JOHANNESBURG - It is a mere blink, if not less, in the long sweep of geological time and nothing in the even longer passage of cosmic time. But a century is a long time in human affairs. South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress, mark its 106th year of existence this January. That is indeed an achievement in political longevity.
However, most centenarians are not at the top of their game. The faculties are not as sharp as they used to be, mobility is impaired and responsiveness is definitely no longer what it was. Ask anyone who cares for those rare individuals who get to live for more than a century. The exceptional ones remain sprightly, those ones you read about in newspaper and magazine articles who advocate a daily alcoholic beverage or an avoidance of men or dancing or some other folksy advice.
Organisations are even more acutely affected by ageing. Think of religious organisations and their difficulty with change, their reliance on arguments founded in documents which are in some cases thousands of years old. Think of followers of such religions who map those precepts engendered in a world with a different political economy onto a post-millennial reality in which life is imperilled in ways unforeseeable by forest dwellers or nomadic groups in the desert millennia ago.
After 106 years, many South Africans are looking to the new leadership of the ANC for some sort of significant shift in the party’s trajectory. Over the last decade, two significant fissures in the party have resulted in significant political challenges for the organisation which calls itself ‘Africa’s oldest liberation movement’.
The leadership contestation which saw Jacob Zuma elected to the party’s presidency led to the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope). While Cope has never been a real challenge to the political hegemony of the ANC, the split did see a significant loss of historical memory in the departure of senior ANC figures like Mosioua Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa. While Cope’s fortunes in electoral political has waned, the wound its formation caused the ANC cannot be ignored.
The second crisis involved a rebellious ANC Youth League leadership under Julius Malema, whose expulsion from the party led directly to the formation of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). While many ANC officials all but dismissed their performance in the 2014 general elections in public, their ability to garner 6-percent of the vote mere months after formation remains a significant achievement. They are now the third largest party in the National Assembly.
In its most recent, acrimoniously contested elective conference, the ANC once again committed itself to organisational renewal. Some observers have indicated that this need has now become urgent. It has been the party of government for the post-apartheid Republic of South Africa for almost 24 years. It currently governs eight of the country’s nine provinces and the overwhelming majority of municipalities. It suffered in the August 2016 local government election, being kept out of government in three metros by political coalitions among its opponents. It does not govern in the country’s capital, in its economic hub, or in the coastal municipal area named after its most enduring icon.
It retains a substantial parliamentary majority such that several motions of no confidence in the party’s then-president and President of the Republic of South Africa, Jacob Zuma, failed. However, that figure is increasingly beleaguered, having suffered several damning court judgments towards the end of 2017. The new party president is preaching unity given the relatively slim majority of his victory and the split inside the top six officials and in the party’s National Executive Committee. These are not the best of times for the party, but it is far from the worst.
The test lies in its ability to meet the new challenges of a new millennium - of adapting internally to external shifts. It must move on from its past, which is reimagines very successfully for the purposes of political persuasion in electioneering and in its engagement with critics. It must look to the country it governs, to its people and the institutions which are largely the product of ANC design and negotiation, and figure out what a governing political party in a Constitutional democracy must do to remain in legitimate power.
The fact that the top six officials are predominantly men in a femicidal country in which women are the numerical majority does not inspire confidence. That the leadership is predominantly over sixty in a country where young people will soon be the electoral majority ought to worry the ANC. Old tropes and repertoires will not much longer bring democratically elected political power. New times call for new ways and the ANC’s test under Cyril Ramaphosa’s presidency will be whether it can adapt quickly enough to meet those challenges in constructive ways which allow it to survive as a political party dedicated to Constitutional democracy.
One hundred and six years is indeed a long time. A quarter of a century ago, in the last, terrible year of the late apartheid period, I learned to read again and to re-read. Across 13 weeks, in a weekly seminar with a teacher who would go on to win the Nobel Prize, I re-learned the value of close reading, of textual exegesis and the importance of what the Palestinian critic Edward Said called ‘worlding the text’. Ironically, it was a course on the origins of the modern European novel in the eighteenth century, but its lessons were instructive for making sense of the legacies of Calvinism and colonialism across southern African polities.
Can the ANC (and its NEC) re-learn the value of close reading, and of ‘worlding’ themselves anew? We are scheduled to have general elections in fewer than eighteen months. Organisations are slow to change. Centenarians are convinced that they’ve lived as long as they have because they have always done things their own way. But nobody lives forever and if the ANC wants to survive beyond the next decade, it may need more significant renewal than just of personnel. Habits of being and ways of seeing can ensure survival, but if they become anachronistic, they can doom.