South Africa: Looking Forward to the Past
‘The next biggest African celebration of all time will be the centenary of the ANC, to be celebrated in Manguang on 8th of January 2012. All ANC branches must start preparing in earnest for this historic celebration.’ President Jacob Zuma concluding remarks at the ANC National General Council September 2010.
We cannot wholly escape our past but is South Africa in danger of becoming so imprisoned by its legacy that it is unable to face the future; or is the constant invocation of the past being used to legitimize a government whose unquestioned rule to date is now being challenged by an electorate that has seen little improvement in their lives since they came to power sixteen years ago?
Five years since the last African National Congress in Tshwane (Pretoria) President Jacob Zuma began this year’s Congress by saying that the ANC ‘had to choose between two options – to fight to retain its historical character and task, or to abandon its history as a liberation movement and become a modern political party with new values…’ Much of his speech chose to stress the importance of the ANC’s past values and traditions. Unity and internal democracy were the main watchwords; not surprising given the recent outbreak of public sector strikes and the tensions between the affiliated organizations (the ANC Youth league) and the alliance partners (COSATU and the SACP). But do these tensions spring from real ideological differences or are they an unseemly scramble for the spoils of the state coffers and government patronage?
The popular unity that made the 2010 Football World Cup such a success has dissipated faster than the whine of a vuvuzela. This is a shame because the success of the 2010 World Cup showed what can be achieved when the government has a definite focus that can inspire people and where discipline is imposed by the need to meet definite deadlines. True, there were many critics within the country who were incensed at the diversion of so much money into what they saw as an international spectacle which few locals could afford to attend rather than into development projects that may have transformed the lives of the many living in dire poverty.
But is their emphasis on redistribution also an historic straitjacket? After all, the World Cup did at least provide a fast rail link to Oliver Tambo airport with the potential for more links to other areas of Johannesburg and South Africa has more world class stadiums and facilities. ‘What use are they to the millions whose basic needs remain unmet?’ say the critics. There is the problem that any discussion about development is constrained by a world view of sustainable development to which the ANC, eager to placate international opinion, readily pins its colours. But what sort of development does South Africa really need? Is the lack of an improving, civilizing zeal of the philanthropic capitalists of an earlier era more of an obstacle to development than the reality of corruption and nepotism?
As the ANC looks forward to celebrating its centenary, Mandela will, no doubt, once again be unceremoniously wheeled out as the iconic symbol of national unity while the tarnished officials of government will bask in the historic victory of their liberation struggle. Whose version of the past will colour the future?
Throughout October and November, The Independent Online is partnering with the Battle of Ideas festival to present a series of guest blogs from festival speakers on the key questions of our time.
Sharmini Brookes is producing the session “Negotiating South Africa’s past: can we forgive and forget?” at the Battle of Ideas festival on Saturday 30 October. She blogs at Working Matters!
Picture: Getty Images
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