BOOK REVIEW: Unpicking the myth of the ANC’s struggle credentials
Whether by design or default, Sizwe Mpofu-Walsh’s take on the ANC’s early history in his book, Democracy and Delusion, induces stomach-churning laughter and tears as he tries to put paid to the party’s bombastic discourse about its early revolutionary leanings.
Mpofu-Walsh’s narrative highlights the absurdities of the ANC’s contradictory politics and shows how its founding fathers were loath to challenge the colonial status quo. In the process, a picture emerges of an organisation desperately at odds with its early history.
Delivered in incisive language, his juxtaposition of the party of old, which pandered to its colonial masters, and its contemporary image as a "revolutionary force" makes for informative and entertaining reading. This is because it lays bare the shaky edifice upon which the ANC has built its self-styled reputation as the country’s liberator-in-chief.
In fact, the South African Native National Congress of the early 20th century, which would later become the ANC, was anything but revolutionary in its sociopolitical posture and leanings. Nor was it progressive in its treatment of women, who did not enjoy full member status. It would take 31 years for women to be brought into the fold.
Mpofu-Walsh sketches a portrait of the early ANC as a political safe haven for members of the black elite driven by the need to protect their turf without rocking the structural boat.
The remnants of this conservative impulse have manifested in the governing party’s pervasive machismo — or what Mpofu-Walsh characterises as the ANC’s "masculine politics" — which reached a crescendo during President Jacob Zuma’s rape trial in the mid-2000s.
In his myth-busting book, Mpofu-Walsh picks apart the struggle mythology in which the contemporary ANC has cloaked itself. One of the book’s 10 chapters is aimed at rebutting the idea that the party liberated the country — or that SA is indeed fully liberated.
Think Sharpeville, the anti-pass campaign and the youth uprising of June 16 1976, all of which are considered major historical turning points in the resistance against apartheid. But the ANC was neither the central actor nor chief instigator in any of these significant events.
Despite this, the true architects of these important resistance campaigns have been relegated to the sidelines of history, while the governing party claims full credit.
Charlotte Maxeke, who today is hailed as an ANC heroine, led one of the first major pass-burning protests in 1919, Mpofu-Walsh points out, while still not a full member of the party.
Crucially, during that time, the party was fixated with "cordial meetings and letter writing" to the British throne while activists such as Maxeke — and others outside the movement — did the political heavy lifting.
Such catalysts were needed to jolt the ANC into changing tack and enlivening it on a more leftist approach. Mpofu-Walsh successfully argues that "the ANC woke up because of activists like Maxeke; Maxeke did not wake up because of the ANC". Also, "the early South African Native National Congress fully embraced the logic and language of colonial authority".
Yet the political contributions of the Pan Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement and the United Democratic Front have been reduced to footnotes of history, as the ANC indulges in writing "patriotic history" that characterises the party as the standard bearer of the struggle.
Mpofu-Walsh points out that the ANC owes a great debt to these movements, without which the party would have "faded into irrelevance".
The erasure of these movements’ immense contributions to the struggle is not only ahistorical but carries with it the danger of blurring the lines between history and propaganda, he warns.
This is so because the ANC possesses state power and has the backing of "powerful infrastructure, spanning speeches, television programmes, books, radio broadcasts, choreographed collective rituals, the school curriculum, popular music and social media".
The other chapters in the book touch on myths pertaining to South Africans’ living standards, free education, the alarmist rhetoric on land reform, state involvement in the economy, racial justice, Zuma’s legal troubles, elite schools and the Marikana massacre.
The hidden gem that brings it all together is an anecdote in the conclusion about an observation made by Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron in a speech he delivered to education activists in 2016.
Justice Cameron related that he was listening to the radio while driving home one afternoon, when the radio station quoted EFF leader Julius Malema making provocative statements about Zuma.
Cameron waited, thinking to himself: "Will Gwede Mantashe respond, will Zizi Kodwa lay charges?"
But nothing happened. That incident underscored the fact that, despite the country’s socio-economic structural problems, "South Africans can speak against power in ways unimaginable just a few decades ago".
DEMOCRACY AND DELUSION: 10 Myths in South African PoliticsSizwe Mpofu-WalshTafelberg