Unity OR’s bot­tom line

Tambo’s sub­tle ex­pan­sion of the idea of na­tion pre­pared way for post ’94 in­clu­sive na­tion build­ing, says Luli Callini­cos in this ex­tract from

Daily Dispatch - - Opinion -

THE explosive events ini­ti­ated by school pupils in Soweto in 1976 re­sounded through­out the world and had a dra­matic im­pact on the ANC in ex­ile. Within months, events be­gan to es­ca­late. Thou­sands of flee­ing stu­dents ar­rived at the of­fices of the PAC, MK and the ANC, clam­our­ing to take up arms against the apartheid regime, or to call for lib­er­ated ed­u­ca­tion.

At home, Umkhonto we Sizwe had de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion based on the nar­ra­tives of pris­on­ers from Robben Is­land. As pris­on­ers were be­gin­ning to be re­leased after long sen­tences, or­gan­ised sup­port for the strug­gle was grow­ing in the face of struc­tural con­tra­dic­tions in the sys­tem.

The apartheid regime re­sponded with a mix­ture of re­form and re­pres­sion. Ev­ery front­line state was bombed or in­vaded by the South African De­fence Force, suf­fer­ing civil­ian loss as well as ANC and PAC ca­su­al­ties. Dozens of cadres were as­sas­si­nated.

MK camps were also di­rectly at­tacked, and a con­vic­tion grew that heavy in­fil­tra­tion had oc­curred. Ex­treme anx­i­ety gripped the in­tel­li­gence unit and a clam­our was raised, some­times vi­o­lently, by cadres de­mand­ing to re­turn home to fight for free­dom. A de­ten­tion camp was set up, where se­vere tor­ture took place to ex­tract con­fes­sions.

When he be­gan to ap­pre­hend the grav­ity of the prob­lem, Oliver Tambo took care­ful steps in or­der not to split the move­ment asun­der.

He put into place the pro­tec­tion of hu­man rights. First, while di­rect­ing the Stuart Com­mis­sion to re­port on the dis­sat­is­fac­tion of cadres in the camps, he also en­sured in 1982 that the ANC signed the Geneva Con­ven­tion.

The move served to pro­tect cap­tured MK cadres as well as sus­pected in­form­ers ap­pre­hended in the MK camps and in ANC struc­tures.

This was fol­lowed by Tambo’s ini­ti­a­tion of an ANC Bill of Rights.

Con­cerned by emerg­ing ev­i­dence of con­tin­u­ing abuses of dis­si­dents in the MK de­ten­tion camps, Tambo guided the ANC’s le­gal ex­perts to pro­vide pro­tec­tion for in­di­vid­u­als and mi­nori­ties.

This, com­mented the vet­eran Al­bie Sachs, le­git­imised hu­man rights as an in­stru­ment that would pro­tect everyone and would pro­tect South Africans in fu­ture from abuse.

To en­sure the ANC’s own­er­ship of its com­mit­ment to hu­man rights, Tambo ini­ti­ated a long-over­due con­sul­ta­tive con­fer­ence in Kabwe, fi­nally held on 16 June 1985.

There, the “Na­tional Ques­tion” was again fore­grounded in all its di­men­sions of race, eth­nic­ity and class. The turn to armed strug­gle had de­manded a sys­tem­atic rein­ven­tion of the pub­lic im­age of the move­ment, which had been in­cor­po­rated into its MK struc­tures.

How­ever, the ANC was not able to ex­tend mem­ber­ship fully [to all races] at the con­sul­ta­tive con­fer­ence in 1969. The is­sue was res­ur­rected for­mally in 1985 with the third full con­sul­ta­tive ANC con­fer­ence to take place in ex­ile – the largest, most di­verse and most rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the ex­ile move­ment.

A num­ber of dif­fi­cult and press­ing is­sues were on the agenda, with pre­pared re­sponses from branches around the world, one of which was the out­stand­ing is­sue of a racially open mem­ber­ship.

Sur­pris­ingly, op­po­si­tion to the mo­tion came from sea­soned mem­bers of the SACP, based on the sense that not everyone was ready to en­ter­tain such a move. In the end, the con­fer­ence opened all mem­ber­ship, re­gard­less of “race” and at ev­ery level of the or­gan­i­sa­tion. The ANC was now for­mally a non-racial or­gan­i­sa­tion, 25 years after the lead­er­ship first raised the pos­si­bil­ity.

Tambo had never lost sight of an in­clu­sive ANC whose mem­bers par­tic­i­pated in defin­ing its iden­tity: “This is the wis­dom that came from the Na­tional Ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee in 1959: that we have to have re­gard for whether the masses of the peo­ple also un­der­stand cor­rectly the need to go along with you. That is the only rea­son why the mat­ter is com­ing up. We want to test opin­ion. In prac­tice, the ANC has moved for­ward; it has not marked time” (in­ter­view with the au­thor, 1985).

The ele­phant in the room within the move­ment, though, was an is­sue that en­gaged many ANC sup­port­ers around the world. How much in­flu­ence did the SACP wield over the na­tional or­gan­i­sa­tion?

This ques­tion was put to Tambo by the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, the so­cial demo­crat in­sti­tu­tion of West Ger­many. They had avoided sup­port­ing the ANC over that very ques­tion un­til, in 1986, the fund­ing or­gan­i­sa­tion in­vited Tambo to visit Bonn.

“The ANC is not the Com­mu­nist Party,” Tambo pointed out first of all. The SACP had its own po­si­tion and the ANC its own iden­tity, he ex­plained, the lat­ter guided by the Free­dom Char­ter, which, he ob­served, was closer to a so­cial demo­crat view of so­ci­ety and econ­omy.

This was an ar­gu­ment he had made two decades earlier to the Scan­di­na­vians, who whole­heart­edly put their trust in the ANC lead­er­ship.

The de­bate, there­fore, was an old one. As the cold war in Africa in­ten­si­fied, how­ever, emerg­ing African states were fought over by Western cap­i­tal­ism and Soviet and Chi­nese com­mu­nism.

The sit­u­a­tion re­quired im­mense skill and lead­er­ship from the ANC, whose armed strug­gle and equip­ment were funded by the East­ern bloc. Tambo’s stead­fast em­pha­sis on a united lib­er­a­tion move­ment was also demon­strated by his will­ing­ness to ex­plore the tenets of the Marx­ist Work­ers’ Ten­dency (MWT), a small group of ANC mem­bers, left-wing in­ter­preters of black con­scious­ness and crit­ics of the Soviet Union and the SACP.

In 1973, the scholar Martin Le­gas­sick ac­com­pa­nied Tambo and Mazisi Kunene on a fundrais­ing trip to Scan­di­navia. Dur­ing this pe­riod Tambo read Le­gas­sick’s pa­per, in which he ar­gued that “[a] fu­sion of cul­tural, po­lit­i­cal and eco­nomic na­tion­al­ism into a revo­lu­tion­ary pro­gram is still the revo­lu­tion­ary form, for South Africa’s form of cap­i­tal­ism based on racism”, a wrong “con­fla­tion,” Le­gas­sick ob­served later, “of na­tional and class strug­gle into revo­lu­tion­ary na­tion­al­ism”.

Tambo was fas­ci­nated, and wrote to Le­gas­sick ask­ing for more of his work. “As it hap­pens the mat­ter of ‘race’ and ‘class’ in South Africa is very much with us at the mo­ment”.

A decade later, the MWT’s provoca­tive ap­proach an­gered the NEC. Tambo op­posed their ex­pul­sion, which nev­er­the­less oc­curred in 1985. On prin­ci­ple, he was anx­ious to avoid a sec­ond dam­ag­ing split in the ANC, al­though the MWT was less in­flu­en­tial than the “Gang of Eight” had been in 1975. Tambo was out­voted on this is­sue. Tambo’s in­vi­ta­tion to the South African busi­ness com­mu­nity shortly after the Kabwe con­fer­ence is an­other in­di­ca­tion of his in­clu­sive ap­proach. To left-wing crit­ics, di­a­logue with big busi­ness was go­ing too far.

He replied that they were South Africans, too, and that it was point­less talk­ing only to the con­verted.

One of the rep­re­sen­ta­tives of that group was the ty­coon Tony Bloom, who was deeply im­pressed by Tambo’s re­sponse to his some­what anx­ious query on whether the ANC would na­tion­alise busi­nesses.

“Oh, that de­pends,” re­sponded Tambo, “on what the peo­ple de­cide dur­ing elec­tions.”

Steven El­lis’s por­trayal of Tambo as “weak” and Breyten Breyten­bach’s la­belling him as a “use­ful id­iot” for the com­mu­nists be­tray a rudi­men­tary lack of un­der­stand­ing of the col­lec­tive na­ture of the ANC – in a dif­fer­ent way from the col­lec­tivism of the less flex­i­ble Com­intern – and the more pro­foundly in­ter­ac­tive, on­go­ing na­ture of con­sen­sus de­ci­sion

Like Chief Al­bert Luthuli, Tambo’s so­phis­ti­cated and sub­tle process of draw­ing in di­verse op­po­nents who shared the com­mon ob­jec­tive of de­feat­ing apartheid was more nu­anced, strate­gic and process-driven by hu­man­ism rather than by dogma.

Tambo’s steadily widen­ing con­cept of the na­tion re­veals how, in the process, his prag­ma­tism and nu­anced style of con­sen­sus de­ci­sion­mak­ing, even in the face of the SACP’s pow­er­ful demo­cratic cen­tral­ism, pre­pared the way.

Tambo’s use of in­dige­nous skills in the pur­suit of an all-em­brac­ing democ­racy has not been suf­fi­ciently ac­knowl­edged by his­to­ri­ans, and in con­tem­po­rary South African pol­i­tics, where ru­ral tra­di­tion still sits un­easily side by side with other forms of de­ci­sion-mak­ing and mod­ern democ­racy.

The ten­sions that un­der­lay Tambo’s com­mit­ment to an holis­tic and in­clu­sive na­tion­al­ism re­mained, and were to re-emerge from time to time in post-apartheid South Africa.

But the legacy of Oliver Tambo con­tin­ues to be evoked; by draw­ing on the skills of his home­stead cul­ture, tried and tested over the cen­turies, he demon­strated that a co­op­er­a­tive, in­clu­sive cul­ture re­sulted in strength­en­ing the so­cial re­la­tions of the com­mu­nity and, by shar­ing re­sources, keep­ing it to­gether.

Tambo is widely cred­ited with the re­mark­able and per­haps unique feat among ex­iled lib­er­a­tion move­ments, of hold­ing the ANC to­gether dur­ing its 30 years in ex­ile.

He can be best un­der­stood when one takes into ac­count that unity was his bot­tom line, an es­sen­tial com­po­nent in the push for lib­er­a­tion.

Tambo used the in­her­ited so­cial skills of care­ful lis­ten­ing, which re­in­forced col­lec­tive con­scious­ness through in­clu­sive­ness and con­sen­sus de­ci­sion-mak­ing.

By em­bed­ding in­di­gene­ity – a ne­glected and un­der-ex­plored as­pect of the Na­tional Ques­tion – into his syn­cretic style, Tambo was able, sub­tly and in­cre­men­tally, to ex­pand his no­tion of the na­tion and to pre­pare a post-apartheid South Africa for the task of in­clu­sive na­tion build­ing for democ­racy.

The Un­re­solved Na­tional Ques­tion (Wits Univer­sity Press) is edited by Ed­die Web­ster and Karin Pam­pal­lis and is avail­able on­line and from good book­stores na­tion­wide


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