Friday, July 24, 2009

The ANC: Fifteen wasted years

Paul Trewhela weighs up the balance sheet of the party's record in government.

Fifteen wasted years: this must be the balance sheet of the African National Congress as the unchallenged party of government.

In terms of the great mass of South Africa's citizens, whom it purports to represent, and who have presented it with one mandate after another to act as their representative, it has failed - by any reasonable test.

No party ever came to government with such an overwhelming mandate from the people, and with such immense goodwill internationally. Few dissipated that trust so convincingly.

Not that the ANC as the single majoritarian party of government, politically, did not from the beginning face immense challenges in terms of society, economy and culture. This was a given, the bottom line. The centuries-old divisions in the society along the line of race, its stratospheric polarisation between extremes of wealth and poverty, the inherited deadweight of mass illiteracy and sub-literacy, abysmal conditions in housing, healthcare, sanitation: these and many others were the challenges set to ANC government in 1994, as daunting as they would have been to any other party in South Africa, or the world, for that matter. No easy walk to freedom, and human betterment, indeed.

The question is, what did the ANC do with this gift of state power, for which it had yearned for almost a century, and for which so many of its followers had made great sacrifices.

Here one has to say that at best its achievements have been modest. Often they have been pitiful. In crucial matters they have been disastrous, as would be accounted by honest reckoning in any society.

By my own judgement, its most terrible failure has been in education.

This was one variable, in my view, which ANC government could and should have seized upon from the beginning, and said to the whole society: "We have limited resources, there are great competing needs, but this above all - with dedication and good sense and common effort - can raise up and prepare for the future a new generation that will be better fitted to solve the country's problems than ourselves."

The society could have been asked to sacrifice some more for its children, so that South Africa could have been transformed in as short a time as possible into a high-skilled and more highly cultured society, at the same time as its old economic foundation in a mass of unskilled and semi-skilled labour had become increasingly redundant, in a world of globalised economy. The greatest possible resources, and the greatest possible assemblage of teaching skills and idealism, could have gone towards this mission, which would have drawn upon and enhanced the most profound aspirations of the society, and harvested great international support.

Its institutions of first-world quality in third-level education and its pockets of international-standard excellence in primary and secondary education could have been drawn upon as resources in raising up the lower depths. A planned, sober, determined effort stretching across the whole of the society, founded on a true respect for education and the mind and soul of the human person, could have done this.

Instead... the materialistic scramble for personal wealth, at any price. The rancour, the power-play, the strutting about of Great Men (and a few women), the arrogance of office, the delusions. The false gods. Style, instead of substance. Fifteen wasted years.

I thought about this when reading the obituary of a philosopher who died last week, a man born in 1927, the year in which the ANC president of that time, Josiah Gumede, made the first visit by any ANC member - the first of many such - to the Soviet Union, that great sunken wreck of so many South African political aspirations.

Leszek Kolakowski was born in Poland, a country that knew well the feel of foreign occupation, which during his liftetime - during his childhood and youth - suffered its most terrible Calvary at the hands of both Germany and Russia, its historic oppressors, situated to its west and east. Like a good number of young Poles of his generation, he was grateful when the Russians (who had invaded his country in tandem with the Germans at the beginning of the Second World War) chased out the Germans towards the war's end, and made themselves its new masters. He became a marxist, and joined the Polish Communist youth organisation. Why not?

Well, he found out why not. Kolakowski's journey of consciousness up until his death last week ran parallel to the ascent of the South African Communist Party to a never-before reached eminence and power in the state.

The failure of ANC government - in which there has never not been a string of ministries in the hands of serving or former members of the CP - can be examined in the light of Kolakowski's diligent, lifelong re-examination of his own former Communist Party conscience. Readers can follow this journey for themselves here.

Author of the three-volume Main Currents of Marxism: Its Rise, Growth and Dissolution (1978), published after he had fled his native country, Kolakowski has home truths to tell about the men of power who led Russia onto the rocks, and who have helped guide South Africa into the swamp.

In this thoroughgoing study, he characterised marxism as "the greatest fantasy of our century... [which] began in a Promethean humanism and culminated in the monstrous tyranny of Stalin". A fantasy that still strides the narrow world like the living dead at the southern tip of Africa, after having been buried almost everywhere else. A visit to Moscow in 1950, when the General Secretary was still doing his work, had opened his eyes to what he would later describe as "the enormity of material and spiritual desolation caused by the Stalinist system." The great bulk of South African luminaries were still to make their sacred pilgrimage thither....

Written more than 50 years ago, his 72 definitions of What Socialism is Not - banned in Poland, but widely read underground - contained words that still buzz in the ear in South Africa today. "Socialism is not: a society in which one man is in trouble for saying what he thinks while another is well-off because he does not say what he has on his mind; a society in which a man lives better if he doesn't have any thoughts of his own at all; a state which has more spies than nurses and more people in prison than in hospital; a state in which the philosophers and writers always say the same as the generals and ministers - but always after they've said it..."

He was particularly scathing about the nice, left-liberal apologists for marxist regimes, who argued that "economic progress" in communist countries or the necessities of the National Democratic Revolution somehow justified a lack of political freedom: "This lack of freedom is presented as though it were a temporary shortage. Reports along these lines give the impression of being unprejudiced. In reality they are not simply false, they are utterly misleading. Not that nothing has changed in these countries, nor that there have been no improvements in economic efficiency, but because political slavery is built into the tissue of society in the Communist countries as its absolute condition of life." He dismissed modern manifestations of marxism, as in the SACP, Cosatu and the ANC today, as "merely a repertoire of slogans serving to organise various interests".

It could not be better put. After 15 years of squandered government, a reading of Kolakowski is as good a curative as any for the South African disease of Radical Chic.

Salute to an honest thinker.

1 Opinion(s):

Anonymous said...

Trewhela seems to think that an education can pull Africans up to the level of the white man, after which they would be able to continue as a first world society - without the aid of the white man. He is mistaken. If this were true, there would be one example, SOMEWHERE, on the entire planet, where africans have done this. But there is none. Wherever blacks live well, there are whites behind the scenes. When the white man leaves, blacks revert to their primitive state. They must accept this choice - dissociate from the white man and revert to a primitive existence or embrace the white man and live as a first world society. There is no alternative.