After 1994, your party encountered a very special problem and 20 years after you played your pivotal role in ushering in a new era, I feel compelled to bring it to your attention in the broadest terms possible.
Your leaders, whom while in exile had picked up a relatively libertarian understanding of the indivisibility of human rights, became different from the rest of the black South African public in that that public, the majority of ANC voters, were interested in freedom as they understood and defined it and not as the leaders had realized it to be while in exile. The people had received less exposure to the ideas.
For the sake of brevity, let’s call the overall on-the-ground cluster of perspectives and priorities, “The Culture.” The Culture is the overall mixture of religious and ideological preferences, prejudices and opinions of the broader South African public. It often recognizes the Constitution as a set of ideas, ideals and slogans, but never as the final charter on State-citizen relationships. Like the stars in the sky, it exists and forms a pretty backdrop, but exerts a weak influence on the day-to-day lives of people.
Yet your leaders knew enough about the technicalities of freedom and democracy to understand that the kind of Constitution required to back that freedom would be the kind that they eventually crafted – a legal masterpiece – and that even the people’s right to have their varying preferences, prejudices, differences and opinions, presupposed the ability to agree to disagree. You understood, and I am in awe of this; you understood that the Culture needs the Constitution whether the people under the Culture understand that or not.
But to a big enough degree to precipitate violence against those they think are different, the people behind the Culture do not understand this necessary paradox. Indeed, the Culture’s existence is predicated on very narrow, very amorphous understandings of variance and freedom, and often, people from one sliver of the Culture will try to absorb and assimilate those of differing slivers. They do not tolerate “the other’s” right to exist apart from being alienated, forcefully proselytized or persecuted for being different.
The problem your party encountered after 1994 was finding a President who could reconcile the demands of the Constitution with what would be popular according to the Culture. How well did your party succeed at finding a President who would pull this trick off? Let’s line them up.
Praise for President Nelson Mandela’s work in bringing about a peaceful transition to democracy eclipsed the relationship between his personal worldview and the Constitution. It was never questioned; it was never discussed in detail or at length.
President Thabo Mbeki could not manage to play this trick; he erred on the side of the experimental ideas he had picked up from abroad. The public could not cope with his leadership style; you subsequently did what you had to do.
To stay in power, you overcorrected – and understandably so. You put in leadership a man who is Thabo Mbeki’s mirror inverse. He plays to the Culture while the rest of the ANC structure plays to the Constitution. The ANC does damage control for those times when Jacob Zuma’s off-the-cuff comments contradict the tenets of the Constitution.
20 years later, the undeniable impression that a growing percentage of the public is getting, is that this perceived duplicity is continued because it is the ANC’s only shot at getting elected again and again. As a result of apartheid, the ANC’s perpetual power lies in its ability to play the gap between the Constitutional rights of individuals, and the Cultural expectations of the majority.
It is an insult to the intelligence of the general public, and not to mention very dangerous, that you continue expecting us to accept Mac Maharaj’s disingenuous explanations for words spoken by the President, words that undermine the Constitutional rights of many members of the public no matter how slick the explanation that comes in the aftermath.
Even if we have the wrong impression of things, you’ve got to now deal with the fact that an ever-growing number of comedians, slam-poets, artists and bloggers – opinion shapers over whom you have no direct influence – does believe that this is what is happening. And we are only going to get louder.
There is no way you are going to muffle or explain away our multiplying voices except by breaking the law or spinning more and more incredulous stories than ever before, becoming stand-up comedy fodder.
I understand that the President’s comments are often made during semi-formal chit-chats with the public. But it is often public enough – on a platform whose sustenance requires tax-payer’s money – for us to insist that he extol the tenets of the Constitution even then. That’s our Constitution, those are our rights and possibly even our lives he is talking about; we refuse to give him the right to toy with those things in order to win popularity. You’re letting the man play God. Words have effects, and the President ought to know that all it takes is one inflammatory comment to set off events that no one can control.
I am not the first person to bring this to your attention, so you are hopefully taking it more seriously as the outcry builds. Human rights, properly understood, are absolute and absolutely indivisible.
What the ANC does with its current President is the ANC’s business. But some of us aforementioned comedians, slam-poets, artists, bloggers and opinion shapers are trying to engage The Culture in order to make it more aware of the inalienability of the Constitution. The ANC will soon discover that the more it tries to retain its power by picking leaders in such a way as to exploit the different between the Culture and the Constitution, the more ineffectual that tactic will be. This is a very early warning. Insofar as it works on that difference, the ANC’s ability to attract voters will slowly be diminished.
At this sensitive and complex time in your journey with the country, I’m extending the idea of a change in game plan, and I’d like to know your response to it.
How does the ANC answer the growing perception that this is how it retains power, from a psychological perspective? I have tried to be both diplomatic and incisive in my wording of this question. Had I not cared for brevity, I would have sugar-coated it a lot more. So please try to be as careful as I have tried to be in the wording of your response.
I would like to know how the ANC can more robustly “come to the party” in terms of empowering those who conduct Constitutional rights’ sensitivity training where there is need, as well as taking pro-active steps to form an awareness of and give a leg-up to those who engage and dialogue with various aspects of The Culture. How is the ANC cooperating with those who help The Culture more intimately understand and embrace the Constitution? I have tried to search for news of how the ANC may have been doing this under my radar as I believe it has been; I believe that the ANC has gotten crucial things done in the background, but perhaps the media has chosen to focus on other issues instead of those activities? None of these are rhetorical questions – I would really like to know because I think it’s a concern that the ANC must have been aware of and perhaps should publicize (by responding to this letter, perhaps). Please bear in mind that the public can view and respond on this platform, able to evaluate your assessment of what you have done thus far.
Your slogan is “Working together to make a better country” – so how do we make it happen?
Thank you for your time.
Happy New Year, and Elections 2014 and 2019 – may the best man (or woman) win!
This open letter is a blog post on https://sanitythinksoutloud.wordpress.com