President Jacob Zuma addresses Parliament. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/THE TIMES
President Jacob Zuma addresses Parliament. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/THE TIMES

Here is a passage from Hannah Arendt’s book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, on the nature of leaders in totalitarian regimes:

“It is this freedom from the content of their own ideologies which characterizes the highest rank of the totalitarian hierarchy. These men consider everything and everybody in terms of organization, and this includes the Leader who to them is neither an inspired talisman nor the one who is infallibly right, but the simple consequence of this type of organization; he is needed, not as a person, but as a function, and as such he is indispensable to the movement. In contrast, however, to other despotic forms of government, where frequently a clique rules and the despot plays only the representative role of a puppet ruler, totalitarian leaders are actually free to do whatever they please and can count on the loyalty of their entourage even if they choose to murder them.

“The more technical reason for this suicidal loyalty is that succession to the supreme office is not regulated by any inheritance or other laws…. It is in the nature of the movement that once the Leader has assumed his office, the whole organization is so absolutely identified with him that any admission of a mistake or removal from office would break the spell of infallibility which surrounds the office of the Leader and spell doom to all those connected with the movement. It is not the truthfulness of the Leader’s words but the infallibility of his actions which is the basis for the structure.”

The African National Congress, half revolutionary movement, half traditional political party, has as part of its schizophrenic nature a number of characteristics abhorrent to the constitutional culture one would associate with the politics of a modern democracy. It is more majoritarian than totalitarian, but it is not without a love for authority and certainly not without the belief that it is the be-all and end-all of South African political life.

One of these traits, as old as it is contemptable, was on display yesterday, as the party successfully defeated yet another motion of no confidence in its president, Jacob Zuma. Arendt describes it well enough: The leader is needed, “not as a person, but as a function, and as such he is indispensable to the movement”. In turn, “the whole organization is so absolutely identified with him that any admission of a mistake or removal from office would break the spell of infallibility which surrounds the office of the Leader and spell doom to all those connected with the movement”.

Every ANC speech paid homage to this sentiment. It was the ANC, we were told, that was under threat. Zuma, the person, the president, the amoral disease, was irrelevant. Hence, there was no need to defend him. This was an assault on the party, the alpha and the omega.

“Yet they too are deceived,” writes Arendt elsewhere, “deceived by their impudent conceited idea that everything can be done and their contemptuous conviction that everything that exists is merely a temporary obstacle that superior organization will certainly destroy.”

The leader, ostensibly the cause, is in truth a symptom

There is much about SA’s constitutional dispensation that has aided and abetted the ANC in its refusal to abandon these sorts of latent, autocratic impulses; indeed, rather to embrace and encourage them.

One of them is the fact that neither the President nor any public representative is directly elected. When that requirement is overlaid onto the ANC’s internal culture, the result is a leader who serves more as a metaphor than a visionary, and functionary more than a man of action. In turn, the body of any political party tends towards collectivism, in thought and deed.

An obsession with “Big Men” and the politics of personality serves to hold it all together: the leader, ostensibly the cause, is in truth a symptom and yet, so far as the public mind is concerned, the parasite and host are almost always treated separately.

And so it has gone with Jacob Zuma and the ANC generally for an age now. But no more. On Tuesday, the ANC introduced a schism straight into the heart of that particular hegemonic paradigm.

In siding with Zuma, and excusing the inexcusable without so much as the pretence of any moral or rational concern for the case before it, the party fractured its own universe. It has now irrevocably damaged the buffer that existed for so long in the public mind – that unseen force that seemed to shield or differentiate the organization from the individual. It was a powerful moment that will resonate for some time to come.

It is an ironic state of affairs, because the ANC would be among the first to claim “collective responsibility” is a hallmark of its political character. For decades though, this has not been believed. The aberrations that were things like HIV/AIDS, quiet diplomacy or cadre deployment, were explained away as the entirely personal impulses of the Big Man in charge. This despite the party, at every conceivable turn, insisting it operates as a collective, with its decision-making and behaviour the consequence of a hive-mind mentality, what it calls “democratic centralism”.

A great fantasy has underpinned the past few months - that getting rid of Jacob Zuma would somehow “save SA”. Quite who cooked up that particular dream is difficult to say, but everyone played their part in making the imagined as real as possible. It is, of course, a nonsense. The idea that the ANC, an organisation as ethically corrupted as it is administratively incompetent, would somehow deliver anything other than failure should Jacob Zuma go, is a wonderful piece of make-believe but, measured against any rational criteria, delusional. The belief that the ANC and Jacob Zuma can somehow be separated is absurd.

Seeing is believing. For many in SA it took a hundred horrible blows from the ANC’s hammer for people to understand, for the first time, this simple fact. So many, many blows have been inflicted. But each one chipped away at that invisible force field. It took more than 20 years. Until yesterday, at 6.34pm, when the latest sledgehammer, possibly the most powerful ever, finally introduced the first fundamental crack. The ANC caucus willingly and conclusively bound themselves to their own dark heart. That crack is there now, and it isn’t going away.

Whether it is enough to split wide open, we shall see. No doubt Cyril Ramaphosa, spared the indignity of having to reveal where his loyalties lie, will set to work suggesting he is just the tonic the party needs. And, just because our eyes were opened for a moment does not mean they will remain so. The next Big Man, the great redeemer, is already on the production line and, sooner or later, aided in no small part but yesterday’s events, he will be rolled out to the world as the singular solution to a general condition. Nevertheless, while he might paper over the crack, it’s not the kind of thing you ever fully repair.

Even Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a Big Man in every way but literally, comes with her own inevitable narrative. More foreboding perhaps but no less all-determining in its nature. It seems almost inescapable, this desire to surrender our analysis to some singular figure of authority.

Some – in particular the DA – have been historically immune from this particular affliction. And yet, in recent years, it too has indulged the sort of Big Man politics to which our general analysis is held hostage. It too had come to lay all its concerns at Zuma’s doorstep.

Yesterday’s vote was a triumph for the DA and the party is due an apology

But then it stumbled across the motion of no confidence.

How it was derided by all those who, today, cheer and celebrate this latest attempt to topple Zuma as a brave act of collective democratic will by the South African people. How generous Mmusi Maimane was to stand up before Parliament and describe this as the people’s motion. He had every right to remind many in the media how pathetically myopic they have been in the past; how they had warned that these kinds of thing unite the ANC, they do not divide it, and how they insisted the DA was playing into the ANC’s hands.

How wrong they were. For every vote, bit by painful bit, helped to weaken and erode the wall between the individual and the collective. Every vote demonstrated that Zuma was the ANC and the ANC was Zuma until, at the umpteenth attempt, the party’s message became common cause.

Yesterday’s vote was a triumph for the DA and the party is due an apology.

The unintended consequence of its action, was that much of civil society, typified by band wagon organisations like Save SA, effectively surrogates for some imagined ideal of the ANC of old, have been forced by yesterday’s events to arrive the one conclusion they can no longer escape: the problem is the ANC, not Jacob Zuma.

They have herded themselves into this corner and this cold, hard reality now has them in their grasp. There is going to be some uncomfortable grappling with it, as they are forced to understand that, as bad as Zuma is, it pales in comparison to those who willingly enable him - that “this suicidal loyalty is that succession to the supreme office is not regulated by any inheritance or other laws”. Some may well use those ANC MPs who voted for the motion, to pin on what hope they have left. But those MPs were indicative of what the ANC is not, not what it is.

There are now rumours of another Cabinet reshuffle, the price Zuma had to pay for the collective deference the ANC presidency engenders. If true, he will, as Arendt says, commit a few more political murders. It matters not. No one really dies in the ANC.

Many will forget of course. We do a roaring trade in selective amnesia. Perhaps it is the romance of the ANC’s glory days that feeds our Panglossian appetite for blind optimism. Whatever the cause, it is a defining feature of our ahistoric attitude towards the ANC. Always it can be saved. Always it can turn the corner. Always, one man holds the key. It is a harder sell today than it was yesterday morning. And that is the great lesson, acknowledged or suppressed, that SA learnt yesterday. It will sit there, in our subconscious, gnawing away in the background.

In decades to come, history will seek to determine exactly the origins of the ANC’s illegitimacy. It will never arrive at a precise point. But you can be sure every account will register August 8 2017 as a significant moment.

Without a time machine, we are unable to see all the consequences of yesterday’s events. That is a pity, because there are no doubt a great many to come. They might play out over months or even years. They might be arrested, if the ANC was to undergo some profound reformation. But the likelihood of that seems remote. And yesterday’s motion of no confidence tells you why: the ANC cannot afford to break the spell of which Hannah Arendt wrote.

Arendt also makes the following observation: “Since, moreover, they do not actually believe in the factual existence of a world conspiracy against them, but use it only as an organisational devise, they fail to understand that their own conspiracy may eventually provoke the whole world into uniting against them.”

The party’s chief whip, Jackson Mthembu, said the national caucus would have to be “bewitched” to vote in support of the motion. A significant number surrendered to themselves to that particular curse. But the grand magic held. The party is indeed bewitched. It always has been. SA too. Only it’s a far more powerful enchantment than most would be willing to believe. Yesterday, if only for a moment, we could see the institution for what is was. You build a democracy on precedents such as those. You cannot unsee what you have seen. They work like memories, and this one is going to indelibly etched into our mind.

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