There but for the grace of God
In December 1990, when the ANC held its first conference on South African soil after three decades of exile, there was an air of optimism and confidence at the event at Nasrec in Johannesburg. Freedom was on the horizon and the keys to the Union Buildings were tantalisingly within reach. The enemy was clear: it was the apartheid government of FW de Klerk, which, while open to change, wanted to hold on to as much power and control as possible. It was a different ANC from the one we see today.
Attending the conference were former exile leaders and combatants who had sacrificed their lives in pursuit of a good South Africa. There were former prisoners who had spent chunks of their lives in apartheid prisons. The internal contingent consisted of activists, unionists, militant youngsters, gender rights campaigners, traditional leaders and clergy. The common denominator among the 1 600 delegates was that they had been selfless fighters for the cause of freedom and had taken risks in this quest. They were also politically schooled – whether in formal settings or in formations inside the country.
The geographic spread was also interesting. The so-called PWV region (now Gauteng) had the biggest delegation, with the Eastern Transvaal (now Mpumalanga) coming in second. The Western Cape, which is today one of the weakest, was a strong third back then.
The ANC returns to Nasrec today looking decidedly different. The mood is dire, with the loss of power looming in the not-so-distant future. The enemy is unclear as different factions turn on each other and outside enemies are invented daily. The delegates are no longer selfless. While many wear their struggle credentials with pride, they wear their crass materialism and greed just as proudly. At Nasrec, there will be a lot of people who should be inside a jail cell instead of a conference hall.
In 1990, the soldiers were led by real soldiers. Now, the people at the forefront will be servants of the Gupta empire.
The same goes for the youth, who were then led by the likes of Peter Mokaba, who was agile and fiery. The person articulating the aspirations of young people is a chunky being who speaks like he is reading a bedtime story to a toddler. The women of 1990 had battle-scarred stalwarts leading them. This week, the women are ... well ... ja.
Delivering the keynote addresses that December were two demigods of the liberation struggle. Nelson Mandela had spent the previous 10 months getting the negotiations on the road. He and his leadership were coming under heavy criticism within the ANC and in the townships for being too generous in their concessions to the National Party negotiators, whose Third Force was fomenting violence and orchestrating massacres. Delegates to the conference landed some body blows. The world icon took it all in his stride.
He said: “The leadership has grasped the principle that they are servants of the people, and that they must seek guidance from the masses in taking important positions and in the formulation of policy ... Our basic response, therefore, is that we accept without qualification most of the criticisms that have been made against us and we will do everything in our power to correct these mistakes.”
Oliver Tambo was recovering from a massive stroke he suffered because he just couldn’t stop working. The 30 years of running a banned organisation that spanned the globe, had conflicting ideological strands and was under constant physical threat had taken its toll. His impaired speech did not stop him from captivating the audience.
Tambo struck an optimistic tone, almost that of a Moses who was about to take his people across to the Promised Land.
“Like in the Congress of the People of 1955, comrades came from all corners of the country, young and old, black and white, to reassert the people’s demand for freedom now. We can therefore count on the results of this conference to lay a firm and unshakable basis for a rapid advance to people’s power ... I have no doubt that, after this watershed event, we are ready to meet the challenge of the day, boldly, creatively and efficiently,” the great man said.
Delivering this year’s opening and closing speeches is a man who has spent the past decade dodging the law and helping his family and chums loot state resources.
President Jacob Zuma’s opening speech was that of a man under siege, fighting enemies of different guises on many fronts: the ANC’s stalwarts, the opposition, business, Martians and Plutans. He was acerbic and small, unable to be a servant leader.
Zuma had come to rally his forces to defend him. The crisis facing the party and the country were mere distractions that he obligingly addressed in the prepared speech. But he was in total denial about his central role in creating the multiple crises and infecting the South African body politic with a deadly virus.
In 1990, as the ANC left Nasrec, it was confirmed as the moral leader of society and began its march towards confirmation as the statutory leader of society. At the end of this week, it will leave having confirmed that it has long lost its standing as the moral leader of society and that it is well on its way to losing its place as the statutory leader of society.
Be sceptical of those who deal in absolutes and tell you that you are going to hell