Discipline! Comrade Madlala-Routledge, Discipline!

In all the hype about the Minister of Health’s alleged alcoholism that is dominating reports and discussions about the President’s sacking of Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge, an important issue seems to have been forgotten – party discipline. All three individuals are members of the Congress Alliance, in particular the ANC, with Madlala-Routledge also enjoying membership of the SACP. All three would then submit themselves to the discipline prescribed for them in their different political roles by the Alliance. A discipline understood from within the Alliance according to the logic of ‘democratic centralism’. By this logic, decisions are to be reached ‘democratically’ within Alliance structures first and then translated into practice in broader society through government, civil society, and community structures. Members of the Alliance are expected to be loyal to the positions reached sometimes through consensus, and sometimes through the decree of leadership structures, even if their own individual positions might differ from the official line.

As the ANC and the Alliance have developed in the context of electoral democracy post-1994, debates and differences have multiplied and grown stronger amongst and between member organisations and individual members. This has exposed differences within the Alliance with regard to the very understanding of ‘democratic centralism’, and created further divisions concerning how binding decisions are made and what powers different levels of its institutional hierarchies (and individuals positioned within them) should be able to exercise over others. While Madlala-Routledge has embraced her dismissal as a challenge to fight for ‘the real values and programmes of the ANC to be achieved’, Mbeki and Tshabalala-Msimang have tried to portray the Deputy Minister as ‘someone who cannot work in a collective’. While Madlala-Routledge seems to be accusing her bosses and senior comrades of working against the spirit of the Alliance, she stands accused of neglecting to abide by ‘protocol’, by party discipline. She has been ‘ill-disciplined’. She is a ‘loose cannon’. Terms I’ve heard many times to describe those who have subsequently been expelled from Alliance structures or who have chosen to leave, unable to find space within the Alliance to speak with effect. While there is always ultimately a blind loyalism to a set of institutional processes and structures in the way such differences get handled, there is, however, also almost always the questioning of the institutional culture that characterises the Alliance – a claim that processes and structures, and positions of power are being abused and manipulated against the interests of the Alliance.

It is this claim that I thought we’d be hearing more from Madlala-Routledge (and those within the Alliance who support her) about. In the fiery words that the former Deputy Minister spoke just after her dismissal, she exuded the confidence of one with many behind her, not just from TAC, but from within the Alliance. Jeff Radebe featured in the list of those who gave her support in her job. But Madlala-Routledge has grown silent since her dismissal, and the list of people refuting their support of her seems to be growing. In fact, there seems to be a concerted effort on the part of Alliance members to distance themselves from any efforts to portray some form of allegiance to Madlala-Routledge possibly growing. Even Zwelinzima Vavi today came out making ‘a qualified apology’ about his remarks about Mbeki choosing to dismiss hard-working executive members while other ministers were ‘dying on duty’. He apparently meant to show no disrespect to those who had died while in office but wished to place on record their poor levels of performance.

Madlala-Routledge is probably feeling very alone at the moment. This is sadly how democratic centralism has come to function in the Alliance, with discipline mobilising deeply ingrained feelings of subservience to processes, structures and hierarchies over commitment to people and principles, even amongst those who mount the most biting critiques of some of the policies and positions adopted by the ANC government and the ANC leadership. It would seem that Madlala-Routledge overestimated her ability to win the debate over what was right according to party discipline. No matter what her views on HIV-AIDS or the government’s macro-economic policy framework might be, according to the logic of this discipline, she has gone beyond what is considered acceptable for the institutional culture of the Alliance. It is sad to have to accept that the institutional culture you were raised in is designed to prevent your own voice from gaining resonance. But this is the way in which the Alliance works.

While the enormous inequalities and inadequacies in the public health sector have provided the context for Madlala-Routledge’s disciplining, others have faced dismissal from their government positions and expulsion from Alliance structures for speaking out against the ANC government’s policies with regard to service delivery. While the President, government, and the ANC leadership are spending much of their time and energies fighting the storm around this dismissal that has reopened questions about its approach to the issue of HIV-AIDS, another storm has erupted which is again calling into question the ANC government’s approach to the delivery of basic services – housing, water and sanitation, electricity, land, education, and health care. Since the late ’90s, ‘ill-disciplined’ Alliance members, together with other community members, have been coming together in struggles against evictions, water and electricity cut-offs, and so on, to demand that government deliver on its promises of ‘a better life for all’, resulting (sometimes) in the formation of new social and community movements. Over the years, while the Alliance and government have attempted to deny the claims and demands of these movements, portraying them as ‘ultra-left’ and marginal, struggles from within communities have not ceased. Just two days ago protesters from Sebokeng were shot at and injured, with 30 arrested for blocking a major highway and stopping rail traffic by damaging trains quite significantly. The levels of conflict at community level and the fact that these ‘service delivery riots’ have been going on for some time now and seem to be escalating at the moment, are proof enough that these struggles are not the work of a few ‘ultra-left’ individuals with power over poor communities or the result of particular organisations manipulating poor communities in order to bring the Alliance into disrepute. This is no longer a case of a few ‘ill-disciplined loose cannons’.

I guess what I’m getting at is that party discipline may have been called in to try to quiet the storm around Madlala-Routledge, but Alliance processes and structures cannot hide the glaring effects of the neoliberal policies being adopted by the Mbeki government. Nevertheless, it is interesting to observe how, in spite of the tremendous divisions within the Alliance that have been exposed in public by Alliance members (one would imagine, often in contravention of party discipline), the apparatus of discipline has time and again ensured that conflict is properly managed and channelled, always ‘in the interests of the collective’. I’m anxious to see what Madlala-Routledge does next. Will she submit to one of the ‘collectives’ fighting for the ability to speak as ‘the collective’ within the Alliance? Will she be allowed to submit to one of them? Or will she realise the sham that ‘the collective’ can become?  I have nothing against collectives. I belong to some myself. But there is a danger with undemocratic hierarchies being misnamed collectives. But this is a subject for another day.

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