The African National Congress’s centenary has not been the unalloyed propaganda opportunity it hoped for. The 100th birthday has mostly served to sear in the public mind the contrast between the ANC’s glorious past and its grubby present, as well as a rather grim-looking future.
Its leaders had assumed a year-long drumming upon the ANC’s illustrious history would embed in the public consciousness its pre-eminent role in liberation. And yea, deservedly it would rule until Jesus’s return, as President Jacob Zuma might put it.
All anniversaries are indulgently self-congratulatory moments — a recognition of the race run, the obstacles overcome. But as temporal markers they also spark introspection and reassessment.
When a centenarian political party is mired in a self-induced mess, the more it applauds itself, the worse the effect. Instead of admiration and support, it invites the obvious question of whether its best years are not behind it.
As Heidi Holland notes in her new book,100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC, “despite the ANC being at the height of its powers, its future is today less certain than at any time in its long history”. Holland runs through a familiar catalogue of woe: “moral and material” corruption; delivery impotence due to cadre deployment; declining health and education systems; and Zuma’s “shamelessly self serving” assault on media freedom.
Not only will the media measures likely breach the Constitution, Holland writes, but “there is barely any plausible defence of the ANC’s integrity left under Zuma’s leadership. Having fared badly at the hands of both jurists and journalists … Zuma simply decided to reshape SA’s institutional landscape to suit himself.”
That this is a simple act of revenge, as Heidi suggests, is as convincing an explanation as any for these moves against media freedom. For there is no credible evidence that genuine state secrets — rather than information embarrassing to the ANC — are imperilled by the absence of the proposed Protection of State Information legislation. Nor that an ANC-dominated tribunal would remedy shortcomings in the present ombud system.
That Zuma’s motive is petty revenge is bolstered by him persisting, despite damage to the ANC’s reputation, as well as dissension within the tripartite alliance and the party itself. A blood thirst for vengeance does tend to cloud the judgement.
Aside from the Congress of SA Trade Unions breaking alliance ranks to reject the curbs, reservations have been expressed by not only a few suicidally inclined ANC backbenchers, but by Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe. In meetings with editors he repeatedly expressed the view that a compromise could be reached on the “public interest” defence that the media wants and that the Zuma inner circle is so implacably opposed to.
There has been opposition, too, from the SA Human Rights Commission, the Public Protector, from jurists and the law societies, from the universities, the churches, every single parliamentary opposition party, and a slew of international human rights and freedom of information organisations.
These sour notes can be ignored but coming from trusted friends, they do somewhat dampen the birthday buzz. Importantly, there are also ripples of dissent among the voters who have so dutifully delivered to the ANC its massive parliamentary majorities.
The ANC hoped that the public hearings would bring out the party faithful to endorse the curbs. Instead, the first hearing, in Gugulethu outside Cape Town, drew a couple of hundred voters who lambasted the plans.
Expect the public hearings to become more orchestrated. After all, it only takes a few busloads of ANC activists singing from the official song sheet to drown out any dissent. But to fuel disapproval for the sake of some vanity legislation — doomed to fail in its intention of silencing criticism of government — is hardly clever.
100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC by Heidi Holland, Penguin, 2012