcomed insofar as they are supposed to enjoy the same rights as citizens except for the vote, and one or two other provisions, and as we know, many live under constant danger and attack.

The unifying principles for developing a broad emancipatory platform may include the following concerns:

1. There is widespread agreement that there is a need to return to constitutionalism, legality and clean government. Corruption and unfair distribution of resources or under the table payments affect the “richest of the rich” and the “poorest of the poor”. They have a common interest in bringing this to an end. One of the reasons for ANC electoral defeat, the organisation recognises, is the perception that it is corrupt.

2. There is a common interest in ending the widespread violence found in illegal evictions, extrajudicial executions, and notorious massacres.

3. The violence and especially gender-based and sexually-based violence, relates to the hyper-masculinity that has characterised the Zuma period, from his rape trial until the present with the perversion of struggle songs like Umshini wam’ (Bring me my machine gun) in order to serve limited personal political gains.

The question of gender and masculinity is not purely a concern of those who have been victimised. It affects all the sons and daughters of this country who need to be encouraged to grow up with the gentle qualities we associate with some of the heroic figures who fought for our freedom precisely because they wanted to prevent harm to others.

4. There must be a return of the integrity of state institutions like the NPA, SARS, SAPS and especially the Hawks, all of which have been “captured” by Zuma and his associates to fight factional battles. There is a need to end the gangster-like reign of apartheid era police in the Hawks and Crime Intelligence, to end the continued hovering over Pravin Gordhan by the NPA, while at the same time evading responsibility to take the necessary steps to prosecute those who need to be brought to book, including the president.

5.  State owned enterprises must have their integrity and professionalism restored so that they can become engines for transformation and improving the lives of all. They need to be ruthlessly cleaned up and their boards reconstituted in order to ensure compliance with all the duties to which they are entrusted.

How do we move from here?

Even though we are in a grave situation, we need to avoid shortcuts. I agree that Zuma must go, but we need to put mechanisms in place that eradicate the qualities that may feed future versions of what we experience at present. Who can set this process in motion? It is important to look at both the immediate situation and the long term.

Zuma must go as part of a process of rebuilding constitutional democracy and opening opportunities for broader democratic political participation. Whoever replaces him must understand this. Who that will be derives from the character of the process and the broad movement that is established.

I believe it is necessary to build afresh without necessarily removing the ANC from the political scene. There is a need to begin on a modest basis, around a platform calling for the clean government and return to legality mentioned above. That limited focus ensures that a very broad group of people can buy into it, although sections of this unifying movement might sometimes wish to advance additional goals. The broad unity around limited goals can be a mechanism for recovering and defending these limited goals. It is important to place weight on achieving intermediate goals so that citizens recover confidence in their own political power, to see that power achieving definite ends.

At the same time, coming together as a diverse group means that debate over more contentious issues, including macroeconomic policies and broader transformational questions can be conducted within the broad unity and beyond it. The unified alliance should be no bar to the formation of other organisations, or it may be decided that they can affiliate to the broader unity while retaining their distinct socialist or Africanist or other identity, over which others may or may not agree.

I believe it is important for some non-partisan public figures to endorse such a declaration and advance it to the public. Having initiated it, the religious or other civic figures can either play a full part in organising its diffusion and building on it as they hear people’s responses, or they can play a periodic role, as required.

I do not pretend to have the answers to our current problems or crises. This contribution is offered as a basis for further debate.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst.  He is a former political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA.  He has published extensively on Chief Luthuli in scholarly journals and essays in his recent book, Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana and Lynne Rienner, 2015). He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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