I cringed one night many months ago when an Italian friend of mine asked us to sing ‘the Zuma song’ – ‘Awulethu ‘mshini wami’. Unknowingly, with his few words, he was erasing years of different memories and representations of a song that, I am sure, is a favourite of many who grew up in the struggle traditions of the liberation movement, for different reasons. Through its resounding chorus and refrain, allowing both male and female voices to enter it in playful ways, its melody has, in different situations, allowed for an overwhelming sense of unity, purpose, and collective power to be forged in different contexts. Far from the military monotony suggested by its words, the song succeeds only through the creative coming together of many different voices in many different parts and many different rhythms. Over time, collective renditions of the song have given various meanings to the words ‘give me my machine gun’, and political tendencies across the left spectrum have sung it proudly. I too have beautiful memories of this song – first hearing it sung by over 10 000 people at a mass rally at King’s Park in Durban in 1990; singing it with hundreds of other students at the University of Durban-Westville in my first occupation of a rector’s office in a 1991 anti-exclusions campaign; shouting it at police who opened fire on us in a march through West Street to Comrade Chris Hani’s memorial service in 1993; singing it in various ‘battles’ in struggles for the transformation of higher education in the 1990s; singing it with new words as a member of the Anti-Privatisation Forum (APF) in 2000 – ‘give us our electricity’…
But, today, it is ‘the Zuma song’, having been appropriated and deployed in the narrow interests of an individual and his followers. For Zuma, ‘his machine gun’ is the ANC, and, in his fight to defend his reputation and livelihood, its symbols, songs, values, principles, and policies have become the bullets.
Having been an ANC member, I too have known the immense power and sense of self-righteousness that having the ANC as your ‘machine gun’ can give you. I have also known what it is like to have that ‘machine gun’ turned against you. It is the kind of power that has respect for very little, the kind of power that abuses the law, commitments to democracy, non-racialism, and gender equality, its very own principles, the kind of power that has been bred on years of practice at the manipulation of policy and process for individual or narrow sectarian gain.
But I have also known and learnt the power of collective action and struggle in and through the ANC – the kind of power that makes your wardrobe green, gold and black, the kind of power that makes you stand in the line of fire together with your comrades, the kind of power that makes you believe that freedom is possible and makes you struggle for it in spite of your chains. I can still remember the great spirit of warmth and comfort I felt walking into the Diakonia Centre in Durban just after the unbanning of the ANC and finding unqualified acceptance by people I had never met before, calling me ‘comrade’.
But over time, as ‘the enemy’ became less singular, and differences began to surface within our ranks, ‘comrade’ came to mean more than comfort and cover. It came to demand unqualified loyalty to positions I didn’t always believe in, and knowing when to be quiet, as ‘organisational discipline’ was what defined a ‘good comrade’.
For as long as I believed in the charade of democracy and collective decision-making and action, I submitted myself to organisational processes and the ‘will’ and ‘desire’ of the ANC, accepting ‘deployment’ in several of its structures over the years, and often silencing my own voice in defeats by stronger ‘majorities’. Like most of my comrades, my own will to effect change became subsumed in the processes and programmes of the ANC and its mission to effect change, one that I believed was collectively shaped and determined. But learning to speak my mind and in my own voice revealed that the organisation itself was constantly under contestation. While the ‘democratic floor’ of the organisation gave the veneer of openness and equality in decision-making processes, the workings of cabals and cliques with varying levels of influence and power actually determined the programme of the organisation. Over time, the power of different groupings would also change according to their access to control over state resources and instruments, such as the National Intelligence Agency (NIA), used to police suspected ‘counter-revolutionary forces’. While the National Democratic Revolution (NDR) was understood commonly within the ANC as a means to ‘deepen democracy’ through the transformation of the state in order to address ‘the national question’ (understood as racial oppression) and there was general agreement about the economic policy direction that it adopted, the label ‘counter-revolutionary’ was mobilised to rid the Congress movement of ‘the ultra-left’. As different cabals and cliques would come to contest the leadership of the ANC, the NDR would come under contestation, with the left within the Congress Alliance arguing that the NDR has been ‘hijacked’ by big capital, with black economic empowerment (BEE) becoming the vehicle for the ‘national question’ to be addressed and the needs of the working class and poor being neglected. While there is little to suggest that the political camp opposing Mbeki has a much more radical economic programme to put forward, the NDR has become its means of critiquing its opponents.
I started out writing this piece many months ago when President Mbeki announced that his choice for a successor would be a woman. My agenda was to try to show how his statements had nothing to do with a woman becoming president but everything to do with keeping Jacob Zuma out of the seat. And how the ANC, as an organisation and political tradition, would become the vehicle through which the succession battle would be waged. In particular, I foresaw the mobilisation of the principle of non-sexism in favour of a female candidate loyal to Mbeki. And the equally ambitious deployment of a critique of ‘gender tokenism’ by the Zuma camp. I did not anticipate the scale at which the traditions, values, principles, and commitments of the Congress movement would become the weapons of the war between the two factions.
As events unfolded in the Jacob Zuma affair and the succession saga, it became more difficult to complete the piece. However, with each new incident, my initial views seemed to be substantiated. During this period, I also had the fortune of interviewing some of my old comrades for a project that I’ve just completed looking at the role of the South African Students’ Congress (SASCO) in the period after 1994 in the higher education sector, most of whom now sit in influential positions in different organisations of the Congress movement. In all of these interviews, people spoke about their extreme frustration at the ways in which spaces for debate and discussion had closed down in the Alliance. Everyone still involved in Alliance structures spoke of how no one is able to speak without being labelled a supporter of one of the two current political camps, and of how divisions and alliances were formed mainly in order to secure the business interests of groups of members. For example, ANC meetings would often involve members proposing projects which would then be tendered for at government level with organisational support. In many instances, projects would be created purely for individuals to access government money. The succession saga was as much about people’s individual survival and success in life as it was about the leadership of the ANC and the country.
While the ANC policy conference has ended without the resolution of any of the major points of difference between camps in the organisation, and with no real deviations from past commitments with regard to economic policy, Kgalema Mothlanthe has taken the opportunity to highlight the fact that the organisation has, at the end of the day, presided over everything and everyone, ruling against the interests of any one faction. Experience has, however, taught that the real decisions are made outside of the conference halls and formal discussions, in the cabals and cliques that play organisational tradition and games ‘behind the scenes’. While it is quite clear that Mbeki’s statements many months ago now had nothing to do with a woman becoming president, it is less clear what other tactics will be employed in the coming months as the race for the presidency of the ANC heats up. What is certain in all of this is that the ANC has not, as Mothlanthe would like us to believe, survived as a democratic and all-inclusive space in which ‘robust debate’ can happen and drives programmes of action. Instead, ‘robust debate’ has, over a long period of time, come to serve as the means by which difference and dissent is contained.