The country is on autopilot in the absence of real leadership. And it will get worse before it gets better, former president Kgalema Motlanthe tells Jeff Kelly Lowenstein
What have been the country’s greatest accomplishments in the past 22 years and what are the greatest challenges ahead?
For starters, the system of apartheid was based on racial discrimination informed by skin colour.
That’s the backdrop against which we then assess objectively changes that happened in 1994, which meant that for the first time all adults could vote, universal suffrage applied, and so on.
So, 22 years later, after 1994, when we do an assessment, we take into account these historical disabilities and that is why the preamble to the current Constitution enjoins all of us as South Africans to address those accumulated disabilities, to heal the wounds that were created by those disabilities, all of us together.
However, the ANC, which is my organisation, has lost its historical perspective. The negotiated settlement in 1994 meant to free all of us, oppressor and oppressed equally, and sought to create a platform for this country to move forward as one in the understanding that together we will address these accumulated disabilities and heal the wounds.
Now, the very organisation and government that’s meant to lead all of us towards this strategic goal of uniting our people, deepening our democracy and creating a nonracial, nonsexist, prosperous nation seems to live in the period prior to 1994, because for every small irritation, they use language that belongs to the period prior to 1994.
How did the party get to this point?
The ANC before 1994 was an organisation that truly represented the aspirations of South Africans across the board.
In 1994, the ANC became a governing party. Nothing had prepared the ANC for that role, in spite of all the preparations.
In 1992, we had a policy conference and we emerged out of that conference with a report titled Ready to Govern.
In spite of that optimism, nothing had actually prepared the ANC for the role of a governing party.
Once the personnel got absorbed in the various roles – some in government, diplomatic posting, Parliament, to deal with the laws and so on – the organisation was denuded of its most capable members who in the past would have devoted all of their time towards the prosecution of this struggle.
Hence, the articulation of the struggle itself was always done by people who were well informed, well read and steeped in the values and morals of a struggle organisation.
It was Abraham Lincoln who said: “Nearly all men can stand adversity. But if you want to know the true character of a man, give him power.”
That to me is the most apt manner in which I can describe what happened to the ANC. As a governing party, it increasingly lost its ability to be representative of ordinary people . . .
What form has this taken and what has happened to internal debate?
In the absence of a countervailing, rigorous internal democracy, power and the system of governance have simply gobbled up many of the leaders of the ANC.
The body of ANC leaders involved in government is overwhelmingly large. They no longer rely on reason. In the past, the ANC always prided itself on relying on a superior argument. Now, it’s numbers they rely on.
Were there times when you felt conflicted or compromised by this environment?
When I was deputy president of the ANC, it dawned on me that I was sitting in the leadership echelons of a party that only wanted to adhere to its constitution selectively. It was at that point that I felt very uncomfortable. In spite of raising these issues, nothing happened. They just carried on as if nothing had happened.
At that point, I concluded that I didn’t belong to this leadership. It was clear that I would have no impact or influence by continuing to be there. That’s why I felt I should exit.
That must have been an important moment, as many people are questioning the validity of the democratic undertaking.
It is an important moment in the sense that the ANC has been very central to this country. If it has lost its bearings altogether, then of course it would result in confusion.
It’s almost as though the country is on autopilot. There’s no leadership being provided. In specialised functions, people are doing their best. That’s why the lights are still on, and so on. But overall as a country, it’s as though we are in an interregnum.
People are waiting for leadership to emerge. From whence, nobody knows. But that’s the general sense.
The young people are saying, “Our reality has not changed … so there must be something wrong with this negotiated settlement, or there must be something wrong with this Constitution.
But the truth is that this Constitution is the most progressive, transformative Constitution … and the high ideals that it enshrines are correct.
What is the way forward?
It may be possible at some point to salvage the ANC from this race to the bottom. But it is also equally possible that the ANC may so thoroughly discredit itself that there may be nothing to salvage. If we reach that moment, it would be a moment of realignment of political forces in South Africa. That may mean new formations would come into being that, in terms of policy and practice, would capture the real aspirations of South Africans.
So, what I’m saying is, it has to get worse first.
Some have mentioned you as coming back into the leadership. Will that happen?
No. It’s not possible, because the structures are in a sense bogus structures. When you have something like that, it’s not possible.
Lowenstein is the Taco Kuiper Visiting Fellow at Wits University. He is working on a book about where South Africa is now, compared with 20 years ago, when he participated in the Fulbright Teacher Exchange Program
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