OPINION

What a country to loot

James Myburgh |

04 July 2022

James Myburgh writes on coming to terms with the character of the ANC post-Zondo

Last week The Presidency released the final two volumes of Judge Raymond Zondo’s reports into “state capture” during Jacob Zuma’s period in office. These have laid out in detail the systemic plunder of the state and parastatals by the Gupta family and others – aided and abetted by unscrupulous foreign companies and consulting firms and by ANC members or fellow travellers.

The significance of the Zondo reports lies less in what they revealed – much of what was already known or suspected – but that this was being confirmed by an official commission, appointed by then President Jacob Zuma himself (however reluctantly), and with its findings publicly accepted by President Cyril Ramaphosa. While in previous decades complaints about African National Congress corruption could be dismissed or disregarded as coming from the liberation movement’s enemies, this was an indictment coming from within the heart of the ANC itself.

This has forced some serious introspection by intellectuals from the liberation movement itself and those sympathetic to it. The basic question posed by the Zondo reports – for the ANC and South Africa – was how a liberation movement, once renowned for its heroic self-sacrifice, could have descended to this?

As Raymond Suttner put it, in an article that appeared in Polity and the Daily Maverick, something had gone “terribly wrong,” with the ANC and its allies having “betrayed the oppressed people of South Africa”. For Justice Malala, writing for TimesLive, the fatal moment came in 2008 when Jacob Zuma forced Thabo Mbeki out of the South African Presidency. Malala writes that despite his faults Mbeki “was a man who understood very deeply the supremacy of the constitution. He cared deeply for the country’s institutions even when he disagreed with their interpretation of their role in an evolving democracy.”

The Financial Times meanwhile commented in an editorial that “The ANC has been in power for 28 years. That is too long for any party to rule unopposed. Its transition from liberation movement to self-serving political incumbent is complete.”

I want to argue that these efforts to try and identify the point where the ANC “went wrong” suffer from a basic misunderstanding of the character of the ANC in particular and liberation movements more generally. 

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In early June 2003 I gave a presentation at an African studies seminar at St. Antony’s College Oxford on the way power had become dangerously centralised under President Thabo Mbeki, with the institutional checks and balances within the political system largely neutralised. This had most notably allowed Mbeki to impose his views on “HIV and Aids” over the ANC, and then to shut down the parliamentary investigation into the highly suspect arms deal.

At the time I was still casting about for the correct “frame” for what was going on in post-apartheid South Africa and had for the purposes of the presentation settled on the reassertion by ideologically driven ANC exiles of their Soviet-derived doctrine of democratic centralism.

In Britain there has long been a tradition of left-wing intellectuals identifying deeply with the African nationalist cause and, to use the words of George Orwell, “placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.” Any hard criticism of the ANC and its agenda coming from a white South African was viewed as profoundly impertinent and would, on occasion, provoke a torrent of abuse in reply.