Let’s ditch myths about ANC’s glorious past

Posted on April 15, 2019


(First published in City Press, April 14, 2019)

Accusations about the manipulation of ANC election lists are nothing new. Nor, for that matter, is evidence of corruption, nepotism and the existence of patronage networks.

During the decades in exile, democratic decisions taken within the ANC were, more often than not, ignored or simply over-ridden if they did not suit the leadership. Yet now we seem to be dealing with a call to go back to some mythical past where the ANC was an apparent paragon of virtue and a shining example of ethical and democratic behaviour.

In the exile years that myth was the public relations image presented to the outside world in general and, especially after 1976, to donors. But the ANC, while rebelling against the vicious and corrupt system of apartheid, was itself a product of that system. Those who flocked to its broad church banner were a reflection of that society and time: romantics, revolutionaries, idealists, rogues and robbers, along with capitalists, socialists and the severely compromised.

So the exiled movement compromised many good people, some bad, and some decidedly ugly. Many of the good tried throughout to fight a largely losing battle to make a reality of the professed principles and policies of the ANC. They were stymied by the fact that from the earliest days of exile, unity became to the clarion call from the leadership.

All else was secondary, if it mattered at all. This laid the ground for an autocratic style of governance which, at the same time, tolerated the spread of patronage networks, nepotism and corruption. This was first highlighted within the movement in 1969 by seven comrades freed from jail in Botswana after the Wankie and Sipolile incursions into then Rhodesia.

At the time I — an ANC member — was working on the Copperbelt and heard of serious disquiet in the camps south of Lusaka that housed the movement’s armed wing, MK. A memorandum signed by the seven, who included Chris Hani, complained of the corruption, nepotism and rot in the ANC and it seemed that mutiny was in the air; that the movement might implode.

These were difficult times and the apartheid state was making diplomatic inroads into Africa on the strength of its military might. ANC members such as myself, on work permits in Zambia, ended up not having our permits renewed.

Acting ANC president OR Tambo admitted there was nothing he could do The ANC was under severe pressure. However, because I knew of jobs for journalists in New Zealand, OR suggested that my family and I should relocate and help to start an anti-apartheid movement in that country.

Nine years later, still in New Zealand and having heard very little about the exiled movement in Africa, OR asked my wife, Barbara, and me to come to Tanzania. He wanted us to start the primary division of a school for South African exiles and their children, the Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College (Somafco).

To me this seemed proof positive that the ANC had got its act together. A feared mutiny by the armed wing had not happened and the movement had clearly not imploded. This, I assured Barbara, was evidence that the ANC, for whatever faults that may still exist, was now a fundamentally honest, democratic and quite efficient organisation. I was wrong.

The policies and declared principles were still very much in place — and violated on a regular basis. Corporal punishment, for example, was in principle banned at Somafco while in practice, beatings and sjambokking were commonplace.

Anything of value, especially among the tons of “solidarity” material that arrived, could be — and often was — “fried” (stolen) and sold to the Tanzanian community.
Clearly, something needed to be done and, in 1981, headquarters in Lusaka announced that a ten-member Revolutionary Political Committee for East Africa should be elected.

The overwhelming majority of members in the region were housed at Somafco and the units that comprised the branch at the complex unanimously elected a “slate” of ten names. Most were teachers such as a woman MK member, Zola Xaba, and myself. Heading the list was General Twala, a former MK combatant and a plumber from KZN. I think all of us were concerned about what was happening and wanted change.

But when the final list was returned to Mazimbu, none of the ten names was included. I was mandated to lodge a protest with Mendi Msimang who represented the ANC leadership in Dar es Salaam.

And when I explained to Comrade Mendi that we were upset about what was clearly an undemocratic manoeuvre, he was most apologetic. But it was to me he apologised: it had been an oversight to leave my name off the list, he said. It should never have happened. My name would be reinstated.

I refused, pointing out that we had followed a democratic process and the ten names represented the majority will. Mendi seemed exasperated. Patiently, he explained in words I will never forget: “Look, we can’t let the comrades vote for whoever they please. If we do, they vote for anarchists, Trotskyists and all that rubbish.”

To me this summed up an attitude that permeated the leadership and which also led to institutionalised inequality. In Somafco, this was summed up rather graphically: teachers received four rolls of toilet paper a month (when available) while students received one. Such discrimination extended across the board to everything from food rations, to payments and paid holidays.

From comrades whom passed through or were transferred to Somafco, we heard that conditions were so much worse in “the West” (Angola); that a similar situation to what had obtained in Zambia in 1969 seemed to be developing. MK volunteers were becoming increasingly angry at the inequality and lack of democracy.

A mutiny finally erupted in 1984 and was harshly put down. “Enemy agents” were blamed, the standard excuse to explain almost any resistance to the brutality, inequality and lack of democracy that bedevilled the movement.

Over the years, little changed and the rot returned with the rest of the movement as the 1994 transition loomed. That this rot — combined with some internal varieties — continued to infect the ANC and spread to many institutions of the state, there seems no doubt.

This is the reality that present and former ANC members need honestly to confront. Such an assessment of the past is essential. Not to find blame, but to understand how and why great principles and policies were violated and corrupted. Continuing to cling to and propagate myths may only ensure that the disasters of the past will continue to be repeated.

Posted in: Commentary