Despite the jealous jeers from detractors at the sidelines, the African National Congress is deservedly proud of the centenary it is celebrating. It marks a remarkable achievement – the ANC’s existence as Africa’s oldest surviving political movement, as well as one of the longest in existence worldwide.
From its nascence as a tiny struggle vanguard, harried on all sides by a powerful and ruthless white ruling class, the ANC persevered to triumph as South Africa’s first democratically elected government in 1994. In doing so it not only changed forever the face of SA’s politics, but also captured to an unprecedented degree the imagination and admiration of the world.
The ANC achievement came not from pandering to the same kind of base racist instincts that infused white hegemony. It did so by painstakingly building an ideologically cohesive and – with remarkably few lapses given the exigencies of the struggle – moral alternative to white supremacy and Afrikaner nationalism.
Nowhere else has there been an aspirant government whose policies were shaped by the input of no fewer than three Nobel Peace Prize winners. There are also few political movements that have taken power faced with more auspicious prospects: overwhelming internal support; a raft of sensible polices; the benefits of an apparently disciplined and committed cadre class; and an astonishing dowry of goodwill, both local and international.
It all seemed to be too good to be true and so it has proved to be. The champagne moment has long passed. The ANC sadly has proved not to be the exceptional, shining beacon on the hill.
Instead it has become apparent that the illustrious ANC of the struggle years was a freak of unusual political circumstances, whereas the ANC government of today is as boringly venal and self-serving as any in the world. As the traditionally ANC-supporting British newspaper, The Guardian, put it succinctly in a generally gloomy assessment of the ANC on its anniversary, ‘SA’s governing party found that it could liberate in poetry but had to govern in prose.’
With the myth of ANC exceptionalism eroded, it seems safe to predict that although the ANC is celebrating with great energy and expense its centenary, it almost certainly won’t survive, at least in its present form, to toast itself on its 125th.
The primary reason is not the daunting array of problems that beset the ANC – among the more distressing of which are corruption, factionalism, racism, and growing authoritarian tendencies – but disillusionment at the highest level. Arguably more important though less dramatic than the doomed Congress of the People breakaway, has been the ANC’s steady shedding of its intellectual fibre in favour of opportunists and yes-men.
It’s this growing gap between lofty ideal and grim reality that has led former party stalwarts like Ronnie Kasril, Kader Asmal, Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, Jay Naidoo and Andrew Feinstein, among others, to speak out publicly against anti-democratic trends in the ANC. Among the evidence they cite is the ANC’s tolerance of corruption, its efforts to gag the media, and a presidential antipathy towards Constitutional Court ‘interference’ in the affairs of government.
In Britain’s left-of-centre Observer newspaper, columnist Will Hutton bemoans the decline of enlightened values in President Jacob Zuma’s ANC, where ‘reason, democracy, the rule of law and respect for dissent are [seen as] values of the declining west.’ In a warning – addressed equally at the resurgent American and European right – Hutton writes, ‘There is no long-run happiness nor well-being in organising our economies and societies around blood, ethnicity, blind faith and the tribe.’
Whatever the temptations of power, good government is attainable if there are good institutions and good leadership. The energy with which the ANC is undermining the former is a telling indication of the absence of the latter.