The corruption endemic in the African National Congress (ANC) today demands a rethinking of what the organization was in the past, however imperfect such rethinking will always be.

All too often the story of revolutionary struggle that is told ex post facto, after comrades emerge from the trenches to become the state, is one told of ideals relinquished, as power and money corrupt. Once the comrades were pure, now they have dropped their ideals of equality and human dignity in favour of Johnnie Walker Blue and Mercedes C-class cars. I am not at all sure this story of rags to riches is correct, even from the start. The pattern of history, from the Russian Revolution to the Mexican PRI (which governed uninterrupted for 71 years after the Mexican Revolution) to the African National Congress has all too often been one of winner-takes-all. In the case of the Soviet Union it created an historically new class called the Party, noted for caviar, ruthlessness and lack of accountability so long as members toed the line of loyalty. Just as a Corporation is first and foremost responsible to its shareholders, and secondly  at best for the public good, so a struggle organization transposes its codes of loyalty into a self-enclosed and aggrandizing mechanism that, as Jacob Zuma, the wizard of corruption put it, means “I am a member of the ANC first, of the South African Nation second”.

The ideals of the liberation movement

There is something to the thought that a struggle organization, once it becomes the state in a market economy, turns into something resembling a corporation, responsible firstly to itself and only secondly to the public good. However the model of a corporation is only half correct. Corporations generate profit either through the production of goods and services, or through venture capital. The ANC has generated little income, instead rifling it from elsewhere, which makes it more like the Soviet Party Class. Decadent and destructive.

These things are well known. What is less considered, because less clear, is what cadres imagined, back in the Zambian trenches, their futures to be at such time as their fearless commitment to a better nation would actually be realized. It is certain that the towering leaders of the ANC, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Albie Sachs, and others were pure at heart and incorruptible in the finest moral and political sense.  These revolutionaries were originally motivated by, and remained wedded to their ideals, even if the pragmatics of state policy demanded compromises. The signatories to the Freedom Charter of 1955 truly believed – surely no one should doubt this – that the land, robbed from Africans by the brutality of colonialism so that African men would have to leave their rural lives to endure life on the mines – does (morally) and must (politically) belong to all the people of South Africa. These persons had an unswerving commitment to a free and equitable democracy.

But as to the many ANC cadres who filled the ranks in the Zambian training camps? Some were clearly serious. Others were clearly criminal, as the Skweyiya Report on torture and extra-judicial killing in the camps made clear. This report was confirmed by Amnesty International. Some of those responsible for human rights violations are now active members of the current government. But the issue goes further than that. It concerns the very character of revolutionary aspirations. I really am not sure if the picture of idealists corrupted by power was correct for some of these people. The Jacob Zumas, the Ace Magashules hated racism, hated being held back and humiliated, violently believed in freedom, but to what purpose finally? What did it really mean to those training in the camps, that future of freedom? How did they imagine it, imagine their places in the future democracy before the fact of it? One cannot of course be sure, a flight of imagination is required and it may be wrong.

These comrades chanted the right slogans, yes, but in their inchoate instincts about what would one day be the new South Africa, one wonders if freedom meant to them the freedom to take on the responsibility of creating an equitable and dignified society for all, or if in their heart of hearts freedom meant the freedom to simply become who they now are. Of course they would never have told themselves that. But they would have felt freedom as a surge of power, power of self over others, power to command, power to become, to have things and control things.

Learning from the colonial overlord

This inchoately imagined sense of the future would surely have been learned by watching the colonial overlord, and studying what he had that they did not. (‘Someday I will have what he now has. And more.’) They would have learned from the Apartheid state that power means the power to deny accountability. And a similar lesson from the Stalinist state. But their images of empowerment would also have been more simply explained as the product of their temperaments. People are what they are. Some are sweet, others aggressive, some morally hypersensitive, others selfish. Some kind, others cruel. Some wish to share, others to take. The question becomes one of opportunity, and social control. Add overwhelming opportunity, subtract controls (which usually happens when a struggle organization becomes the state) and people are left to their temperaments. And so I wonder if the picture of ideals once held then corrupted is really the correct one for this subset of the ANC even from the start. Rather, this particular group of cadres would have fought to achieve what they believed was their destiny, a destiny aided and abetted by their bravery and suffering, which (they believed) earned them the right to it. And the destiny? To have, take and extract, which was exactly the prerogative of the colonizer of old.

A story half based in oppression and opportunity, and half in temperament (who you are) is the kind of story a writer like V.S. Naipaul or before him, Josef Conrad tells of revolution and the new state. It is a story which, since one can never enter into the mind of someone from the past except tenuously and with a leap of imagination, is never adequately told apart from biography and literature. History is not enough to tell it because the story demands both scrupulous attention to fact and the writer’s leap of imagination.  In telling such a story I am drawn to Tolstoy’s deep humanism, which seeks to sympathize with even his most flawed characters (Karenin). But also to the tough-minded philosopher David Hume who quipped that “of all the human passions, greed, love of gain for oneself and one’s friends, is the most universal, perpetual and insatiable”. The truth about the past lies somewhere in the middle.

The views of the writer are not necessarily the views of the Daily Friend or the IRR

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