For respected elders like Ronnie Kasrils and Ben Turok, the ANC has been at the centre of their political commitment for their whole adult lives. Being critical of it is akin to challenging the family and community they have been part of, which they have formed and been formed by, for fifty years and more.
That is one of the reasons why their comments and concerns should be treated with respect, regardless of whether one agrees with them. The vitriolic response of some ANC and SACP leadership to, for example, the ‘Sidikiwe! Vukani! Vote NO’ campaign, announced by Kasrils, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge and others who have long and credible associations with the ANC, is an indication of how narrow the once ‘broad church’ has become in its transformation from national liberation movement to ruling political party.
As I have argued in my soon-to-be-released book, The New Radicals, many of my generation learnt their politics in the relatively independent environment of internal activity in the 1970s and 1980s. They had their organisational allegiances and ideological affiliations, and contestations between these sometimes became brutal. But these rarely assumed the extent to which commitment to the ANC-in-exile (or its alliance partners, the SACP and Sactu) defined individual existence and identity.
That may explain why so many from the union movement, the United Democratic Front and its thousand affiliates, and progressive intellectuals and activists from the 1970s and 1980s, find it easier to be critical, to stand back, to distance from a politics which they believe has lost its core. They do not necessarily feel that a break with the ANC in power undermines everything that they have ever held as important or valuable. They are more accustomed to being independent, being on the outside, or challenging powerful organisational structures.
At a Cape Town launch of his latest book, Head above the Parapet, Ben Turok was challenged by a member of the audience. What had he done or said to confront the ANC as its core values disintegrated? Where had Ben been during the arms deal, AIDS denialism, nepotism, cronyism, self-enrichment and corruption n the awarding of state tenders?
Similar questions have been asked of Ronnie Kasrils and others who served as cabinet ministers at a time when the ANC’s commitment to democracy, non-racialism and the values enshrined in the constitution became increasingly questionable.
Ben’s answer was as honest as it was revealing. In a system of representation based on party lists, challenging the organisation which has deployed you to parliament is effectively a resignation. At no time did he feel that exile from the ANC was a sound political option. He tried to challenge where he could, on the issues he could: in the parliamentary caucus, in MP’s study groups, in submissions on the direction of economic policy. And, of course, he famously avoided voting on the Protection of State Information Bill by absenting himself from parliament.
Turok arguably has a history which displays greater independence than Ronnie Kasrils’ past reveals. He fell out with the Communist Party – and especially Joe Slovo – in London, and was expelled. In the 1970s, at a time when the ANC was deeply suspicious of the development of Black Consciousness within South Africa, he argued that it could not be dismissed as ‘false consciousness’, and required understanding and engagement.
Ben Turok is clear that, as an MP, more public and sustained challenges would have led to his expulsion from both parliament and the party. But he does not believe that the ANC has diverged so far from its earlier principles, policies and practices that he should end his sixty-year involvement with the organisation. He still believes the ANC has an ‘historical mission’ to liberate the poor and the oppressed from the enduring yokes of colonialism, racism and apartheid.
That puts the recent actions of the group associated with Ronnie Kasrils in the Sidikwe! Vukani! initiative into some perspective. They may have made some errors in the way they presented alternatives for those who had voted for the ANC in past elections. Certainly the proposal that spoiling a ballot was a better option than voting for the ANC opened the door for political party spin doctors (and others) to avoid engagement with the core of their message. This was a call to vote ‘NO’ to the ANC with its current leadership and trajectory, and to do this in a politically strategic manner.
The United Democratic Movement’s Bantu Holomisa seemed to understand this message better than some in the ‘commentariat’. In response to a question at the Wits ‘Great Election Debate’ screened by eNCA on 24 April, he declined to ‘waste time’ discussing the call to concerned ANC members to spoil their votes, choosing rather to focus on what it means to vote strategically on 7 May.
Despite some legitimate criticism of the way they crafted their message, the Sidikwe! Vukani! group displayed enormous political courage, putting themselves outside of the organisation which had been their home and family, their identity and very reason for existence, for decades. That’s no easy decision, as Ben Turok can tell you.
Ben and Ronnie share some historical similarities. Both were members of the Communist Party from an early age. Both were amongst the first MK saboteurs. Both were in exile for decades. Ben served hard jail time, Ronnie served hard time as an instructor in MK’s Angola camps, and underground in South Africa. However, despite these similarities in background and history, there is a chasm between their respective assessments of the state of the ANC.
Ben believes the ANC can be rescued, that its ‘historical mission’ still exists, can be recovered and revived. Ronnie, it would seem, does not. He cannot vote for the ANC, at least in its current form, and under its current leadership.
That is what lies behind the differences between these veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle. It is not about being an apologist (which is what some accuse Ben of). It is not about being an opportunist, bitter at marginalization after the fall of Thabo Mbeki at Polokwane, and who did not speak out when he was a cabinet minister – the accusation sometimes flung at Kasrils. It is not about courage or its absence.
The difference is between those who believe the ANC still has – or can recover – an ‘historical mission’ to liberate the oppressed from the legacies of colonialism and apartheid, and those who believe it has diverged so far from this path that it can no longer claim that role.
Neither group deserves to be ridiculed or insulted in the way that, for example, some in the ANC and SACP have responded to the Sidikwe! Vukani! initiative. That is poverty-stricken politics at its crudest. It strengthens the view that, while the current leadership and its supporters control the ANC (and SACP), there is little chance for organisational regeneration.
However, simply asserting that something is, or is not, the case, does little to prove its veracity. Repeating this over and over again does even less. That is why Ben Turok and those who support his argument need to demonstrate why the ANC can still advance its ‘historical mission’ of liberation, despite everything that has happened in its 20 years in power. In the same way, those who see the ANC as so thoroughly compromised that it is systemically incapable of addressing enduring poverty and inequality need to explain why they believe this to be the case.
Exploring these questions, rather than engaging in cheap and posturing politics without concern for its consequences, provides a better basis for developing a strategic response to the ANC and the government it controls nationally, and in all but one province.