What the cadres really want to talk about

Jeremy Gordin on what won't and will be discussed at the ANC policy conference

Alongside decayed roués [i] with dubious means of subsistence and of dubious origin, alongside ruined and adventurous offshoots of the bourgeoisie, were vagabonds, discharged soldiers [ii], discharged jailbirds [iii], escaped galley slaves, swindlers, mountebanks, lazzaroni [iv], pickpockets, tricksters, gamblers, maquereaus [v], brothel keepers, porters, literati [vi], organ grinders, ragpickers, knife grinders, tinkers, beggars – in short, the whole indefinite, disintegrated mass, thrown hither and thither, which the French call la bohème.”

You recognise this? Surely you do. It’s a famous description of (a negative sector of) the lumpen proletariat – the “declassed,” detached elements of the proletariat who resorted to lowly, anti-social, and criminal activities for their livelihoods.

The author of this description, this boychik, he could write, couldn’t he! C’mon, admit it. His style has a certain je ne sais quoi, his prose has cadence, doesn’t it? Though what he had against organ grinders, knife grinders and tinkers, I’m not certain.

I do know though what he had against ragpickers. He was, alas, something of a self-hating Jew. So it goes. A fellow gets wrongly breast-fed – and bidda-bong, bidda-bing, he marries out of the faith, grows a big beard, turns against the wisdom of his fathers, and, while avoiding doing a day’s work all his life [vii], comes up with a blueprint for a whole new political and economic way of life.

You got it. The opening quote of this article is Karl Marx sounding off in The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852). What’s a brumaire (or rather when’s a brumaire?) and why Louis Bonaparte? Don’t ask, ok – because I’ll digress and there’ll be in the land what my esteemed Latin teacher, Mrs Hudson (Brakpan High, circa 1968), used to refer to as “a wailing and gnashing of teeth”.

Far more to the point is this question: why am I quoting some of Uncle Karl’s scribblings here?

Ah, against my better judgment – but given that the ANC is set to start its sixth (five-yearly) policy conference in Nasrec from today – I thought I’d better take a look at the founding documents for this meeting (Umrabulo [viii]), to see what the good people would be discussing.

And it was within the 188 pages of what President Cyril Ramaphosa describes in his Foreword as “policy discussion papers to be discussed [sic] ... in preparation for the December Elective Conference [and which are to be perused] against the background of a challenging period” – it was therein that I encountered Marx.

This was on p 13, under the heading “The Dynamic of Lumpen Strata in the Social Structure,” which came in turn under Chapter One, headed “The Changing Balance of Forces around the South African Transformation Agenda”.

And Marx was being utilised (if I might talk of his highness in this fashion), to explain that alas, there are in our country “hustlers [like the ones Marx was describing in 1852] who pursue narrow material self-interests and offer their services to the highest bidder. They are what Marx referred to as the ‘refuse of all classes, easy to manipulate to support the capitalist system’”.

However, the document points out, “groups that lack principle, and that show a lack of social consciousness are not only [my emphasis] located among the unemployed. ... Susceptible to mobilization against the revolution, the lumpen tendency also find[s] expression in the middle and upper strata in a complex process of post-colonial class formation in today’s South Africa”. (Don’t worry – I’m not going to quote further from Umrabulo.)

Angels and ministers of grace defend us – as Hamlet remarked when he saw his father’s ghost, not Karl Marx’s. Who writes this antediluvian twaddle? Is there someone at Luthuli House who actually gets a salary for penning this grotesque parody? Was the late ANC deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte involved? Is this why she was often irritable?

But never mind who writes this stuff, more to the point is the question: Who reads it?

Is someone seriously going to tell me that all those folk gathered at Nasrec ever read this rubbish? They have travelled from far and wide, eagerly looking forward to dancing, argument, and reuniting with old friends and free chicken – and somebody thinks they’re going to feed on this cold gruel, which has been masticated and re-masticated for about 150 years?

Surely not. For one thing, I’m pretty sure that, like 90% of my fellow citizens, they read their mobile phones only. For another, I’ve got to believe that they’re more sensible. Ordinary members know what the discussion points really should be.

No 1. That persnickety step-aside rule has to go. How can people go ahead with their careers in the ANC – and thereby, of course, make the ANC stronger and fight for the people – if those facing criminal charges are required to step aside from party elections?

What an absurd idea – as the newly elected ANC KZN leadership and the Taliban faction recently made quite clear. How, for example, are fine and long-serving cadres such as ex-ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize, suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, and eThekwini ANC boss Zandile Gumede supposed to serve the people?

No 2. What’s the story with President Cyril having (in David Bullard’s lovely phrase) used his soft furnishings as a piggy bank?

It’s not that any ANC leader or member minds all that much that Cyril (or a family member) hid money in a couch; sometimes difficult times call for peculiar measures. But why didn’t he share at least some of that loot with others? Ubuntu, maibru, ubuntu.

Also, why does Ramaphosa bang on about the step-aside rules and say nice things about the Zondo commission when it looks as though he might be hoist by his own petard? (You never know what else is snuggling inside those soft furnishings, e.g., a petard.)

No 3. Delegates surely need to know what former President Thabo Mbeki thinks he’s doing. Speaking at the memorial service for Duarte, Mbeki said: “As a matter of fact, we [the ANC] don’t have a national plan to address the challenges of poverty, unemployment, inequality. It doesn’t exist.”

Oops. He might be correct; I daresay he is. A chapeau to Mbeki for speaking truth to power (or whatever). But should a former ANC president suddenly be stepping out of the dark – like Hamlet’s father – and publicly saying such things about the present incumbent’s conduct? Surely, this is not how the (ANC) game is played. What does it portend, if anything?

Does Mbeki think he’s Rishi Sunak? Is he joining the Taliban faction? I can’t imagine him sporting a keffiyeh. But then again, given police minister Bheki Cele’s choice of hats, perhaps what is also required is some sort of policy on headgear.

No 4. Another important issue requiring attention is the president’s recent announcement of new emergency measures to deal with our electricity crisis. Readers have doubtless studied these in detail; and I shan’t bore you by traversing the detail.

However, the consensus that one’s able to pick up from the media, talking heads, etc., is that very little of what Ramaphosa offered is new; that much of it is the equivalent of “Providing Power 101”; and that it’s likely to fall foul of how we do things here these days – lacklustre implementation, corruption, crime, and so-called red tape.

What was interesting though was Ramaphosa saying that Eskom would bring back some of its former competent folk – “skilled professionals will be sourced from both locally and abroad”. I presume this includes those Whiteys presently working overseas.

Hmmm, let’s hear what the policy conference thinks about that (allegedly planned) policy. Could the Reformation have begun? (Don’t hold your breath.)

Above all, I look forward to hearing which songs are sung from today onwards. As Setumo Stone has remarked in City Press, at almost every ANC get-together of this nature, “the songs are associated with one or more of the leadership campaigns [of] those who will be contesting for the presidency at the national elective conference in December ...

“There is a psychological victory to be had going into the December conference for the lobby that sings the loudest and most popular song during the policy conference.”

Otherwise, as I hinted above, and as the learned Mr Stone concurs, it will just be one big party.

“The tender beneficiaries will be out to flaunt their material accumulation. The slay queens will also be on the prowl. Local taverns, pubs, and clubs will make a killing. Then we will all be back to do it all over again in December.”

Eat your heart out, Karl.


[i] Debauched elderly men – though when, as a teenager, I perched on my bed smoking, my mom used to ask me if I thought I was a bloody roué.

[ii] Ex-MK chaps who want their stipends.

[iii] Gayton McKenzie?

[iv] The okes who sleep over at night at Zoo Lake, in the cold.

[v] Pimps.

[vi] Like David Bullard and me.

[vii] Being a journalist and writing books does not (NB, David) count as work as far as we historical materialists are concerned.

[viii] Umrabulo was a word used to inspire political discussion and debate on Robben Island. “In the true spirit of the ANC, this concept is being revived to assert our fundamental adherence to the necessity for enriched discussion at all levels of [the] organisation. In this way, the programmes that we implement will be based on a solid understanding of our options and our principles. This concept was revived in 1996 when the ANC published the first edition of Umrabulo.”