South Africa: Looking Forward to the Past

Sharmini Brookes

zuma 300x280 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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  • Wonkie CartOOns

    Thanks for an excellent article Sharmini. Beneath the content of these decisions that keep facing the ANC leadership team, it is this very underlying structure that I too believe keeps them from true progress in South Africa.

    The latest set of rumours around Zuma’s upcoming cabinet reshuffle illustrate it once again as a case in point. Does the legacy of old guard remain in force or will the president finally put his foot down against underperformance as he claimed he would when he took office in 2009? If he does, it will be the first time the government has taken some positive action toward creating a more meaningful legacy.

  • Wonkie CartOOns

    Excellent article Sharmini. The content of the controversial decisions that keep facing the ANC leadership team I too believe have their controversy largely rooted in the structure you mention above.

    The latest such decision is the upcoming Zuma cabinet reshuffle (see: which presents the president once more with an opportunity to displace the underperformers in his team. Whether he does so and demonstrates the selection of a new path or whether he retains the current strategy of shuffling around incompetence will largely determine whether Mr Zuma has the mettle to take the ANC forward into a new forward-looking era.

  • BridH

    Some people now view the ANC as a lost (sold out) cause and are looking instead to the unions to help progress things. Is this where peoples’ energies should be focussed instead? What do you think?

  • Wonkie CartOOns

    @Flag – hardly.. the unions in South Africa although having the interest of the South Africans that need government’s support the most at heart, lack grounding in basic economics. Wage increases with decreasing productivity doesn’t work. The best hope is as Sharmini states above – that the ANC review their current course of action with their legacy in mind.

  • Muthal

    All over the world we are all still in pursuit of the past. When one looks at striking workers in Greece, France, China, South Africa, what we see are not empowered people but people making demands on government, people demonstrating their inability to control their own destinies. Government has become an entity in opposition to the people.

    What we should be doing, not just in South Africa but all over the world, is interrogating what government means and where power truly lies. I do not believe that politicians are in control. They represent an obvious token of power but the real power is with those who control the economy and with those who can turn their enterprises into big business, such as FIFA. That is why there is so much corruption in government; they have become puppets in the hands of real power.

    Why else has Barack Obama lost support in the USA. He has the backing of the people but not those whose interests he is challenging. He cannot bring the troops home from Iraq because he has no real power to do so. The real power lies elsewhere – in the hands of the capitalists. If we look at Zimbabwe, Mugabe has political control but the economy has collapsed. Why? Not simply because of corruption, a symptom of the problem, but because he no longer has the support of those who manipulate the world’s wealth.

    Though we give credit to all the freedom fighters who brought down the apartheid government, it is time to recognise that the economic onslaught on the Nationalist government is what really forced De Klerk into negotiations with the ANC. Now the ANC government in South Africa is in a similar position. It has no real power. Like all other African countries, it is at the mercy of the financiers of the world. And economic powers like India and China are taking over African countries. The cry for democracy worked during the French Revolution, before industrialisation, but has now become an expression of nostalgia. Democracy is a passé ideal. We live in the real world. And the word ‘democracy’ is the real opiate of the masses. Democracy was never a dispensation for the majority, even in Ancient Greece. Liberty, Fraternity and Equality apply only within the corporate brotherhood that controls the world.

  • sbrookes

    Most unions are affiliated to the COSATU which is an alliance member, so there is little ideological difference to the ANC. The Unions emphasize redistribution but have no alternative to wealth creation. Unions have been able to gain benefits for their members but in general, unionization reflects a depoliticization of the South African workforce. Some people see the growth of civil movements like the squatters movement in Durban as a way forward and although they have had some success in reversing legal decisions they do not offer a political alternative to the ANC. To offer a political alternative requires a battle of ideas and South africans have tended to shy away from this. I hope we can begin that battle tomorrow at the Battle of Ideas panel discussion at the Rioyal College of Arts.

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