Recent developments in our national politics have reminded me of this warning. In December 2007, the nation watched with bated breath as the ANC tore itself apart in a succession battle in Polokwane. If there were any political faults, these were deeply submerged in the fight between personalities to snatch control from then-President Thabo Mbeki.
These scenes are etched in our memories. They were similar to those outside the Johannesburg High Court during the rape trial of the man who is now our president, Jacob Zuma.
The supporters of Zuma insulted those whom they considered enemies. They invoked imagery of witches, crawling animals and, at times, Zuma was depicted as Jesus Christ, the man who had risen again from the political dead.
If he was disturbed by any of this, he said nothing. His behaviour betrayed no discomfort. Not once did Zuma say to his supporters: “Not in my name.”
Even at taxi ranks, those who assaulted women for wearing mini-skirts because it is contrary to their idea of what is a custom, could draw strength from the utterances of Zuma who interpreted the wearing of a short skirt as a sexual overture by the woman who accused him of raping her.
Far from any sense that what he said was inappropriate, Zuma was audacious. Outside the Johannesburg High Court, he jumped on the back of trucks and sang his favourite song Awuleth’umshini wam.
He later treated the nation and international community to a remixed version of the same song Yhe wethu uyandibambezela, awuleth’umshini wam (Hey you, you are delaying me, give me my machine gun) to the great applause of his supporters.
His supporters, we were told, comprised men and women who had been excluded and were “the coalition of the wounded” damaged by the Mbeki regime.
Along the line, those who had often begun parliamentary speeches by referring to what “the president had said, and effusively praised Mbeki as an original and brilliant thinker; a strategist and tactician” now told us they, who had enjoyed the fruits of office, were his “victims” all along.
Getting rid of Mbeki seemed to be the binding vision shared by those who gathered around Zuma. When seemingly tight alliances shifted so suddenly, how are we the citizens supposed to read this politics? Are we to commend young children to learn how to conduct their civic duties from this?
Buoyed by the victory in Polokwane, the new purified ANC leadership or “the true ANC that we have always known”, as the protagonists told us, recalled Mbeki from office. This was followed by the hard push to drop the corruption charges against Zuma. After seven years, the man who wanted to have his day in court did not get there.
The nation which waited to hear Zuma clear his name was left none the wiser as to what happened. Instead, the man became the president of South Africa.
Like all “great visions”, the movement of Polokwane has to be constantly reinterpreted by its “great thinkers”, who constantly re-define what is “un-ANC or alien to the ANC culture”.
Today, some of those who pushed for the “pure ANC free of Mbeki legacy” before, during and after the Polokwane conference, are no longer in office or about to depart from the political and administrative scene.
Post Polokwane, allegations of factionalism and abuse of state apparatus, especially intelligence services abound.
Was this not part of the culture that was to be kicked out in 2008? Governance has become a casualty in this politics of intrigue, at national level, in provinces and in local government.
Now, four years later and just three weeks before the ANC’s centenary, are we to get out of this crisis? It is not inevitable that the ANC must tear itself apart and self- destruct.
Too many people died and lived to make the ANC the bearer of South African democratic values. The ANC can and must find a solution to the crisis it has created for itself and the country.Yes, that is easier said than done but it is not impossible.
Firstly, there are people who can make a great contribution in the renewal of the ANC. By renewal, I mean an intense and fully engaged process of rebuilding an organisation that is apposite to the conditions of today taking hard lessons from its history. The most important group to do this is comprised of those people who are constantly evoked as “the masses”, the ordinary members of the ANC.
They are very good at articulating what they want, what they need and their vision.
Sure, they need leadership which will embrace, give direction and bring to life what ANC members and South Africans in general want – a stable democracy and truly transformative society.
Why am I so confident that ordinary people can help change the course of the ANC, you may ask?
Well, because ANC history is replete with lessons where this has happened.The Morogoro conference is always cited as a turning point in ANC history. At a time of great tensions, ANC members asserted their problems and vision. On his part, Oliver Tambo offered to step down as leader of the ANC. The conditions are different and so are the challenges of today.
And yet, whatever are our times, the ANC is desperately in need of a leadership that serves and unites its members and the people of South Africa.
Only renewal will prevent devastation of the ANC. Renewal begins with acknowledgement that the very foundations of this house are shaky.