Let Us See Who Is Swimming Naked

December 14, 2008 • Commentary
This article appeared in the Sunday Independant (South Africa) on December 14, 2008

Last week, en route to a speech at New York University, I chanced upon a mural in Greenwich Village. It depicted Barack Obama as a white man and John McCain as a black. Underneath this arresting transposition was the legend: “Let the issues be the issue”.

The artist got his wish in the United States on November 4 when the tsunami of economic woes and popular discontent with the presidency of George Bush swept Barack Obama to power, and drowned any lingering attachments in the US to racial politics.

South Africa’s sclerotic race‐​based politics, where every election since democracy could, in various ways, be predetermined on the basis of an ethnic census, is set for a shake‐​up with the formalisation of the Congress of the People (COPE) next Tuesday in Bloemfontein.

Might South Africans hope that this most significant breakaway from the ruling ANC since the formation of the Pan Africanist Congress nearly 50 years ago leads to a localised version of “letting the issues be the issue”?

Having enjoyed (the verb endured might be more apt) the title of longest‐​serving leader of the official opposition in Parliament since 1994, perhaps I can offer some (unsolicited) advice to the late‐​joiners to the opposition patch.

First, in a mechanical sense at least, any worthwhile democrat in South Africa will welcome an addition to the scattered ranks of the country’s opposition forces. One of the reasons why our democracy has not fulfilled its early promise, and the high expectations so many of us had for it, is reflected in the last general election results.

More than 50 points separated the ANC and the principal opposition that I then led. This allowed the governing party to ignore dissenting voices, sideline alternative views, however meritorious, and suck most of the oxygen out of the democratic space which the Constitution, in theory, created for a multiplicity of players. Any reduction in that gap must be welcomed.

Second, it is commendable that COPE has clothed its somewhat threadbare policies in a robust defence of the Constitution — our founding democratic settlement. Recent polls suggest that South Africans retain an overwhelming faith in it, despite their misgivings about current politics and failing institutions.

At this time of deep political uncertainty in South Africa and huge economic upheaval around the world, it is worth recalling the words of US’s investor sage, and its wealthiest man, Warren Buffett. He is fond of remarking in business: “It’s only when the tide goes out that you discover who’s swimming naked.” The same yardstick should measure political leaders.

It is, therefore, perfectly fair to ask whether the leadership of COPE are the best guardians of our Constitution and worthy stewards for its future protection. This inquiry yields a far from reassuring answer, despite the excitement at the prospect of a new challenger to ANC hegemony.

Brian Pottinger, in his excellent new work The Mbeki Legacy, got it exactly right. He described the difference between the ascendant forces aligned to Jacob Zuma and the vanquished acolytes of Thabo Mbeki as being the difference between “ANC Classic” and “ANC Lite”.

One should never underestimate the potency of the politics of resentment: that heady cocktail of hurt egos, withering resentments and loss of power. Indeed, it is difficult to discern any gulf of principle that separates the ANC from COPE. They both claim to be fighting for the real core, and the lost soul, of the governing party.

Ostensibly, the formation of COPE is not about getting even or bringing back the spirit of Mbeki through the back door. It is about the creation of an alternative based on principle.

When I delivered my lecture at New York University, Breyten Breytenbach was in the audience. He gave me a copy of his recently published excoriation of the current South Africa in the latest edition of Harper’s magazine. It is subtitled Notes of South Africa’s Failed Revolution. As exhibit A of his deconstruction, he presents the Marie Antoinette quote of Smuts Ngonyama: “I didn’t struggle to be poor”.

The words are entirely accurate, being the risible defence Ngonyama provided when asked to justify the R50‐​million he pocketed for his membership of a consortium that received a huge payola from the Telkom listing — in his case a result of “know‐​who” rather than “know‐ how”.

Breytenbach, however, inaccurately cites Ngonyama as “spokesman for the African National Congress”. Today he is head of policy for COPE. It is not his undeserved millions that concern me.

But, in his new incarnation, is he still the staunch defender that he once was of the cadre policy and deployment strategy of the ANC? In 1999, when I revealed this document, which stated that the accountability of all ANC cadres lay to the party high command and not to the institutions in which they were serving, Ngonyama described me as “a childish but confused individual”.

In fact, as events over the past decade have made manifest, the ANC’s decision to place its officials in every key post in every institution, especially those requiring robust independence, has led to the corrosion of the Constitution, which Cope has now vowed to protect.

Last week, The New York Times highlighted on its front page a recent Harvard University study, which pinned the needless death of more than 300 000 South Africans on then‐​president Mbeki’s refusal to accept the scientific consensus on Aids and his promotion of crank remedies drawn from Aids dissidents.

When, in 2000, the Democratic Alliance rolled out the provision of antiretrovirals in the Western Cape and offered to extend the treatment in its municipalities, Ngonyama accused us of peddling “apartheid‐​era biological warfare”. His other colleague in COPE, Mbhazima Shilowa, was at the time premier of Gauteng.

But that province resisted and fought the Constitutional Court case in July 2002 which the Treatment Action Campaign launched to force birthing facilities to provide antiretrovirals to HIV‐​positive mothers and babies.

Thirdly, nothing has divided South Africa’s opposition forces more than questions of unity.

It is, therefore, reassuring to note that COPE leader Mosiuoa Lekota has pledged to work with other opposition parties, including my own, on the question of creating provincial governments in which the opposition commands a majority. I have warm regard for Lekota, not least because of the very kind remarks he made when I stood down as leader of the opposition.

But I also remember the entirely destructive role he played in 2001 in decimating opposition forces by luring Marthinus van Schalkwyk into the ANC in an attempt to monopolise all power in the hands of the ruling party.

At one level, that’s politics. At another, it brings to mind the rueful remark of a famous British politician who said: “When you want to protect a principle, don’t look for protection from among the tramplers.”

My enduring hope for the new opposition party is that it will be staunch and resolute in its attachment to constitutional principles and practice: the very ideals its key leaders undermined when they occupied the seats of power.

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