The ANC and the failing of democratic governance

Paul Trewhela on the US consulate cable on Abahlali baseMjondolo

In a statement headed "Is The ANC As Democratic As It Claims?", a confidential report by the US consulate in Durban dated 8 January 2010 - released publicly by Wikileaks on 24 August this year - stated: "The AbM movement is a test of democratic governance for the ANC..."

In its introduction, this report sent to the US State Department reads: "What began as a Durban road blockade in 2005 has become a shack-dwellers movement in South Africa. Abahlali baseMjondolo (AbM, which means `those who live in the shacks' in Zulu) now includes thousands of shack-dwellers from more than 30 informal settlements throughout the country. AbM has garnered international support and has won legal battles against the African National Congress's (ANC) attempts at forced removal. While the ANC claims to be making efforts to clean up slums and provide the poor with adequate housing, AbM leadership claims intimidation and anti-democratic tactics are used against its members by the ruling party. AbM represents a true test of democratic governance for the ANC."  

I agree with the sense of this report. It is significant, however, that it has taken the leak of a confidential communication from a US consular official to make plain to South Africa and the world such a major threat to the country's still young and vulnerable democracy. The full report should be read with care by every South African with a concern for the country's present, past and future.

A major question is: Why, in such a highly politicised country, has there been such minimal attention to such a major political issue?

In the exile period through to its formation of the first post-apartheid government of South Africa, the ANC embodied both democratic and anti-democratic qualities.

Its formation in 1912, as the Native National Congress, was a profoundly democratic event. I am not aware of any other political party in Africa which so early and - generally speaking - so successfully sought a political practice that would rise above tribe and clan, and thus provide a genuine route to nationhood. One need only look to Zimbabwe, by comparison, to see how miserably this process has failed there. No other political party in South Africa was so responsible as the ANC for the winning of universal suffrage in 1994.

This was grossly disfigured in exile, however, by its behaviour as a one-party state over its own members, with democratic debate stifled by its security department - iMbokodo, "the grindstone" - and its history of abuse at Quatro concentration camp in Angola.

There was always the danger that these practices would return to South Africa once the ANC became the majoritarian ruling party, over-riding its democratic heritage.

Serious challenges to fundamental democratic elements in the Constitution, among the them the freedom of the media and the independence of the judiciary, now make this danger more acute than ever.

Nothing in post-liberation experience, however, has been closer to the totalitarian model to which the ANC looked in exile, through its client relation with the Soviet Union, than the violent assault by ANC local political structures on Abahlali baseMjondolo at Kennedy Road in Durban/eThekwini in September 2009, followed by the arrest of those who had been attacked and free license given to the attackers, followed in turn by the scandal of a trial of the innocent lasting longer than any in the history of apartheid bar the Treason Trial of 1956-61, when, as with the Kennedy 12, all the defendants - Nelson Mandela among them - were found not guilty.

The scandal is that this political prosecution was ever instituted in the first place, and that it was dragged on, month after month, by magistrates, prosecution and police without a shred of reliable evidence - with plentiful evidence, rather, of manipulation and intimidation of witnesses by the police and local ANC structures.

This was a Quatro trial, following a Quatro assault on South African democracy. The innocent were persecuted, and the guilty were - and remain - untouched.

Alongside magnificent support for the victims from the very first day of their ordeal provided by the Diakonia Council of Churches, and in particular by Bishop Rubin Phillip, as well as by fellow poor people's organisations across the country and across the world, a further scandal though was the abysmal level of attention provided to this political prosecution by the media in South Africa. Generally, the media failed in its responsbility - a worrying signal, and a serious fall beneath the best examples of media integrity in the apartheid period.

This trial was a warning that the country is in danger, that the defence of AbM was a defence of democracy, and that defence of democracy in South Africa requires a defence of AbM.

All strength to AbM today - especially AbM at Kennedy Road - for its place at the front of the struggles of the whole of the last century.

There are further hard times ahead.

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