Ten months into the year dedicated to the late ANC president OR Tambo, the call to deepen unity in the party and self-correct on its own terms was on Saturday again exposed as a farce of the highest order, but this time in the throes of physical (and not merely symbolic or threatened) violence.
As stun grenades were fired and chairs and bottles torpedoed across (physical) factional divides on a bloody Saturday in East London, the devastating irony of the late ANC president Oliver Reginald Tambo's image towering above disgraceful carnage was evidently lost on the agents of futility wreaking havoc below.
Quarrelling delegates at the ANC Eastern Cape's eighth provincial conference demonstrated unequivocally just how little bearing the legacy and lessons of OR Tambo have on the ANC in practice in 2017. In particular, it exposed the sheer meaninglessness of the palette of Tambo-related slogans and directives on endless repeat.
Just short of a year ago, in recognition of October as 'Oliver Tambo Month', President Jacob Zuma called on the party to "use the next 12 months leading to [his] centenary... to draw the best lessons from his life and to understand his rare qualities" to confront in earnest the challenges faced by the ANC.
Zuma, in an admittedly hagiographic ode to Tambo, described his approach to difficult situations as "tolerant, measured and cautious, allowing for the impatience and militancy characteristic of young people to find expression in the body politic of the ANC". He also heralded Tambo's "ability to bring together people with different views on both strategic and tactical questions".
Twelve months later, and just weeks after any remaining semblance of unity in the KwaZulu-Natal ANC was shattered, the Saturday conference in the Eastern Cape demonstrated how dismally incapable the ANC has become of holding itself together in times of turmoil. There is no Tambo rising now from the fray, or at least none with the miraculous sway to restore dignity in a house where chairs -- rather than ideas -- are thrown among one's own "comrades", and factions eat away at the soul of a party and nation.
#Ramaphosa We must be ashamed about what happened here yesterday. This is not the behaviour expected of members of the ANC— Year of OR Tambo (@MYANC) October 1, 2017
Tambo and Mandela's ANC in pictures pic.twitter.com/gES0XCSRNM— Justice4All (@Unathi_Kwaza) October 1, 2017
The politics of blood -- to quote Abahlali baseMjondolo's S'bu Zikode in KZN where political killings are rife -- and politics of the belly that have come to define the party's contemporary mode of politics now preclude its capacity to "quell whatever tensions", as Tambo was said to have done.
Impatience and militancy on the ground, in this context, is no longer placated in the ANC and transformed through political education into a force for good via disciplined agents of change. A loyal cadre of the movement -- even with the best intentions -- now enters a home in which the noise of eating, and fighting over who gets a slice of the pie, silences the few who remain genuinely invested in the battle over ideas.
On the 27th of this month, Tambo would have turned 100 years old. His face, no doubt, will continue to be splashed on banners with messages of unity and renewal abound. Some of these will move through Tambo's place of birth, the Eastern Cape, where opposition parties continue to erode the ANC's hegemony in the province's largest city, while blood is spilt not far off in the ANC's own provincial meeting.
With only two months until the ANC is scheduled to elect a new president, and until the end of the 'Year of OR Tambo', the window to do timely justice to the ANC giant's life and struggle is swiftly closing, if it hasn't already.
Hold our hand Oliver Tambo. We are determined to unite the ANC. #Ramaphosa— Marion Sparg (@sparg_marion) October 1, 2017
At this critical moment for the ANC, and a country rank with fear of the consequences of prevailing recklessness, those inside the party might do well to heed the directive from its soon-to-be outgoing Zuma last year: "Our branches... must use the question: What would OR Tambo have done?".
For starters, he'd sit on his chair instead of throw it at his opponents.
If such basic reflexivity at this advanced stage of ANC decay remains an order too tall, then it is left to citizens in civic life and at the ballot to do so on their behalf. In Tambo's own words, albeit in a vastly different context: "Prepare the conditions for the seizure of power by the people."