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The ANC’s closed cuckoo land-R.W.JOHNSON

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    Nat Quinn
    A friend in the ANC sent me a paper by Pallo Jordan for the forthcoming ANC conference. It began with the following statement:
    “The critical importance of the urgent need for renewal was underscored for me when I contemplated the outcome of the ANC losing an election. That would amount to a major victory for the opponents of progress and forces of counter-revolution. We cannot let that happen!”
    There follows a quotation from Bertholt Brecht and then lengthy perorations about documents from the Morogoro conference, about old Strategy and Tactics essays from long ago, and excursions into a sort of Marxisant history of South Africa.
    Many of the references are to the 1940s and before. There is discussion of Jordan’s own paper on “The National Question” prepared for the 1997 ANC conference and considerable discussion of the ANC Oath of Membership, “revolutionary morality” and similar concepts.
    Jordan takes it as axiomatic that today’s South Africa is a vast improvement on pre-1994 South Africa, but one would like to see the arguments for that. After all, unemployment was much lower then, there were no power cuts, South Africa was considerably less unequal than it is today, the railways, the ports and the post office all worked fine, educational standards were higher and there were no water cut-offs.
    There was also less crime, less corruption and, as far as one can see, less gender-based violence. Eskom used to win prizes in those days and SAA worked well. Of course, we all know about the dark side of pre-1994 days but it would be interesting to test public opinion about whether people believe that progress really has been made.
    At one stage Jordan asks whether “the ANC could have done better?”. But he makes no attempt to answer that question. In general, one is struck by the fact that there is so much history, so many abstractions and so much recitation. There is simply no attempt at all to confront any of today’s empirical realities, pressing though they are.
    One longs, indeed, to put a number of practical questions to Mr Jordan, such as:
    All the data shows that poverty and inequality have become much worse under ANC rule. Either this is accidental or deliberate. If accidental, why has it not been corrected?
    In 1994 the ANC posters read “Jobs, jobs, jobs!” but unemployment has quadrupled under ANC rule. Instead, the ANC government is now paying 18 million people not to work. Quite obviously, this was not what the ANC intended to happen so what explains it?
    South Africa has the richest mineral endowment of any country in the world but now attracts less than 1% of mining exploration expenditure. In effect the world’s major mining companies have written South Africa off. Did the ANC intend this to happen? If not, why did it let it happen?
    The figures show an ever-increasing proportion of young black schoolchildren cannot read for meaning in any language. That is to say, literacy is declining. Surely this is the opposite of what the ANC promised?
    After nearly thirty years of ANC government there are still many black children without decent classrooms or teachers who spend their time teaching in the classroom. Surely that should have been achieved decades ago?
    All the evidence is of a calamitous decline in standards in public hospitals under ANC rule. Again, one assumes this was not deliberate, so why has it been allowed to happen?
    After nearly 30 years of ANC rule there are more shacks than ever before. Why is that?
    The old National Party government bequeathed the ANC the best national infrastructure in Africa. Much of that has not been maintained: there are potholes, water leaks, sewage and water treatment plants that don’t work. Etc. In addition little new infrastructure has been built in the last thirty years – just the stadiums for the World Cup and some airport expansion then too. Why is the performance on infrastructure so poor?
    I got that far (and had many other questions queuing up behind) when I began to imagine the answers I would get. I have, after all, had many conversations along these lines. I would doubtless be told that everything that was wrong was the fault of imperialism, the West, apartheid, neo-liberalism and a number of other abstractions, including the wrong sort of people (always unnamed) joining the ANC.
    For the default position of almost any ANC cadre is to deny any responsibility. One never has a frank exchange in which a comrade says, “Yes, well we really got that wrong” or “Our movement knows nothing of economics”. And I’m pretty sure that the reason Mr Jordan doesn’t answer his own question about whether the ANC could have done any better is that to answer “No” is implausible but to answer “Yes” implies that the ANC was guilty of doing not so well. Which would be intolerable.
    I was reminded of an evening that my friend Harold Strachan and I spent with our old friends, Jackie and Rowley Arenstein. Rowley had been sent down to Durban as its Communist Party organiser in 1939 and although he had gradually become a politically independent figure, supporting Inkatha for a long period, he had never wavered in his absolute belief in Marxism-Leninism. He had all 57 volumes of Lenin’s Works and greatly enjoyed dipping into them. In any discussion he would say “But what would Lenin say?” and then give you chapter and verse, for he knew the great man’s writings by heart. For him that settled any discussion.
    We had a lovely evening. Jackie provided a fine meal but said little, as was her wont, apart from the occasional quote from Camus. The four of us chatted away and laughed at Harold’s constant flow of witticisms but of course, once serious political discussion began Rowley perked up and began to tell us what Lenin had said or would have said if the problem under discussion had happened in his time. Harold and I both listened respectfully, as we had done a thousand times before but Harold then turned to me and said fondly of Rowley “He’s safe in there”.
    That summed it up perfectly. Rowley’s Marxism-Leninism was a closed intellectual system. Rowley lived inside it and he could go round and round it forever. Lenin was like the Bible and with no less than 57 volumes to choose from there was a quote for every imaginable occasion. Rowley was very comfortable with that and while he lived inside that closed system he could not be defeated or worsted in argument. He really was safe and secure in there.
    Harold was quite right: never in the rest of Rowley’s life did anyone overthrow that closed system. Sadly, Rowley, like Harold and Jackie, died a while ago. The point was that neither Harold nor I could bear the thought of living in a closed intellectual system ourselves but we were both very fond of Rowley, knew he wouldn’t change and anyway couldn’t wish him to have that comforting universe shattered.
    It is, one realises, very much the same for at least the older generation of the ANC. Most of them learned all they know of politics and history from their time as youngsters in the movement in the 1950s, 1960s and in exile. Not many of them read books: knowledge was imparted orally by a previous generation of movement activists, men (they were almost always men) whom they saw as heroes and on whose words they hung. Such cadres have lived inside that closed intellectual system ever since.
    As Georges Sorel observed of the syndicalists, that closed world not only has its own history but it has many of the features of a religion. It has its saints (Mandela, Bram Fischer), its martyrs (Ruth First, Dulcie September), its devils (police spies, torturers like “Rooi rus” Swanepoel)), and its Judases (those who turned state’s evidence against their comrades).
    Moreover, if you read any of the autobiographical books about the ANC (in my mind they are all called My Life in the Struggle) you get the same old litany: the Bus Boycott, the Defiance Campaign, the Women’s March, the Congress of the People, the Treason Trial, Sharpeville, the Emergency, Rivonia and so on.
    It is exactly the same as the Stations of the Cross in the Catholic Church, a ritualised progression through the stages of the crucifixion/Struggle. There is the same conviction of complete righteousness – there are no shades of grey, plentiful though they are in real life.
    Indeed, ritual long since overtook most of those comrades who speak or write about the ANC. Pallo Jordan, for example, imagines a Roll of Honour on which the names of all the ABC’s heroes and martyrs are inscribed. Whenever an old comrade dies we hear the phrase “we dip our banners in salute to….” For there’s a ritual for every occasion.
    One gradually realises where Mandela’s joke came from about joining the ANC branch in heaven when he got there. With all that ritual, the gloriously painful Struggle (like the Crucifixion – but with a happy ending) and all that immense righteousness: where else could it end but in heaven?
    The unhappy conclusion from this is that there isn’t really any point attempting discussions with ANC true believers. They inhabit a closed intellectual system, one which has little contact with present realities. Pallo Jordan’s paper runs to quite a few pages but reading it you would never know about power cuts, water cut-offs, the fact that per capita incomes have been steadily falling for years, ever-rising inequality or any of the other indices of state failure.
    But Pallo is like Rowley, he’s safe in there.
    R.W. Johnson


    The ANC’s closed cuckoo land – OPINION | Politicsweb

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