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Sunday, 8 February 2009

Decline of Africanism

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By James Myburgh

In politics some of the most important developments can often slip by unnoticed. It is easy enough to recognise the significance of the big events. But these are often merely the ultimate expression of a far more gradual, and much less noticed, change of mood in society. It is only when one looks back – and remembers how things once were – that it is possible to recognise the magnitude of the shift that has occurred.

As many reviews have noted, last year was a truly extraordinary one. In these circumstances it is easy to overlook a mere “change in the air” – but one that could be of great consequence. For could 2008 also be the year in which the liberation movement lost faith in its ideology?

Up until 2007 the ANC unrelentingly pursued, to borrow a phrase, the “harsh ends of an imperious racial nationalism”. The strategy and tactics document, formulated under the old party leadership that year and adopted at Polokwane, envisaged an unforgiving continuation of the dual policies of “demographic representivity” and “cadre deployment”.

“Affirmative action” measures, it stated, would be used to ensure “all centres of power and influence and other critical spheres of social endeavour become broadly representative of the country’s demographics”. Meanwhile, a high premium would continue to be placed, on the “involvement of (ANC) cadres in all centres of power”.

The basic pathology of this nationalism lay in the refusal to relent on such principles even when they, pushed past a certain point, started harming the real interests of the black majority. Whenever the negative consequences were exposed, the response was to deny the problem, ascribe any expression of it to the “demon of white racism”, and to press blindly onwards.

Last year something changed. The new ANC leadership made a concerted effort to reach out to working class Afrikaners and the Expropriation Bill was shelved, albeit temporarily. In a statement that would have been regarded as heresy a year before, the party’s new Treasurer-General Mathews Phosa described the ANC’s early efforts to hasten the exodus of white South Africans from the civil service as a “mistake”. And he acknowledged that this had “resulted in a skills vacuum in some areas of the public service”.

The new ANC leadership, once in command of government, appeared far more open to drawing on the skills and expertise of white South Africans. The appointment of Judge Edwin Cameron to the Constitutional Court was particularly symbolic in this regard. Cameron’s accession to the court had initially been blocked on racial grounds by Mbeki’s office back in 1999, shortly before Nelson Mandela stepped down as President. This time around there was but a belated protest against Cameron’s candidacy, by advocate Vuyani Ngalwana.

Shortly before the Judicial Services Commission was due to meet on December 12, Ngalwana submitted a 22-page paper objecting to Cameron’s possible appointment. He complained that one of the issues raised was “whether the replacement of an African Constitutional Court judge by a white man is desirable in light of the legislative framework to transform South African society in all its manifestations”.

The significance of this intervention was twofold. Firstly, Ngalwana’s paper lacked the kind of intellectual coherence that Mbeki always brought to defending this project. And, secondly, it was ignored. The JSC and Chief Justice informally recommended Cameron’s appointment and President Motlanthe approved it on December 31.

In a recent interview, Motlanthe advanced a more pragmatic approach to “affirmative action” and “cadre deployment”. He stated that our “skills deficits are so evident” that it was not possible to rely purely on affirmative action appointments. And, when asked about the adverse effects of cadre deployment, he spoke of the need “to strike a balance between the strategic objective of uniting all of our people – which requires us to tap all the available talents and skills we have – and the deployment of ANC members who we can rely on and who are familiar with our policies to government posts or in the economy”.

Perhaps equally significantly, the Congress of the People (Cope) has also shifted away from these formerly sacrosanct policies. It is worth remembering that the first deputy president of Cope, Mbhazima Shilowa, was a founder member of the ANC’s national deployment committee. This was the body set up in 1998 to implement the policy of deploying cadres to head up all key centres of power.

In that same year he was named – along with another senior Cope figure, Philip Dexter, and Joel Netshitenzhe – as a co-author of a document which declared that, “Transformation of the State entails, first and foremost, extending the power of the national liberation movement over all levers of power: the army, the police, the bureaucracy, intelligence structures, the judiciary, parastatals, and agencies such as regulatory bodies, the public broadcaster, the central bank and so on”.

As premier of Gauteng, from 1999 onwards, Shilowa was also a strident proponent of “affirmative action”. Early into his first term he told the provincial Legislature that, “we will implement affirmative action even as racists brand it reverse racism”. He went on to claim, in a number of subsequent speeches, that: “Through an assertive programme of affirmative action, we continue to place more and more black people in senior positions within the public service.” In his second term of office, he argued: “The further transformation of the public service must have as its cornerstone the aggressive implementation of affirmative action.” Yet, as a leader of the ANC breakaway, Shilowa has displayed little desire to perpetuate the narrow Africanism of the Mbeki era. The party’s president, Terror Lekota, has called for a more non- racial and class based approach to affirmative action and the new party has gone out of its way to recruit a multi-racial leadership.

Cope’s conference resolutions acknowledge that among the “unintended consequences” of affirmative action have been “nepotism and cronyism in the public service”, “exclusion of whites from the public service”, and inefficiency in the economy and the State. The resolutions also call for an immediate halt to “the practice of ‘deployment of cadres’, which has often resulted in jobs- for-pals and has built in a culture of corruption”.

In trying to make sense of this, it is necessary to insert the usual cautionaries. There are obviously huge vested interests in the continuation of the racial policies put in place during the Mbeki era. There is also still a broad commitment by both the ANC and Cope to the basic tenets of African nationalism. Depressingly, the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions – two organisations which should know better – have taken to playing the race card against Lekota. They have also started talking up the self- serving “Africanism” of the black elite which Cope has, to its credit, tried to move away from.

There is also a powerful lobby in the new ANC which plans to reassert control over key institutions of State through another round of crude political appointments. One of those punted as being Vusi Pikoli’s successor as National Director of Public Prosecutions is former Limpopo premier Ngoako Ramatlhodi. An ANC NEC member is quoted saying: “We will insist that Ramatlhodi be sent to head the NPA. That institution has been used to persecute ANC leaders and we need someone who will bring an end to all of that.”

Despite all this it would, I think, be a mistake to underestimate the significance of what is happening – a loosening of the hold of the old ideology over the new ANC and its breakaway.

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