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Reflecting on Mandela’s legacy during a turbulent era for the ANC

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Picture: Henk Kruger/African Nes Agency/ANA

By Bheki Mngomezulu

December 5, 2013 marked the end of one chapter in South Africa’s political history. The demise of Nelson Mandela meant that henceforth the focus would be on preserving his legacy as opposed to living his dream. I still have vivid memories of how I received the sad news while on an academic trip in Sweden.

On Monday July 18, 2022, Mandela who was born on July 18 1918 would have turned 104 years. Sadly, he passed on at the age of 95. By the time of his death, Mandela had left footprints across the globe – he left a legacy. Thus far, very few African leaders (and even many more across the globe) have been able to emulate him. Noticeably, various institutions that bear Mandela’s name are trying their level best to immortalise him.

Institutions such as Nelson Mandela Museum, Nelson Mandela Foundation, Nelson Mandela University and Nelson Mandela Children’s Fund (among others) now use the phrase “living his legacy” to honour him. They do this in many ways, including: caring for children, reaching out to poor communities, providing platforms for debate, addressing issues of national importance such as racism, discrimination and Gender-Based Violence (GBV).

Mandela, like many of his comrades, had dual membership. He was a member of the SACP and even served on its Central Committee. He was also a prominent member of the ANC after joining it in 1943. Mandela became president of the organisation following his release from prison after serving 27 years. This was made possible (at least in part) by the incapacitation of the ANC’s longest serving president, Oliver Reginald Tambo who died on April 24, 1993 following a stroke.

As the four institutions above strive to live Mandela’s legacy, the question arises as to whether the ANC is doing the same. This question could be easily answered in the affirmative by those who have the tendency to respond to such questions out of love for the ANC as opposed to basing their responses on facts and the reality on the ground.

My response to the question above is sadly in the negative. I will use different examples to expound my submission.

After joining the ANC in 1943, Mandela – together with Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Anton Lembede established the ANC Youth league in 1944. Their decision was informed by the observation that at the time, the ANC lacked radicalism. They wanted to make it a vibrant organisation.

When the youth participated in the Defiance Campaign in 1952 following the institutionalisation of segregation to become ‘apartheid” and eventually made history through the 1976 riots, the founders of the ANCYL were vindicated. This vibrancy continued in the 1980s after the establishment of the United Democratic Front on August 20, 1983.

With Mandela gone, the ANCYL has become an insignificant player in the political space. Currently, the structure is non-existent. For some time, its voice has been heard through the National Youth Task Team.

This does not augur well for the ANC. The future of any political organisation is measured through the number of young people who are actively involved in that party’s activities. If the youth is kept in the cold, when are they gong to learn to lead? Is this what Mandela and his other comrades envisaged? Surely, this is contrary to what they aspired for. Therefore, using the ANCYL as the yardstick, I can safely say that the ANC has failed to keep Mandela’s legacy.

Another equally important structure in the ANC is the ANC Women’s League. History reminds us that although the African Native National Congress (ANNC) was established on January 8, 1912 and became the ANC in 1923, women were not allowed to join it like their male counterparts. Even at the formal launch of the SANNC in Bloemfontein, only Charlotte Maxeke was allowed to attend as a woman. It was only in 1943 that women were welcomed to join the ANC.

Deriving inspiration from the ANCYL in 1944, and determined to advance the needs of Black South African women, these activists organised themselves into what became known as the ANCWL. From that time, several women became prominent in the ANC. A number of them served in the first democratic government in different capacities. Their number in the National Assembly has increased over the years.

While these are commendable efforts, it was discouraging to see the NEC of the ANCWL being dissolved. In its place, a Task Team has recently been appointed. This happened during the year when the ANC is preparing for its leadership conference in December. This is not something that Mandela would have been proud of.

Another area of concern is the issue of the MKMVA, which was established with the view to fend for the welfare needs of former MK combatants. Following the unbanning of liberation movements, some of their military wing members such as MK and APLA were incorporated into the South African National Defence Force.

However, not all of them could be absorbed by the army. As such, the majority of them were left stranded. It was in this context that the MKMVA was established so that their concerns could be properly coordinated.

There was some glimmer of hope when government announced that these former cadres would be taken care of. These measures included giving them special pension and providing houses for them. Sadly, government stipulated that for these cadres to qualify they would have to provide force numbers.

This is where trouble began. Those in government seemed to have forgotten that they were fighting a guerrilla war. The majority of them could not produce these force numbers for obvious reasons – they simply did not have them! Even some of those who submitted such numbers are still languishing in poverty.

I have conducted studies about MK and APLA activities in places like Jozini Local Municipality, uMhlabuyalingana Local Municipality and uPhongolo Local Municipality and made clear recommendations. To this day, no action has been taken by government to address the deplorable and humiliating circumstances under which these former cadres live. Some cannot make ends meet – let alone being able to educate their children or attend to their health needs.

As if this was not enough, in 2021, the leadership of the ANC took a decision to disband the MKMVA – a structure that kept former liberation fighters together. It announced that this structure would be merged with its rival structure, Umkhonto Wesizwe National Council.

Such a decision was not informed by the determination to improve the conditions under which former MK cadres live. Instead, it was necessitated by the fallout between the ANC leadership and MKMVA chairperson, Kebby Maphatsoe and spokesperson Carl Niehaus – both of whom were staunch supporters of former president Jacob Zuma.

Therefore, the question remains if such a decision was taken in the interest of the ANC as an organisation or if it was meant to settle political scores within the party. More importantly, I am not convinced that this is a decision which Mandela would have embraced.

Mandela believed in open debate and consensus. He preferred corrective as opposed to punitive measures. Mandela derived these skills from the training he received at Mqhekezweni under the tutorship of iNkosi Jongintaba.

The series of events highlighted above lead to the conclusion that the ANC has not kept Mandela’s legacy in the manner one would have expected. There is no unity in the party and the Alliance. Three of the ANC’s leagues do not have a stable leadership. The majority of Mandela’s former comrades have been left out in the cold. Emotions seem to dominate over logical reasoning which is geared to save the ANC and ensure that it retains its former label as the “Leader of Society”.

Given all of the above, it is clear that Mandela’s legacy in the ANC is under threat. The organisation has lost its identity and its popularity.

This reminds me of the powerful words once articulated by Oliver Tambo when he said: “Let’s tell the truth to ourselves. Even if the truth coincides with what the enemy is saying. Let us tell the truth.”

Some opposition political parties have started writing the ANC’s obituary as the date of the 2024 national and provincial elections comes closer. As would be expected, this is not what the ANC would like to hear. However, unless the party changes its modus operandi, opposition parties could be vindicated for being the prophets of doom.

Therefore, as the South African nation and the global community celebrate Mandela’s birthday and the Mandela month, this is an opportune moment for the ANC to reflect on its activities with the view to establish if it has kept Mandela’s legacy. Failure to do so would be an indictment on the party’s current leadership as well as its membership.

Andy Stanley once said that “leaders who don’t listen will eventually be surrounded by people who don’t talk”. The ANC needs to listen!

Bheki Mngomezulu is professor of political science and deputy dean of research at the University of the Western Cape.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.