ANALYSIS: Gifts for the ANC at 108 years? Younger leaders with ideas

History, Karl Marx said, repeats itself. First as tragedy then as farce.

Yet as the ANC prepares to celebrate its 108th birthday there could be no better quote to describe the current state of the organisation. It is currently a farce. 

The tragedy occurred in the late 1940s when the conditions within the organisation were very similar to what they are today. Conditions in the country and globe were certainly different but hardly in the ANC. 

David Smith in his book, Young Mandela, recalls how a youthful Nelson Mandela expressed his views of the leadership of the ANC in the 1940s and in particular its president, Alfred Xuma. 

Smith writes that to Mandela and his peers, Xuma “… represented the old way of doing things: deputations, statements, committees – gentlemen politics in the British tradition”.

But this criticism of lack of innovation on the part of the leadership of the ANC, by the younger generation such as Mandela, Walter Sisulu and no doubt people such as Oliver Tambo and Lilian Ngoyi, could in part be attributed to the fact that Xuma had been elected to the office of president of the ANC thrice. Xuma had been in office for nine years and, as we know, the longer a generation of leadership is in place the less invigorating its becomes. 

Eventually James Moroka would replace Xuma as president of the ANC with the support from the ANC Youth League and its programme of action. 

Madiba in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom would recall how “Dr Moroka was an unlikely choice…when he agreed to stand against Dr Xuma, the Youth League then enrolled him as a member of the ANC…he was not very knowledgeable about the ANC, neither was he an experienced activist, but he was respectable and amenable to our programme”.

Today’s ANC is similar to the one under Xuma. With the countless challenges faced by our country, the ANC seems to be stuck in “the old way of doing things: deputations, statements, committees”.

We have only to see how the ANC-led government has responded to the crisis at our SOE’s, gender based violence, crime in general, unemployment, poverty, inequality and the lack of service delivery. Government simply regurgitates old practices and policies despite the ANC itself attempting to bring about radical socio-economic transformation. As a result, South Africans have yet to discover what exactly this transformation means. 

Just as it was stuck with an ageing leadership in the 1940s so too today it is stuck with a NEC leadership and cabinet that averages on 60 years old. Innovation and creativity is therefore sparse and the same rhetoric and thinking common in the 1980s and 1990s continues to reign today.

There should be no mistake that South Africa today is a much better place than it was in the 1940s. Undoubtedly, the ANC has done far more good for our country than any regime in our country’s history has done for it. 

The homes built, the classrooms opened, the access to water and sanitation, the ability to stage world events, and all the countless good that the post-apartheid government has been able to achieve speaks to the ANC’s success of transforming our country. 

Yet after 25 years of freedom, it seems the ANC is no longer coping. It must change its leadership in order to bring about a younger generation of leaders who have the new ideas to tackle the current challenges. 

There remains however two qualitative differences between the younger generation of the 1940s and today’s leaders. The absence of a Youth League must spell trouble for the ANC as more youth will be attracted by the populism of organisations such as the EFF. 

The second difference would certainly be that while Mandela and his generation were militant, they were also educated, professionals and grounded in theory. As a result, they could produced programmes such as the Programme of Action, the Defiance Campaign and the M-Plan which will all eventually lead to the Congress of the People and the Freedom Charter in 1955. There was capacity.

What about the issue of money and corruption as a qualitative difference too in the generation between the ANC at 40 and the ANC at 108?

As Madiba suggested, the delegation upon visiting Xuma were impressed with the wealth he was living in. Moroka too was not a poor man. Opulence by leaders and corruption has and will always be a problem not only for the ANC but for any political party. There must however be invigorating ways to deal with it. Like Moroka, the ANC remains respectable to the vast majority of South Africa despite the waning in this respectability. 

Talented young people must emerge in the ANC. If they do not, we may well see what the outcomes would have been for the organization had Xuma remained in power.

Moroka certainly gave it more years and so it can celebrate its 108th anniversary today.

– Wesley Seale taught South African politics at UWC and Rhodes University. 

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