Lacking a common enemy, the ANC has forgotten its principlesby Richard Calland / June 20, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in July 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
As the 100th Birthday party of the African National Congress (ANC) finally neared its end on 8th January of this year, the party’s top brass poured champagne and ate cake in front of a stadium of supporters at Bloemfontein. Despite the intense mid-summer heat, the crowd was not even offered water. Even Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, appeared to wince as Baleka Mbete, chairwoman of the ANC, raised a glass to toast both him and the party. Other more media-savvy members of the ANC, shuffled to get out of shot. They knew it looked bad.
Earlier, the South African Broadcasting Corporation had not reported that as Zuma had lapped the stadium perimeter, a section of the crowd had given the wheeling hand signal that football managers use to show they want to make a substitution. These were supporters of Julius Malema, the controversial ANC Youth League leader whose populist rhetoric has won him attention and also expulsion from the ANC for bringing the party into disrepute. Malema and his followers had used the hand signal before. In December 2007, his supporters deployed it at the ANC conference to propel the crushing “Zunami” that removed Thabo Mbeki from the ANC presidency. In September 2008 lost the presidency.
The period of 2007-9 was pivotal for the ANC’s history. Old certainties fell away and new uncertainties rose up. Mbeki was present at the Bloemfontein party, showing signs that he was at last emerging from the sulk that followed his undignified ousting. He was the only one of the two living former ANC presidents to participate. The other, Nelson Mandela, was conspicuous by his absence. His last public appearance was when he was wheeled into a chilly Johannesburg night shortly before the start of the Football World Cup final in July 2010, provoking tears of joy from those present.
By then Mandela was already frail, though it did not preclude him from spending an hour or two a day working on his private records with archivists at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Those loyal archivists were eager to secure his legacy. Although he has chosen to keep his own counsel, Mandela is known to be less concerned about his own legacy and far more deeply concerned about the state of the ANC—an organisation that appears to be falling apart under the sheer weight of its eclectic ideological mix and the internal pressures of its political contradictions. Indeed Mandela must have wondered whether to laugh or cry when he heard that at the first NEC meeting after the botched Bloemfontein celebration, time had been taken to debate how best to deal with public cake-eating in the future. As a metaphor for the state of the nation they liberated, as well as the ANC, there may be no sharper image available. Apparently the ANC wants to have its cake and eat it. An assessment compiled and presented by Mbete in February concluded that in future celebrations “the eating of cake should be made in private, as it does not augur well (sic) to be eating in front of our members and supporters while they are not eating.”