Politics and Commentary 2007-2014


American perspectives on the ANC

First appeared
Monday, 16 January 2012

Does this sound familiar?

“The African National Congress was more intent on celebrating its anniversary than addressing serious issues.” The organisation, led by a president who regularly demonstrated an inability to control his own financial affairs, “suffered from graft” and was “ineffective” in addressing the true needs of the people it claimed to represent. On the occasion of its anniversary, speakers took a “defensive line at the outset”; the “whole tone” of the event was one of “looking back to past achievements”.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that this was a description of the ANC at the start of 2012. Indeed, numerous commentators have criticised the party’s centenary celebration for a partial account of the organisation’s role as liberator-in-chief and for selective presentation of its record as a ruling party. They have observed that this exercise in self-congratulation was designed, firstly, to distract South Africans from the many failings of the current ANC; and, secondly, to continue the revisionism by which distinct anti-apartheid movements and individuals are slowly being erased from both formal and informal national histories.

Others, however, have noted that the idealism and activism of the “old” ANC should be commemorated precisely because of the shortcomings of the “new” ANC – offering a reminder of a different kind of politics (and a different set of politicians) with the potential to unsettle the cynicism that comes all-too-easily to those of us outside the party.

Yet here we encounter another problem: what exactly was the “old” ANC? Was it the ANC of the 1994 moment? The pre-Rivonia ANC of young Mandela, Sisulu and Tambo? The ANC (or SANNC) of 1912, with its vision of black unity and an admittedly naïve faith in a “British solution” to South Africa’s racial problems? Each of these is worth celebrating. But what about the ANC of internecine black-on-black violence, of necklacing and of MK camps? Or the ANC of ineffectual exile in Moscow and Havana? Or the ANC that more or less disintegrated in the 1930s?

This was the ANC being described in the words I quoted above. The anniversary in question was the 1937 silver jubilee; the incumbent president was Pixley ka Seme, a man somewhere between Jacob Zuma (remember all that financial mismanagement) and Thabo Mbeki (a philosopher-prince gone wrong, “he was once surrounded by able men but he expelled them all”).

The words are recorded in An African American in South Africa: The Travel Notes of Ralph J. Bunche, edited by Howard University scholar Robert Edgar. Bunche, who would later win the Nobel Prize for his diplomatic efforts in the Middle East, travelled to South Africa in 1937 on an “anthropological field trip” as part of his post-doctoral research.

Bunche was “black”, a “negro” in the United States but – as Trevor Noah recently reminded Americans watching the Tonight Show with Jay Leno – in the dubious categories of South African ethnography he would be “mixed race” or “coloured”. As such, he was not immune to race prejudice in his own views of Africa and “Africans”. Nonetheless, accounts such as his, highly skeptical (if not entirely dismissive) of the ANC just two-and-a-half decades into its venerable century, are useful correctives to those who wish to sketch the organisation’s history as a narrative of continuity and growing merit.

Reading Bunche’s notes – and Edgar’s fine commentary – one realises that there are numerous insights to be gained from taking an “American perspective” not only on South African history but also on the contemporary political scene. It is easy to draw parallels between the Civil Rights movement in the US and anti-apartheid activity in the 1950s and 60s (sometimes too easy; conflating “black experience” on either side of the Atlantic can be dangerous). But what might we learn, say, from an awareness of the widespread influence of Marcus Garvey in South Africa in the 1920s? Or from Bunche’s comments on the tension between the Industrial and Commercial Workers’ Union (ICU) and the ANC? This may help us to understand the memes spawning the phenomenon of Julius Malema, or the problematic place of COSATU in the ruling alliance.


Let us consider, then, some other American perspectives on the ANC in 2012. Unsurprisingly, the ever-duplicitous Richard Nixon has previously been invoked in assessments of Thabo Mbeki (notably by Hein Marais): as mastermind of a web of intrigue so complex it would inevitably collapse, Nixon/Mbeki was left with no option but the public humiliation of resignation.

Last year, however, Mbeki’s biographer Mark Gevisser compared Nixon to Jacob Zuma in an article discussing the notorious “Pentagon Papers” – a set of incriminating documents, released by whistle-blower Daniel Ellsberg, which demonstrated that various American political and military leaders chose to persist with the war in Vietnam for all the wrong reasons. Nixon, pressed by Henry Kissinger, tried to prevent the publication of the papers and then had Ellsberg tried for espionage; in both instances, American courts accepted a “public interest” defence. The lesson for South Africa, according to Gevisser, was clear: the Protection of State Information Bill would discourage local Daniel Ellsbergs from exposing the lies and corruption of our government.

Nixon’s obsession with keeping embarrassing information out of the public domain would, of course, lead to his downfall. He created the “White House Plumbers”, a special investigations unit (designed to prevent further leaks) whose members later became involved in a certain burglary at the Watergate Hotel. The rest is history, as told in a thousand books and a few good movies.

It could be argued that, ultimately, Nixon’s presidency improved American politics. Prior to his election, it was already deeply tainted – not just under Lyndon B. Johnson, but even under John F. Kennedy before him, and Eisenhower before him, and Truman before him ... the dirty fact that “politics is property”, as Norman Mailer affirmed, has sullied American presidents for generations. Nixon just couldn’t keep it under wraps as his predecessors had done. As a result, subsequent presidents were forced to make changes in both foreign and domestic policy, limiting the scope of executive power.

If we are to assess Jacob Zuma’s presidency in anticipation of a possible change-of-guard later this year, let’s push the Zuma/Nixon comparison. Perhaps, astonishingly, we can take comfort from Zuma’s widely publicized (and not-infrequently legally overturned) mistakes. Under Zuma, the ANC and the government have lacked the Machiavellian sophistication and manipulation that characterised Mbeki’s reign. Despite the many complaints we might lay at Zuma’s door, there is a case to be made that our democracy has strengthened despite the undemocratic measures introduced or exploited by his fellow-cadres and their dubious business associates.

Bheki Cele, Menzi Simelane, Sandile Ngcobo, even Willem Heath – the list goes on. There has been so much bungling that the courts and the constitution, not to mention the fourth estate, have been vindicated again and again. If you’re feeling optimistic, you might anticipate the same eventual outcome in the Protection of State Information matter: a constitutional ruling against the Bill and would-be Act.

It would not be wise to prognosticate over the outcome of the next big ANC event in Mangaung based on the Nixon analogy. It’s highly unlikely that Zuma will be ushered out in the way that Mbeki was. But there are many beneficiaries of ANC rule who have not enjoyed the judiciary and media houses flexing their muscle – and they’re certainly not pleased that Zuma isn’t very good at covering his tracks.

Comments (3)

  • 17 January 2012 at 20:20 |

    Another fine article with a fascinating analogy, Chris. To my mind, Zuma and Nixon suffer/ed from deceit, disgrace and the inability to forgive. It seems neither are/were able to overcome their past and rise with the tide, politically, and thus fail/ed to fulfill their true potential.

  • Rachel
    28 May 2012 at 11:57 |

    Another fantastic read! Where do I subscribe?

    • Chris Thurman
      01 June 2012 at 07:46 |

      Glad you liked it, Rachel. Unfortunately I don't have an RSS feed, so you'll just have to keep visiting the site!

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