In the face of the substantial social, economic and political challenges facing this country, ANC members – and indeed the great majority of South Africans – are today being fed a diet of slogans. This has nothing to do with the proud legacy of civil debate bequeathed to us by Chief Albert Luthuli, Walter Sisulu, Lillian Ngoyi and many others.
When Lungi Sisulu, then working in the ANC underground, visited his father Walter in prison in the 1970s, he warned that the newly formed Black Consciousness Movement sought to supplant the ANC. The elder Sisulu took a more positive view. "We in the ANC did not regard the emergence of the Black Consciousness Movement as hostile," but "part and parcel of the struggle and welcomed it as a progressive idea".
Walter Sisulu recognised that the liberation movement could not read from one script, even though it was necessary to unite against the apartheid regime. Obviously the boundaries were narrower within the ANC itself, as with other political organisations, and members had to abide by existing policies.
Interestingly, Nelson Mandela himself was fairly often "out of line" and considered reckless in the 1950s when he made statements apparently condoning or advocating resistance through force before that was official policy. He was forced to apologise. Characteristically, in his autobiography, Mandela says that he was correct and the leadership was wrong. The main point, however, is that there was no attempt to drive him out of the fold; nor was he dismissed or threatened with the sort of phrases that are in currency today.
It is true that since the 1990s, centralisation has made people who desired positions mute their individual views and wait to hear what their leader would say. It is true that the leadership has not actively encouraged independent popular agency except, at one stage, to break deadlocks and to bring the apartheid regime to its senses. Since 1994 the role of the masses of South Africans, and the ANC membership in general, has been mainly that of spectators.
The near-universal model of national liberation, where unity is the watchword against the colonisers, has been stressed throughout the continent. But this appropriate emphasis on unity has also sown the seeds of intolerance of pluralism. In South Africa’s case, sometimes the vagueness of the notion of a "broad church" has been supplanted by displeasure at formation of organisations outside of the ANC’s sway. Individuals who have acted on genuine grievances and formed sectoral organisations have often been dismissed as disgruntled.
One of the reasons listed for defeating Mbeki as ANC president was to release the "democratic genie", to provide an opening, to give voice to those who had been excluded, to combat centralisation and to allow space to the previously marginalised. But if all that is true, what are we to make of the current upheavals in ANC structures and the profusion of intimidating rhetoric in the alliance? Possibly one can dismiss much of this demagoguery, since many are young and obviously know little about history, struggle or revolution, and more about acquisition of wealth and positions. Nevertheless, the air is filled with revolutionary and pseudo-revolutionary phrases, uttered often as (ultimately violent) threats against anyone who might wish to stop the Zuma "advance’.
Many of the ANC and alliance leaders are watching in silence as the inherited traditions of the organisation are destroyed. I do not suggest that the legacy is unproblematic and that what it means "to be ANC" is the same at all times. But who is grappling with this, as we tried to do in the early 1990s, after unbanning, when it was not possible to simply pick up from 1960? Are shortcuts not being taken at the expense of the very masses in whose name the Zuma project purports to speak?
Why is there little real debate over the country’s problems and alternatives? How is it that no one in the alliance is debating what the Zuma phenomenon may mean as a programmatic question, and whether and how his leadership differs from that of Thabo Mbeki? Why is it that Zuma has attracted a range of people who do not have clear ideological reasons for their affiliation, but attribute "leftism" to the ANC president? Has the left project absorbed Zuma – or has the official left dissolved in the Zuma "tsunami"?
Why is there a conscious blindness to Zuma’s actual positions? The current ANC president abandoned the SACP in 1990 and was a comrade in arms and close collaborator of Thabo Mbeki for decades. There is no record of any disagreement with Mbeki, and the words "working class" were not regular features of Zuma’s vocabulary from 1990 to his dismissal as deputy presidency of the country in 2005. The fact is that Zuma and Mbeki had no programmatic or ideological differences.
Is it not true to suggest that Zuma’s utterances and actions may in fact now be more rightist and threatening to democratic liberties, constitutionalism (and certainly gender rights) than anything that Mbeki has ever said or done? Recently almost R1.5 million was paid, pledged by or coerced from delegates as feudal tribute to Zuma – to spend as he likes – at the Free State ANC conference. Zuma referred to a similar serf-like offering being imminent from the SACP. How does this square with the left project? Are there limits on this private/feudal accumulation? How will it influence appointments and policies?
It is true that the Mbeki period saw the marginalisation of the popular forces that had been so significant in the 1980s and were so important in leading to a negotiated democratic settlement? Have Zuma and the alliance leaders restored the popular forces and their agency?
If anyone is to argue that there has been a democratic advance, how is it manifested? Why is it that the gains of the liberation struggle are now endangered by intimidatory language? Even if we dismiss the utterances of Malema, Vavi and Co. as irresponsible, this is a threat to those who may wish to differ.
Why is it that those who raise questions are labelled and their arguments not engaged?
We fought not only for the ANC to rule but for the freedom to speak our minds, even if that should lead us to conclusions that differ from the ANC leadership. "Democratic centralism" should not be a bludgeon to silence debate in a situation of legality and democracy.
No doubt that in the months ahead, there will be many others who will discover the virtues of the "democratic opening". Yet the rest of us need not retreat into fear or depression.
If something has gone wrong one must name it. One of the key elements of the lack of debate (and I do not pretend that remedying that is to rectify everything) is the absence of discussion of a vision of the future, and the policies that could achieve that vision, which have been displaced by a race for positions and wealth.
This scramble may well result in break-up of forces backing Zuma – mainly an alliance of official left, with others who also seek office, influence or business deals. Such an outcome may be as unstoppable as the Zuma "tsunami".
The rest of us, however, need to join vigorously in public discourse. Newspapers and other media need to open their columns to those who go beyond the sound bytes and empty clichés emanating from "analysts".
We need to revive critical thinking. This public space must be reopened; we must defy the fear that purging of members is evoking and provide the analysis that is lacking.
Ultimately this should lead to conclusions and organised action. That will take time, but it requires unpacking the meanings of the present to empower people to build a different future that will realise our democratic and transformatory promise.
Raymond Suttner is a former political prisoner and part of the ANC/SACP national leadership. He is a professor at UNISA and the author of the forthcoming book, The ANC Underground (Jacana).