Thursday, September 25, 2008

A call for disunity

The South African body politic is sick. And it’s the ANC’s fault. Not because 10 cabinet ministers and the president resigned this week. Not because a motley crew of populists have taken unceremonious control of party and state. And not because all the turbulence has shaved a few percentage points off the rand or the stock market.

These events are the stuff of politics. Politicians are appointed, and then later resign. Political cliques rise and fall, form new alliances and win and lose support.

What is strange about us in South Africa, almost to the point of being a sickness, is that we are so shaken by recent events. This week’s resignations – both forced and voluntary – have been roundly condemned in the media for creating instability. So obsessed are we with unity, or stability, or consensus, that we forget that the battle over ideas – and for the power to implement them – is at the heart of democracy.

In the darkest days of apartheid, nothing was more important than the unity of the movement. Infiltration of progressive organisations by government spies, or co-option of black leaders into the bankrupt homeland governments were just some of the threats that the ANC and the broader mass democratic movement had to guard against by placing a huge emphasis on unity, loyalty and party discipline.

In the 1990s, our obsession with unity broadened from the movement to the whole of society. In the early days of the transition, it was understandable that our leaders focused so much attention on persuading our fractured citizenry that we are all part of a single rainbow nation. Religious, rural Afrikaners were to be enticed to abandon the AWB and join hands with liberals, communists and black consciousness forces to build a new democratic nation. At that time, any alternative would have been a recipe for a bloodbath. But that’s history.

Fifteen years later, whilst some in the ANC continue to try to paper over the cracks, our society is more fractured than ever. Half of South Africans live in poverty. Millions are still homeless or living in shacks. Two in five children lack access to water and sanitation. Crime, unemployment and daily protests against inadequate service delivery are the norm. And deepening deprivation coexists side by side with entrenched opulence.

This seems to me like just the right time for a political cleanout and a fight over our future. A good chance for Mbeki and Manuel to face up to the fact that their much-lauded successes in stabilising the economy and reassuring the markets were never matched by successes in redistributing the economic pie or reassuring the masses.

So I’ve been encouraged these past few weeks to see the cracks widening between sections of our ruling elite. And I was especially heartened in recent days to observe the painfully clumsy way in which Zuma’s henchmen have handled themselves. When I heard Gwede Mantashe announce that Mbeki would be ejected unceremoniously, and for vague and dubious reasons, I was ecstatic! If only this whole affair could be managed badly enough, we might bruise a few more egos and give the different camps in the ANC a reason to move even further apart.

Now I’m not arguing that Zuma has proved himself to be the man to lead the turnaround in South African social and economic policy that this country so badly needs. And there is a disturbing possibility that a Zuma administration will be just as remote from the masses and intolerant of criticism as Mbeki has been.

But let’s face it, without Zuma’s ambition and his rivalry with Mbeki, debate over our future direction would never have opened up to the extent that it has. Dissent in the ANC on the scale we see it today and criticism of leadership was unthinkable just two short years ago (as proof of this, remember the uproar which occurred when we produced the fairly tame Unauthorised Thabo Mbeki documentary in 2006).

Ironically, if Zuma hadn’t compromised himself in the arms deal and if Mbeki’s allies hadn’t hounded him via the National Prosecuting Authority, nothing would have shaken up the ANC to this extent. What remains to be seen, is whether we can exploit these divisions to help give birth to a new, more democratic political culture and a more equitable economic policy.

But without a strong dose of disunity we certainly wouldn’t have come this far.

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