In her poem On the Pulse of Morning, late African-American poet and civil rights activist Maya Angelou wrote: "History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again."
For his part, in his May 10 1994 inaugural address, former president Nelson Mandela pledged that our country shall "never, never and never again ... experience the oppression of one by another, and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world".
Mandela's solemn pledge was a voluminous statement about 350 years of wrenching pain, and an affirmation of our determination to build a new society founded on an entirely different logic and value system.
Two weeks before that, on April 27, the overwhelming majority of South Africans had given the ANC an overwhelming mandate to govern in pursuit of a just, nonracial, nonsexist, equitable and democratic society.
Those who are involved in this project of leading the ANC to its own demise have plugged their ears and have ignored any advice or warning to change course.
The topical question within and outside ANC circles is, how did we get here? What does our current state say of the care and courage – or lack thereof – with which we have handled the freedom for which many fought and died?
To answer these questions, veterans and stalwarts of the ANC will hold a national consultative conference from November 17 to 19. The conference will draw a large number of leaders from the ANC, its alliance partners and structures of the Mass Democratic Movement as a whole.
The conference follows the veterans' sustained and honest attempts to engage constructively with the leadership of the ANC so that, together, we can begin efforts to resolve the challenges facing the party and the country. These attempts, sadly, fell on deaf ears and were met with obstruction.
The leading and dominant faction of the elected leadership did its best to frustrate the veterans by questioning their bona fides, hurling insults and obscenities at them or otherwise outsourcing this lowly function to people with little, questionable or no history in the organisation. Worse still, they questioned the veterans' very right to express themselves as members of the ANC and citizens of the republic.
A course to the abyss
As the challenges worsened, the elected leadership's posture appeared to change, at least at the level of public relations. They agreed to meet with the veterans and took on board several of the suggestions contained in the document titled For the Sake of our Future, including the convening of the national consultative conference before the ANC's recent national policy conference. What followed, however, was nothing short of a circus as the elected leadership kept the veterans busy in meetings intended to hoodwink them into believing that there would come a no-holds-barred consultative conference.
As we move closer to this unprecedented assembly of ANC cadres and civil society in post-apartheid South Africa, we would do well to discuss the causes of how we arrived where we are; to appreciate the enormity of the challenge before us and agree on what is to be done to re-energise the nation's collective capacity to act as the masters of our destiny, and thus recapture our country.
Notwithstanding claims to the contrary by some in the leadership, the ANC and the country have been on a course to the abyss for more than a decade. Claims and cliches of "a good story to tell" are manifestly contradicted by daily tragicomical episodes of a centre that is antithetical to the public good.
Since 1994, presidents, secretaries-general and other leaders of the ANC have decried the corrosive effects of careerism and corruption. In 1997, in his political report delivered at the 50th national conference in Mahikeng, Mandela, in his capacity as party president, noted that "many among our members see their membership of the ANC as a means to advance their personal ambitions to attain positions of power and access to resources for their own individual gratification. Accordingly, they work to manipulate the movement to create the conditions for their success."
By then, careerism had "created such problems as division within the movement, conflicts based on differences among individuals, the encouragement of rank indiscipline leading to the undermining of our organisational integrity, conflict within communities and the demoralisation of some of the best cadres of our organisation".
Mandela also pointed to the emergence of "various instances of corruption involving our own members, including those who occupy positions of authority by virtue of the victory of the democratic revolution. These have sought either to steal public resources or to export financial tributes from the people in return for services to which the people are entitled, and which those in authority are legally and morally obliged to provide."
From 1997 onwards, reports by the ANC president and secretary-general devoted sufficient time and space to careerism, corruption and their manifestations. Mandela confessed that "we, ourselves, have ... allowed the space to emerge for ... opportunists to pursue their counter-revolutionary goals, to the detriment of our movement and struggle". The ANC had, in the three years from 1994 to 1997, "found it difficult to deal with [these ailments] in a decisive manner".
The ANC had also "acquired many members who have no experience of struggle", and "very little understanding of the challenges of fundamental social transformation". The report argued for "continuous political education of our members, to ensure that they become real members of our organisation and not mere card carriers".
There were subjective and objective reasons for the general failure to deal decisively with these and other challenges before and since 1997. The success that was registered by a sustained leadership anticorruption narrative on the one hand and the importance of social solidarity on the other; the emphasis on leading by example; the importance of prudent fiscal management; the imperative for bridging the distance between the leaders and the people; the establishment of the Directorate of Special Operations; and placing emphasis on reasoned debate rather than unsubstantiated opinions and gut feeling. Setting our sights on policy matters over personalities and other measures later fell victim to party machinations as careerism and corruption matured a decade later. This would lead to a plethora of mutually reinforcing consequences.
Firstly, the party's institutional culture and outlook would change from one focused on resolving abiding national challenges – such as the legacy of colonialism and apartheid – to one of feathering the nests of the leadership, their families, friends and associates. In this context, a pro-ANC political rhetoric would be sustained for as long as it remained a popular organising currency, especially during elections.
Secondly, those who are leading this project that is threatening to destroy the ANC would have to attract to themselves and the state machinery people with little or no civic and political consciousness. These would, by instinct or instruction, act at variance with key constitutional and other legal prescripts, as well as socially permissible norms and values. Where this would guarantee the people in whose interests the operatives act, the cumulative effect of their misdeeds would mean the eventual eclipse of the ANC's prestige and standing among the people, the continent and the world.
Thirdly, the crude nature of the project and the raw and vulgar dispositions of the personalities would inevitably mean that the rhetoric must offend against rational and logical political and economic propositions about the functioning of the organisation, the state and a society as diverse as South Africa. As one has asserted, the prevailing logic is one of self-interest as opposed to the public good. A small but significant indicator of this is opposition to the presentation of the secretary-general's "diagnostic report", which sought to discuss organisational and, by implication, state challenges by some delegates at the recent national policy conference.
Fourthly, corruption mutates political parties into mafia cartels, which must link up with the similarly dubiously inclined elsewhere at home and beyond borders. The state ceases to be an entity for and about the people, and instead acts for and on behalf of the cartel.
At the Mahikeng conference, Mandela observed that failure to deal with the challenges he discussed would result in "opponents of our movement and our revolutionary perspectives ... intensify[ing] their own offensive to promote their objectives, which are opposed to our goal of creating a better life for all".
The current debate about "state capture" must also be understood in this context. In fact, it could be said that the corrupt elements within the ANC surrendered the state, lock stock and barrel, to the capturers rather than the other way around. No wonder there is no aggressive effort to stop the capture of our state entities.
Fifthly, the mafia operates on ruthlessness. The continuing senseless slaughter of members and leaders of the ANC, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, and the hooliganism in ANC conferences and functions are a manifestation of the mafiarisation of the ANC. Participants in these mercenary activities would do well to remember that there is no honour among thieves. Those who visit harm on others and buy votes like commodities know no loyalty and have no moral compunction. They have not hesitated to surrender state organs to specific families and have facilitated illegal outflows of billions of rands at the expense of the people of South Africa. They have also not hesitated to punish those who resist their project with all the means available to them.
Sixthly, the combination of these factors has meant that the economy must bleed and scream as the focus is one of looting rather than creating new wealth and a better life for all citizens. The meteoric rise in the national debt from 27.8% in 2008 to the current 52% must be understood in this context.
The unnamed protagonist in Ayi Kwei Armah's novel The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born expressed profound disappointment at the post-colonial project in terms that few of my generation would have imagined, much less anticipated in democratic South Africa: "So this was the real gain. The only real gain. This was the thing for which poor men had fought and shouted [and died]. This was what it had come to: not that the whole thing might be overturned and ended, but that a few black men might be pushed closer to their masters, to eat some of the fat into their bellies too. That had been the entire end of it all."
As in much of the continent's post-colonial experience, we are walking backwards towards the wrenching pain of our history; the very treacherous steps Mandela vowed we would never again take. Except for those who have taken a stand, the current leadership shall not be able to explain how it permitted the ANC to mutate itself out of existence. It will not be able to explain how this movement, whose consistency and loyalty to the cause of our people inserted it so firmly in the hearts and minds of millions throughout the past century, was derailed from its cause. Those who have openly championed this project will leave the unenviable burden to their children to explain what their forebears did to the people's movement and the country.
It remains to be seen if the solemnity of this observation constitutes enough of a warning for the leadership to mend its ways and allow the people to reclaim the legacy of the movement.
The veterans' consultative conference is a determined attempt to break ranks with the postcolonial detour that the dominant leadership of the ANC has been single-mindedly in pursuit of. It is about the rebirth of the dream of a truly just, nonracial, nonsexist, prosperous and democratic South Africa.
We owe it to our children.
Chikane is church leader, a former director-general in the presidency and secretary of Cabinet, and is part of the '101 plus' veterans and stalwarts. He will be writing regular articles for City Press in the lead-up to the ANC's December conference.