18 Dec 2012 | Tony Leon | Original Publication: BDlive
In the face of huge problems the ANC, like the Republicans in the US, clings to outmoded dogmas, writes Tony Leon
AUSTEN Chamberlain, who served as leader of the UK’s Conservative Party in the 1920s, reputedly once said that he would "rather take the advice of his valet" than take instructions from his party’s conference.
It is salutary that in the history of the Tory party, arguably the most successful political machine in the modern democratic world, he was one of only two of its leaders who never served as prime minister in the 20th century. Seventy-five years later, William Hague had the unhappy distinction of being the other one.
Whatever his other leadership lapses, African National Congress (ANC) President Jacob Zuma does not suffer from a tin ear when it comes to listening to his party.
In August 2007, before elected party leader, he told Time magazine: "I go with the overwhelming feeling of this country; if the majority says ‘Zuma do this’, I will do it."
Since I will be in the South Pacific when Zuma is — on the current reading of the tea leaves — re-elected as the president of the ANC, I cannot comment on the final outcomes of the elections at Mangaung. However, that the traditional approach of presenting a united leadership face to the country has been breached, and even the highest court in the land had to adjudicate the seating of a key province, suggests an infirmity of purpose in SA’s oldest political movement. Of course, it began five years ago: having committed regicide in Polokwane, the comrades developed a taste for blood, and the bloodletting has continued since then.
It is symbolic that the ANC has returned to Bloemfontein, the site of its founding, for its centenary conference. This was also where the National Party was born in 1915, and the clashes between the ideologies and tactics of two largest nationalist movements etched themselves across the bloody and turbulent canvas of the 20th century.
From its far narrower base, the Nats dominated South African politics for the second half of the 20th century until, powerless and shorn of purpose and leadership, it collapsed, in a delicious twist of history, into the folds of its mortal foe, the ANC, in 2004. Historian Hermann Giliomee described its end as "a prostitute’s funeral". The point about the NP’s collapse, despite its dominance for nearly half a century, was that, despite its success in uniting and empowering Afrikaans South Africans, and latterly the white group as a whole, it argued with the larger forces and currents of South African history and, once it had lost this existential argument in 1994, its end was assured.
Financial Times journalist Jurek Martin, one of the most astute observers on US politics, was in SA recently. He drew a fascinating parallel between the ANC and its ideological and overseas opposite, the Republican Party, another of history’s more successful democratic movements, licking its wounds after its recent failed bid to recapture the White House. Interestingly, both parties were born, 70 years apart, to struggle against oppression — slavery in the US and minority domination in SA. Martin notes that he did not expect to find a political similarity between them, "but it exists".
"Put crudely, both are corrupt and living in the past and each may be at a turning point in their respective histories, if they could only recognise it." Martin believes that, in the face of huge problems afflicting both countries — the looming "fiscal cliff" in the US and major socioeconomic problems in SA, both parties cling to outmoded dogmas, while the problems in each "cry out for nonideological approaches".
Strangely enough, and more than eight years ago, while witnessing George Bush’s come-from-behind re-election victory in 2004, I drew the same parallel, although for different reasons. I was trying to figure out why, to borrow the words of one commentator, "unemployed waitresses stood in line to vote for tax cuts for billionaires". This confirmation of Marx’s "false consciousness" rested, in my view, on the ability of the Republicans to construct a big-tent party and house within its hugely divergent interest groups. They mobilised their contradictory base along values — or "Gods, Guns and Gays", in the words of their key strategist. Back then, I commented that the ANC had constructed an equally large tarpaulin in SA, covering everyone in it from unemployed rural farm workers to billionaires, and mobilised them on the potent vote-winners of racial identity and liberation.
Nearly a decade later, the formula has ceased to work for the Republicans. The ANC, while still very much in power, is showing the stresses and strains that occur when "a vote for a better yesterday" loses its shine.
The path from Mangaung will provide the clues on whether this mighty party has the formula for its reinvention.
• Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA