When Pixley ka Isaka Seme placed advertisements in African newspapers such as Tsala ea Becoana in late 1911, urging all “sections of our native people ... to send able representatives to that conference of the races” scheduled for January 8 1912 in Bloemfontein, he proposed the agenda for the gathering. It included the following:
Setting up the SA Native Congress ; writing a constitution for the new organisation; electing office bearers; installing elected officials to their positions; and taking a vote of confidence in Louis Botha, the prime minister of the Union of South Africa, and Henry Burton, the minister of native affairs. Part of the meeting was to be devoted to a general discussion. This would be followed by a concert and a farewell reception.
The topics for the general discussion were: “Native customs and usages , native marriages and divorce, native beer — is it a national beverage?, native schools and churches, the black and white peril, native lands and reserves, native courts civil and criminal, and native labour.”
It is not known how faithfully the 60- odd delegates who gathered in Bloemfontein that January to found an organisation we today know as the African National Congress (ANC) adhered to Seme’s proposed agenda. We do know, however, thanks to historian Andre Odendaal, that there was spirited debate among the delegates over the organisation’s original chosen name: South African Native National Congress (SANNC).
Sol Plaatje, editor of Tsala ea Becoana and one of four newspaper editors present at the conference, wanted a more African-sounding name, something that would have meaning in both the Nguni and Sotho language groups. Plaatje’s motion failed; the delegates voted to stick with the SANNC. The name was changed in 1925 to the ANC.
But expect more than the agenda to be different when the ANC celebrates its centenary in January as the oldest liberation movement in Africa, and then holds its 53rd annual conference in Bloemfontein, called Mangaung in Sotho, in December next year. For one, the ANC will meet in Mangaung as a ruling party, one that will have been in power for 18 years by then. Two, expect the profile of the organisation’s leadership and membership to be both different and much bigger: whereas the ANC had about 60 delegates (all African) at its founding, the Mangaung conference is likely to have more than 2000 delegates, a (very) small number of them white, Indian and coloured and many of them women.
More importantly, whereas the men who founded the ANC were colonial subjects and part of SA’s tiny but modern African elite, the men and women who will gather in Mangaung next year will all be modern citizens, bearers of rights that only a few of the ANC’s original founders enjoyed.
For example, one reason there were so few delegates at the ANC’s founding conference is that colonial officials made it difficult for Africans to travel. Speaking at a meeting with JW Sauer, the railways minister, shortly after the ANC’s establishment, Sefako Makgatho, the ANC’s first vice-president, complained about delegates who had been hurled off the train in Brandfort, in the Orange Free State, while en route to the Bloemfontein conference.
People like Makgatho, Seme and Plaatje were called in the official parlance of colonial SA “exempted natives” — meaning they did not have to live under such restrictions as, among others, the pass laws. As a (largely self)-educated and property-owning resident of Kimberley and citizen of the Cape Colony, Plaatje was among the few Africans who actually could vote in colonial SA .
So, Mangaung 2012 will mark a significant advance on Bloemfontein 1912. The conference next year will be testament to the ANC’s success as a political organisation.
That, however, is the positive side.
There is a negative side to Mangaung 2012.
When Seme called for the establishment of a national political organisation for Africans, he wanted Africans to slay the “demon of tribalism”. Seme said “the aberration of the Xhosa-Fingo feud, the animosity that exists between the Zulus and [the] Tonga, the Basothos and every other native must be buried and forgotten, it has shed among us sufficient blood. We are one people!”
Seme believed that lack of unity among Africans was making it impossible for them to speak with one voice when confronted with the depredations of the colonial state.
The ANC was not the first organisation founded by Africans in colonial SA to fight for their political rights. The Transvaal Native Congress and the Cape Native Congress, to give just two examples, were much older. But the ANC was the first national organisation to bring together Africans from around the country. It was the first organisation to try to speak with one voice about the concerns of Africans. If its early success is to be measured by whether it succeeded in slaying the demon of tribalism and forging African unity, the answer must be a guarded yes. The ANC survived years of colonial disdain and apartheid repression by speaking for Africans in particular and for freedom- loving South Africans in general. It was able to win power in 1994 as a truly national organisation — despite its general lack of support among white South Africans of all classes and, to some extent, working-class Indians and coloureds.
It could be argued, however, that, contrary to slaying the demon of tribalism, the ANC merely tamed it. One only has to listen to stories about tribal cliques in exile to know that the demon never really went away. There is certainly no doubt that since the beginning of President Jacob Zuma’s troubles with the law and with his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, it has made a forceful comeback inside the ANC. We saw it in Zuma’s “100% Zuluboy” campaign, where Zuma sought to portray his aborted and failed prosecution for corruption and rape as tribalist persecution, part of a conspiracy driven by dark forces to prevent a Zulu from becoming ANC and SA president.
The return of the demon was definitely confirmed in 2009 when, in Zuma’s first election campaign as ANC president, the party lost votes in every province except KwaZulu Natal. The 100% Zuluboy slogan scooped up the Zulu vote in his home province, largely at the expense of the hapless Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), previously the cultural and political home of conservative Zulu nationalism. The ANC’s decimation of the IFP helped the ruling party hide the fact that only a substantial Zulu vote had allowed it to keep up its national share of the vote. The ANC under Zuma has in fact become a more Zulu party, if by that we understand nothing more and nothing less than that Zuma’s ANC has increased its share of the vote of people who identify themselves as Zulu while dropping support from those who do not .
What happens, then, when the ANC elects a non-Zulu as its next president? What is going to happen to the Zulu vote that flocked to the ANC in 2009 for no good reason except that Zuma was 100% Zulu and a homeboy? Where are those votes going to go? Will they go back to the IFP or, worse, will they find an outlet in KwaZulu Natal’s secessionist streams, which have always been stronger than those in other parts of the country?
This, in short, is the challenge that confronts the ANC. But it is by no means the only one. Led by a president with no obvious interest in ideas or their power (despite his years in the leadership of the SA Communist Party — the supposed party of ideas) the ANC is today an organisation bereft of them. It is a party without collective imagination. How different that is to the ANC in its early years.
The men who founded the ANC were not angels. Neither were they democrats in the full sense in which we would understand and use the term today. They were colonial elites who believed in a qualified franchise. They took for granted the imperial claim that Africa was a land of darkness and that Africans were at least 2000 years below Europeans on the ladder of civilisation. They adhered fervently to the so-called civilising mission of the imperial and colonial enterprise. Above all, they were loyal subjects of the British Crown.
But they were men of ideas. They respected knowledge and fought for the education of Africans. Through their campaigns for the extension of the qualified franchise, the education of Africans and against segregation, they were able to shame the imperial government and the colonial state.
This does not mean they succeeded in their campaigns. Despite sending numerous deputations to London, for example, to plead with the imperial government on behalf of Africans, they did not succeed. But they were able to hold the British up to their much-vaunted belief in fairness. They were able to show up the hypocrisy of the colonial enterprise. They did this by presenting their own ideas, by asking why it was, for example, that the British were failing to live up to the claims of the civilising mission, which had promised acceptance into the colonial political order of any African who could show, by means of education and industry, improvement and civilisation.
These men were the forefathers of the ANC activists who proclaimed in 1955 that SA belonged to all who lived in it, black and white, and that no government could claim legitimacy unless it was founded on the will of the people.
It is easy to forget, 17 years since SA became a democracy, just what a radical claim that was at the time. It was radical precisely because it offered a vision of the future vastly different from that offered by successive apartheid governments and the colonial state before them. That inclusive vision of the future sustained the anti-apartheid movement and helped give the ANC and the freedom movement in general the moral victory it scored so decisively . Remember that a moral victory against apartheid was the only victory available to the ANC and its allies, none of which had the military means to take on the SA Defence Force.
The moral capital that accrued from the ANC’s righteous fight has been frittered away in corruption scandal after corruption scandal, and in a bitter, low- intensity civil war in the ANC .
The ANC may argue that, far from being without ideas, it has produced a slew of them: RDP (the reconstruction and development programme), Gear (growth, employment and redistribution), Asgisa (the accelerated and shared growth initiative for SA), cadre deployment, transformation, the national development plan, the new growth plan, and so forth. The only trouble with these plans is that they have what in township Zulu we might call a bamba-yeka — clutching-at-straws — quality about them. Compressed into an alphabet soup, these ideas read more like recipes that are constantly being changed, all because the kitchen staff does not know if it is coming or going (the chef, Zuma, is Awol). SA deserves better than this.
Come January, there will be birthday parties galore all right — many involving the corrupt use of public funds. Some of these celebrations will be tacky affairs organised no doubt by the likes of sushi king Kenny Kunene, a convicted and celebrated criminal (at least within certain circles) who helped organise the wedding of one of Zuma’s daughters not so long ago. Kunene’s qualification for the job ? None other than that he can do tacky like no one else among the class of tenderpreneurs whose ostentatious display of easy wealth and conspicuous consumption have come to stand, sadly, for black success in Zumaland.
Will next year’s celebrations of the ANC’s centenary be the beginning of the end of the ANC? Seme and his colleagues founded the ANC because they could imagine a better world, albeit one in which there was justice for all with certain qualifications. This vision was enriched and broadened from the 1940s onwards. It would be too easy to resort to cliché at this point and claim that Seme and Plaatje must be turning in their graves. Easier still is to point out that Zuma is presiding over an ANC with neither imagination nor ability to think of a better world. That is the greatest betrayal of them all.