IT’S possibly the best management book I’ve read in years, even if the author or its subject never intended it to be a book about management. The subheading to Fordsburg Fighter makes their intention obvious: The journey of an MK volunteer. But it turns out this book is about more than Umkhonto we Sizwe or politics. It is about management (or leadership) from the perspective of the managed (or the led).
In a massive global industry comprising largely dull treatises on the art of management and leadership, the perspective of the managed is usually ignored. Management books generally describe a sanitised environment in which the “managed” behave as they ought to and not as humans actually behave when they are corralled together in large groups.
Here we have something very different: the perspective of the foot soldier, the individual who has almost no access to power and who has to endure the grim and, in this case, at times life-threatening ineptitude of his out-of-touch leaders.
As much as it is a story of the disappointments of an initially enthusiastic comrade, it is also the story of why organisations fail.
Fordsburg Fighter is an enthralling book, made all the more attractive by the easy-reading style. Terry Bell, one of SA’s most insightful commentators on labour and political issues, has written the story of MK volunteer Amin Cajee as told to him by Cajee.
It takes us from the Johannesburg suburb of Fordsburg in October 1962 to East Africa, then London and Czechoslovakia, before returning to Tanzania and finally back to London.
As the book’s jacket says, “When Amin Cajee left SA to join the liberation struggle he believed he had volunteered to serve ‘a democratic movement dedicated to bringing down an oppressive regime’.” Instead, says Cajee, “I found myself serving a movement that was relentless in exercising power and riddled with corruption.”
The book reveals how the ANC’s public image as a freedom fighter and the legitimate representative of “the people of SA” was often at odds with the experience of its members.
Critical to that public image (needed to secure funding) was the belief in the unity of the organisation, which meant the disavowal of rife factionalism.
Trashing the ANC’s imagined history has become something of a popular pastime and is probably as deeply disturbing to the tens of millions of South Africans who were not members in the bad times but wanted and needed to believe in the image as it is irritating to the organisation’s leaders.
Bell and Cajee have no desire to trash images. But they would like to see something of the SA to which they dedicated decades of their lives.
The really chilling aspect of the book is the eerie familiarity of Cajee’s description of how the camp in Tanzania was run. Ineptitude, factionalism, corruption and cronyism seemed the dominant management characteristics. The noble goal of returning to SA to overthrow the apartheid government was used to rein in signs of rebellion in the ranks. There seemed little intention to create the capacity needed to realise that goal.
At some stage you may get the sinking feeling the book describes the ANC of the present as much as the past.
There is still a noble goal we all want to believe in and work towards. Today’s goal is about growing the economy, creating jobs and reducing inequality. Millions of South Africans, including ANC members, are committed to it. But not, it often seems, the leadership, where ineptitude and cronyism thrive.
The growth goal is an erratic priority evident only at signs of rebellion. Once again there’s an arrogance that weakens commitment to building the capacity needed to attain the goal.
An organisation that drifts so far from those it leads cannot survive indefinitely. As in business, effective competition would rein in its arrogance or speed up its demise.