ABOUT two years ago, Home Affairs Minister Malusi Gigaba found himself facing an angry television audience at a recording of The Big Debate, the popular TV show that no longer airs. It was not a happy experience for him.
At issue was participation in and ownership of the economy by black South Africans. Members of the audience wanted to know “why the African National Congress (ANC) compromised so much (on nationalisation) during the negotiations to bring about democracy”. On the back foot, he had no choice but to remind the audience of the real picture.
“You must remember that we did not defeat the apartheid regime, there was a negotiation. In negotiations there is give and take,” he said.
The statement floated in the air like the lightest of feathers. No one was prepared to digest it because it bucked a narrative that has helped the ANC to consolidate its position in the public consciousness.
For successive elections, it has insinuated that it “defeated apartheid”, a proposition that raises the natural question of why a victor would negotiate. The truth is more complex, which explains the 1993 outcome that led to democratic elections in 1994, and a new constitution in 1996.
The end of apartheid was, in the final analysis, engineered by a multiplicity of factors, including the armed struggle. There was the sustained internal uprising, international sanctions and the collapse of the Soviet Union, a significant source of resources for the ANC.
By the time negotiations took place, the ANC’s military machinery had had to vacate Angola and temporarily set up camp in Uganda. Life in Uganda was somewhat worse than it was in Angola. The ANC’s dwindling resources meant many fighters had to do with little or no food at times. It was under these circumstances that the motor-mouthed deputy defence and military veterans minister, Kebby Maphatsoe, was shot for “desertion”.
It is easy to make fun of him and his injury now. Homesickness, uncertainty about the future, hunger and the monotony of life in an enclosed environment are feelings most of us can only imagine but will never know.
The ANC’s only major military operation at the time negotiations were about to take off was Operation Vula. Even that was exposed and its major architects, Mac Maharaj and Siphiwe Nyanda, were arrested along with many others.
They were severely tortured.
Weapons and fighters were spirited to the former Transkei, where a homeland dictator friendly to the ANC, Bantu Holomisa, provided them with sanctuary and used state resources to sustain them. Of course, this later became inconvenient to mention as the battle for political power within the ANC resulted in the general’s expulsion from the party.
However, if you want to understand the deep affection former MK fighters and ANC leaders have for Holomisa despite being an opposition leader, it is as a result of his willingness to provide for them when their lives were under threat with nowhere else to go.
The ANC wasn’t even sure of the level of support it could secure in an election. Given its dominance at the polls now, it is easy to forget that in 1994, it secured the confidence of just more than 57% of voters. The political landscape, therefore, was different.
As Gigaba realised that night, the narrative that had brought the ANC many latter-day supporters had come back to bite it.
Its victory was always strategic, and depended more on the effectiveness of its diplomats, propaganda and negotiators than any military threat it posed to the apartheid regime.
The streets were ablaze. People were being massacred almost daily.
The apartheid security forces had smashed its remaining underground military offensive. The Soviet Union had collapsed while Sweden, the other major source of ANC funds, wanted a negotiated settlement.
Unfortunately, the narrative in the audience’s mind, which is now entrenched in many young people’s conscience, bears little resemblance to reality. Neither the ANC, nor any other liberation organisation, could simply get whatever it wanted, period.
The outcome we have now is the best anyone could have extracted at the time. It is therefore ahistorical to propose that Nelson Mandela or the ANC “sold out”.
Hindsight often makes sages of those who never had to do.
It is entirely legitimate for the youth of today to seek a different formula for economic justice.
However, this demand does not require that we misrepresent the strategic work done under trying circumstances by leaders who can no longer speak for themselves.
Each generation has the responsibility to pursue justice for itself and future generations without using others as a crutch with which to justify its gripe. Just like those before, this generation will soon learn that radicalism is quickly tempered by the objective of sustaining a society that can function after the revolution.
It will also learn, just as the ANC did, that the international environment is as much of a factor domestically as it is elsewhere. No country operates in a vacuum.
In any event, contrary to popular belief, it was not just by “greedy westerners” at Davos that the ANC was warned about nationalisation.
At a seminar between the ANC and USSR officials in February 1989, one of the architects of the theory of “national democratic revolution” that is now part of popular ANCspeak, Rostislav Ulyanovsky, warned the ANC delegation not to be cocky about its future economic policy plans.
He counselled, and was later proven correct, that eventual political and policy outcomes are heavily influenced by “concrete situations” on the ground. On nationalisation specifically, he warned the ANC to learn from other African countries for which this exercise had been a disaster.
I am certain he also had the benefit of the Soviet Union’s collapsed economy to draw from. It is said that his last words were: “Comrades, be careful.”
But then we no longer care, do we? About history or political honesty.
By Songezo Zibi, Business Day