Tomorrow marks 13 years since SA's first multiracial elections brought the African National Congress (ANC) to power. A country once on the brink of a civil war is now a stable multiparty democracy and one of Africa's freest economies. Yet the ANC's behaviour is increasingly intolerant towards political opposition, raising fears for SA's political future. The end of apartheid was supposed to put an end to censorship. But as an internal inquiry revealed last year, ANC-aligned managers have banned a number of outspoken critics from appearing on the SABC. Among those silenced were Moeletsi Mbeki, President Thabo Mbeki's own brother, who criticised some of the government's race-based redistributionist economic policies, and Archbishop Pius Ncube of Bulawayo, who criticised Pretoria's soft line on Robert Mugabe's tyrannical rule in Zimbabwe.
The ANC has also tried to usurp power in Cape Town — the last major city remaining outside its control. Cape Town is run by mayor Helen Zille. A recipient of the United Nations' Human Rights award, Zille is a woman of unimpeachable anti-apartheid credentials. But her membership in the Democratic Alliance makes her unpalatable to the ANC, which recently tried to replace Cape Town's executive mayoral system with an executive committee on which the ANC would have had substantial representation.
The ANC is also contemplating legislative proposals that would put the justice minister in charge of court budgets. The judiciary perceives this, quite rightly, as an attack on its independence. Significantly, the proposals under consideration include a measure that would limit the courts' power to suspend an act of Parliament that they deemed unconstitutional. George Bizos, a prominent lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela during the latter's treason trial in 1963, likened the ANC's proposals to events in the 1950s, when the all-white Parliament passed a law that allowed it to override unfavourable court rulings.
The culture of political correctness, actively encouraged by the ANC, stifles public debate over the direction of SA's economic and social policies. Those who dare to criticise the government are often labelled as racists. That is troubling, because only in an atmosphere of openness, where different views and policy recommendations can be thrashed out without intimidation, can South African society hope to find the answers to pressing social problems such as crime, poverty, unemployment and the spread of infectious diseases.
Though the ANC continues to enjoy much of the international support it received in the days when it fought apartheid, its political tactics remain rooted in the Cold War. When the apartheid government cracked down on the ANC in the late 1960s, many of its top members went into exile. Some, including Mbeki, went to the Soviet Union and became members of the ANC's sister organisation, the South African Communist Party (SACP).
While in exile, the ANC cadres were exposed to the rigid structure and antidemocratic nature of the global communist movement.
On his release from jail, Mandela undertook the difficult task of modernising his party's outdated political and economic agenda. He helped cut the ANC's close link with the SACP and shed much of its Marxist ideological baggage. Yet, despite Mandela's opposition, the exiles were strong enough to push through Mbeki's appointment as SA's deputy president. As the ageing Mandela became increasingly detached from day-to-day politics, Mbeki's appointment ensured that the ANC retained its Marxist party structure and its intolerance of political opposition.
It's long past time to reassess the ANC's democratic credentials. The party appears increasingly interested in little more than concentrating and maintaining power. Fortunately, it continues to draw much of its international standing and inner confidence from the accolades it has garnered since the days when it fought apartheid.
The ANC remains hypersensitive to criticism and, as Mbeki's reversal of his earlier denial that HIV causes AIDS suggests, able to change course. Western diplomats, civil society groups and the business community should speak out against those policies that undermine the rule of law, independence of the judiciary, freedom of the media and the functioning of opposition parties in SA. Their criticism will only be effective, however, if it is loud and unambiguous.