As part of its 108th birthday celebrations, the ANC, in power as South Africa’s governing party since 1994, held a commemoration ceremony at the grave of Solomon Plaatje in the Northern Cape town of Kimberley on Wednesday. In attendance were many of the party’s leadership, led by its president, Cyril Ramaphosa.
At the gravesite, Ramaphosa reportedly said the party will “continue on the path” set for it by Plaatje, one of the organisation’s founding members and the author of one of the seminal works on racial discrimination and oppression in the previous century, titled Native Life in South Africa.
“Here lies our DNA as a movement,” Ramaphosa said next to the grave of Plaatje, who died in 1932 even before the white state was able to implement the full range of discriminatory measures which was to organise, direct and shape the lives of black South Africans for the test of the century. (Ramaphosa’s Twitter account this week misspelled Plaatje’s surname, incorrectly adding an “i”.)
But Ramaphosa’s ANC is far removed from the South African National Native Congress, the organisation Plaatje belonged to and the ANC’s predecessor.
Where Plaatje and his colleagues and associates were singularly focused on alleviating the plight of black people, the current iteration of the ANC is singularly focused on self-preservation.
Where Plaatje and the SAANC were consumed by fighting for human rights, today’s ANC is consumed by maintaining networks of patronage.
And where Plaatje and his peers were fighting for a whole people, this version of the ANC is fighting for the the interests of only a few.
Ramaphosa’s ANC is a party in terminal decline, bereft of leadership, riven by factional conflict and beholden to destructive policies and ideologies.
It has become a clearing house of criminals, where access to public resources is considered the quickest and easiest path to wealth and excess, where gatekeepers manipulate and connive to ensure control of levers of power and an organisation so self-absorbed that is has long ago lost sight of the project Plaatje embarked on.
The ANC in 2020 is facing crises on all fronts, with declining electoral support, a weakening state and a perilous economic environment (to which it has in no small measure contributed) being the biggest threats to its continued survival.
After the widespread destruction wreaked on the country by the ANC during the reign of Jacob Zuma, Ramaphosa has set out to repair and recover the state, stripped by Zuma and his acolytes over a period spanning nearly a decade.
But he has also signaled his paramount intent to ensure the unity of the ANC. He doesn’t want to be the ANC leader under whose watch the party disintegrates, associates explain, which means his main priority remains the party. Because, the argument goes, in order to assure the stability of the country, a stable and secure ANC is vital.
Ramaphosa secured the party leadership with the smallest margin of any leadership contest in the ANC since the 1940s. His winning margin of 179 votes (out of a voting population of around 4 500 voters) represented a majority of just over 50%, which meant that he did not have the mandate to embark on widespread reforms to rescue the party of the corruption and banality of the Zuma-faced ANC.
And he was immediately saddled with highly questionable characters such as his deputy president, David Mabuza, who, besides having been in charge of one of the most corrupted provinces in the country, was also implicated in serious allegations of criminality.
His most significant problem has however been the position of Ace Magashule, the party’s calculating secretary general, who established his own network of privilege and patronage while premier of the Free State, a province where service delivery in many towns have all but collapsed.
In his position as the party’s chief operating officer, however, he is in the powerful position of commanding the party’s human and capital resources to his and his faction’s own benefit. And he has been assisted by disgruntled and dismissed former ministers of capture, such as Nomvula Mokonyane and Malusi Gigaba, now ensconced in the party’s head office in Johannesburg.
Ramaphosa has sought to neutralise him, and there were signs at the last meeting of the party’s national executive in 2019 that he might be starting to do just that, with Magashule’s faction losing some key debates.
Against the backrop of the country’s ailing finances, with some state-owned enterprises on the verge of collapse and Eskom surviving on paraffin fumes, Zuma is also facing longstanding graft charges.
The former president, who led the party for 12 years, has been consistently defended by the party and its leadership. Whether it was state capture or corruption, the party’s luminaries have steadfastly nailed their colours to him, with his and his party’s identity becoming intertwined and inseparable.
It has led to the party’s image becoming indelibly linked to grand corruption, dishonesty and mismanagement and, given the weekly revelations at the judicial commission into state capture, the parlous state of municipal, provincial and national finances as well as crumbling infrastructure, an image of the ANC as almost beyond redemption.
In the Northern Cape this week the party’s leadership have gone on door-to-door campaigns, mobilising support for the party ahead of Saturday’s annual January 8th Statement, when the party officially celebrates its birthday.
Ramaphosa has said the party “gives hope”, while other leaders have extolled the virtues of the organisation that spearheaded the fight against apartheid as the only vehicle for political and economic change.
Images of columns of luxury off-road 4×4 vehicles branded in ANC colours with party flags fluttering driving though town (reminiscent of Robert Mugabe’s Zanu-PF in Zimbabwe), giant cakes being ceremonially cut and parties at Kimberley hotspots have been circulating the whole week.
The ANC is a party totally consumed with itself, detached from the manifold crises in the country and unable to implement urgent corrective measures to save itself. It will continue to stumble along with platitudes and rhetoric recalling its “glorious history” while the vulgarity of its corruption and self-aggrandizement will remain on full display.
At 108 years old the ANC is the sick man of South African politics. It has, as Frederik van Zyl Slabbert warned in 1996, become a “self-perpetuating ruling elite… a dominant regime”.
A rally, champagne and cake in the parched Northern Cape won’t mask Eskom, corruption and a failing state. Plaatje’s take on what his party has become would have been instructive.