In his foreword to The Colour of Our Future: Does Race Matter In Post-Apartheid South Africa? David Scott quotes the great nineteenth century artist and socialist William Morris. Morris is reflecting on the English peasant revolt of 1381, and yet, in the context of present day South Africa, the probity and salience of his words remain striking: “I pondered all these things, and how men fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name”.
The ANC struggle has been a hundred and three years in the making. This truth is often forgotten and our history of liberation largely defined by what remains a young and nascent democracy. I myself have been party to dismissing the recent monumental shift away from apartheid and, like Steven Friedman, been quick to point out that ours has been a “negotiated revolution” which ‘in the main’ has remained little more than ‘the absorption of a section of the black majority into the structures and institutions of a section of the black majority into the structures and institutions which once served a minority”.
It is true that “the past survives stubbornly into the future”, but, returning to William Morris, we can also say that change is no mere changeling; that vital advances have been made to radically alter our history. Therefore, foregoing scepticism, surely it is better to acknowledge the immense value of the changes we have undergone, despite the inevitable spoiler that racism and inequality persist with devastating and divisive consequences. One need only think of the tragedy that is Marikana, the obscenity of xenophobia, persistent ethnic conflict, or the hardening belief that a truly post-racial society is little more than a chimera. The complicity of the ANC regarding these and many other atrocities suggest not only a brutal disregard for the needs of the poor, but, more insidiously, it reveals a fundamental failure of principle.
The ANC is afflicted by a profound ethical crisis. Perceived to have lost its way, to have systemically haemorrhaged, the party is now desperate to regain its footing and its station. Well aware of a rapidly growing political threat to its power-base, it is now fervently seeking to entrench its flailing authority. What intrigues me is the approach. Need it be authoritarian? For what we have witnessed is the ugly face of what Isabel Hofmeyr has termed “gerontocratic patriarchal power”.
However, perhaps this approach is symptomatic of an internal failure; perhaps it is merely an anxious and misguided ruse? Perhaps, despite the leadership’s oppressiveness, one can argue that the ANC is in the process of finding a very different face through which to represent its compromised brand equity?
Any insight into our current socio-economic, political, and cultural reality might therefore be better served by recognising that our story of liberation is never merely transitional, that “Discontinuities are embodied in the appearance of continuities, and continuities are often characterised by surprising discontinuities”. David Scott’s words, like those by William Morris, offer us a more intriguing and more truthful aperture, if only because they capture the fact that human intent and desire is not the reducible to received ideologies.
In our best moments we can fail ourselves, miscarry our best intentions, broker futures which, in seeming just, can also have terrible consequences. The ANC I believe is well aware of the error of its ways, and, in seeking redress, and, so doing, maintaining its hold on power, it is perhaps charting a very different understanding of its past and brokering a very different future.
A case in which the ANC, believing it was doing the right thing, went terribly wrong is in its capital subsidy for low-income housing. Championed by Joe Slovo, the ANC’s first housing minister, the ANC’s housing solution radically contradicted the ideal it fostered, for it “effectively sank in concrete the racial structure of the apartheid city”. Nothing short of a folly in the eyes of Mark Swilling, though never considered as such at the time, the capital subsidy further entrenched an already balkanised society.
All the more lethally, as Vusi Gumede points out, global capitalism, despite its allure from the viewpoint of a benighted and boycotted society, would further “limit the country’s capacity to foster inclusive development”.
My point is this: the one hand does not necessarily know what the other is doing. Paradox, perverse twists and turns, are the inescapable by-products of change. Therefore, rather than damning the ANC for profound errors of judgement—often errors which could not have been foreseen—perhaps it is best to suspend judgement awhile and reconsider the vicissitudes of change.
Power, as Michel Foucault reminds us, is always embattled. And like nature, power abhors a vacuum. It has become increasingly evident that the ANC is not only concerned with its legacy but its material future as a governing party. Dissent is afoot; the excommunication of Julius Malerma, once regarded by Jacob Zuma as a future leader is a case in point. Challenged on all fronts, it has been the ANC’s urgent responsibility to harness the power of its youth movement which, as Ramaphosa persistently reminded us at an ANC Youth League convention, remains the vanguard of the party’s vision. Here, however, we find the persistence of a gerontocratic control. In the face of the EFF and other breakaway political movements, that which is demanded is unquestioning allegiance. The ANCYL is expected to adhere to party principles, to ‘tow the line’, a draconian demand which belies the fact that our leadership has failed to effectively harness the capital of its largely young population.
If in his speech at the ANCYL convention Ramaphosa sort to quicken the fire of a radicalised yet skittish youth. Because he well knows that if the ANC is to continue governing the country it must ensure the support of the largest population group which, by virtue of a failed education and economic policy has also, to date, been profoundly neglected. Unemployment and crime is on a deeply disturbing rise, the ideals of the ANC on the cusp of being forgotten. Herein lies the power vacuum.
This last remark may seem an exaggeration, and yet, in listening to Jacob Zuma, one cannot ignore the urgent desire to restore some ballast. The country’s democracy needs to be defended from ‘counter-revolutionaries’ says Zuma. Speaking directly to the ANC Youth League, Zuma in no uncertain terms stated that “the ANC and the country needs” the support of the youth “right now”. The ‘role’ of the youth “is to defend this hard won democracy from all counter-revolutionaries. Mobilise young people behind the vision of the ANC…. Close the space for all opportunistic, pseudo-left and narrow nationalist and counter-revolutionary organisations which confuse rudeness and ill-discipline with revolutionary action”. Against the threat of ‘factionalism’ what the ANC finds itself seeking to restore is ideological unity, and at the centre of this vision lies the long-held dream of a non-racial and inclusive society. That this ideal of a non-racial society remains chimerical should alert us to the realisation that the ANC, in its present formation, has failed its greater vision.
An act of interpretation
In The Colour of Our Future, edited by Xolela Mangcu, we find a concerted attempt to rethink past and current failures and the desire to generate a “joint culture. Ours is a political change that is caught in an uneasy inconclusiveness”, writes Hlonipha Mokoena. What is needed is “an act of interpretation” rather than “revolution”, she adds. “The “African subject” —who is neither hero nor subaltern—exists as an interpreter of life itself rather than as an affirmation of political ideologies or discourses. She/he suffers from neither the anxieties and insecurities associated with the dilemmas of colonial acculturation nor the temptation to validate and celebrate the spurious heroism of the post-independence ‘president-for-life’ leader”.
Hlonipha Mokoena captures the crux of the problem afflicting the ANC’s gerontocratic regime. The youth cannot be pressganged. And what makes this historical moment particularly significant is that it has the potential to shape-shift a political and ideological order that is profoundly hobbled. What is fervently needed, Mokoena argues, is an “act of interpretation” that is “essentially about rethinking the way we define historical change and our expectations of the future”. If youth is the key to the survival of an ANC driven democracy then so is its gerontocracy. And it is here that we come to the thematic core of this conversation: Nathi Mthethwa’s Living Legends Legacy Project. For what the Minister of Arts and Culture is now seeking to achieve is precisely the suturing of a rupture between youth and age, present disaffection and confusion and the power of our historical past.
Speaking at the funeral of Mbaqanga music legend David Masando, Mthwethwa appealed to the youth to stop emulating American music and to remember that they are “Africans first”. In saying this Mthwethwa, like Vusi Gumede, is well aware of the seductive power of globalisation, and in this case the American musical brand. “Artists like American rapper 50 Cent do not want you to mimic them, they want you to know what South Africans are doing and that is why they still talk about Miriam Makeba’s Phatha Phatha, Ladysmith Black Mambazo and the Soul Brothers.” David Masondo ‘understood the meaning of social cohesion,“Mthethwa continued. “If you listen to their songs, they talk about fighting for your rights, peace, and togetherness. They have been singing this message since 1974.”
Here one can also hear Jacob Zuma’s appeal to the ANC Youth League to “close the space for all opportunistic, pseudo-left and narrow nationalist and counter-revolutionary organisations which confuse rudeness and ill-discipline with revolutionary action”. And if Mthethwa, Ramaphosa, and Zuma are speaking with one voice it is surely because they are thoroughly aware that the ruling party is in a state of siege, or certainly under threat of being uprooted. “Don’t be a tree without roots,” Mthwethwa insisted. “The point is to conquer the world. You must be known around the world like the Soul Brothers. He (Masondo) may be gone but his music will always be there to remind us that we defeated apartheid.”
By forging a new alliance between the old and the young, tradition and provenance with current experimentation the ANC’s Living Legends Legacy Project manifests an urgent desire to stall dissent, engender mutuality, the better to secure the national and global legacy of the ANC’s political struggle and achievement to date. Indigenous knowledge and tradition are the defining tropes of this move “towards the identification, promotion and preservation of South Africa’s living heritage”. That this ‘living heritage’ is inescapably bound up with the ANC as a system of governance and a defining brand is a moot point.
The question, however, is how this intergenerational collaboration can best be achieved. To do so merely to reinvigorate some peculiarly South African tradition is surely not good enough given that the world in which we find ourselves is also radically transnational and global. After Hlonipha Mokoena, we therefore need new more inclusive interpretations, new and sometimes strange and unperceived fusions, for what will better serve our country is not only a further entrenchment of the past but its reconfiguration within our embattled present.
That the ANC is best known for its past achievements within national and global memory is a telling truth. In knowing this it is surely to the ANC’s credit that it realises that a vital make-over is critical. What better way to do this than to fuse history with the present?
Returning to William Morris’s insight we come to understand the ANC’s paradoxical current position. A gerontocracy, it recognises itself as out of step with the dreams, desires and frustration of its youthful population. But rather than concede defeat, or splendid and misguidedly assured isolation, the ANC has taken it upon itself to pressgang the youth in an aggressive yet, perhaps, also an inspirational way. On the cusp of an imagined future loss of power, it seems that those in power have chosen to bridge the growing gap between the ideals of the past and the ideals of the present.
As Nathi Mthwethwa points out, “We are merely balancing the scales of justice to ensure mutual beneficiation and stimulate a dynamic cross-generational interaction among the practitioners in the arts, culture and heritage sector.” It is the balancing act which is telling here, for there is no doubt that at this historical moment the ANC is walking a tightrope. If Mthwethwa has turned to the established provenance of pioneers such as Joe Mafela, Letta Mbulu, Abigail Kubheka, Dorothy Masuka, Jonas Gwangwa, Thandi Klaasen, Don Materra, and Peter Magubane amongst others it is because through the power of these iconic individuals that the ANC was able to garner the support of “international organisations, civil society movements and different nations across the globe to pledge solidarity”.
Global interest in South Africa’s travails and triumphs has however waned, our domestic unrest triggers comparatively little interest, and the legitimacy of our government is barely regarded as worthy of further remark. Having exploited the recent disregard of the world, the ANC now seeks to re-engineer its once celebrated place on the international stage. However, if the position of the ANC is perceived as insecure within its very ranks, then it is not surprising that it should assume the course it is undertaking.
The Living Legends Legacy Project is but one of many fronts, one of many critical turning points which, if not addressed, will surely endanger the existing state of play.
South Africa’s democracy is but a “suspended revolution” Achille Mbembe recently remarked. Zackie Achmat reiterated this unsettling view, stating that if those in power fail to address the needs of the poor, of youth, of profound inequality, that “this country will have the most serious civil war”.
I believe that the ANC is well aware of this threat. Nathi Mthethwa’s balancing act between old age and youth, mentor and mentee, is one means through which yawning divisions are being earnestly addressed. Notwithstanding the controversial nature of Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, one cannot simply ignore the validity of his desire “of investing more in our future, by educating our children and the youth about the rich heritage of this country”. However heritage and deference to the past is not enough.
Furthermore, this desire to maintain our heritage cannot be achieved in a draconian manner; it cannot be enforced, it can only be engendered. This requires a nurturing hand; a willingness to concede, embrace the unknowable, for education, at its best, not only guarantees the provenance of tradition but also challenges its authority.
After all, how else is one to innovate and transform an existing system? In other words, if the ANC is to achieve its ends, it must trust in the fact that the best within will thrive, the worst culled.
Herein lies William Morris’s lesson: One goes about changing the world, but the changes that come about are not necessarily the ones anticipated. New and often surprising solutions come to the fore.Ripeness is all. A system of governance at its best must pass on its best traditions, but it must all the more know that a system is profoundly remiss if it does not nurture the needs of the many and prepare them for autonomy. If the ANC has come to understand this then, despite all its expedient and hegemonic measures, it will have arrived at a state of grace. Perhaps, therefore, the bid to secure an intergenerational future, as is evident in the Living Legends Legacy Project, is not merely an exercise in vanity but a very real attempt to unite a cruelly divided and broken society, the better to foster more than merely a lasting memory but some on-going greatness.