There is a great deal which could be talked about at the beginning of the new year, but unfortunately the media is so utterly clogged with the big centenary that it is difficult for the Creator to ignore it completely.
Jacob Zuma has announced that he is “humbled” by the international support for the ANC’s centenary celebrations. And so he should be. Hardly anybody of any significance has bothered to show up, despite all the spectacular freebies promised. Of course, what Zuma is really saying is that everybody of importance has indeed shown up, thus displaying a supreme vote of confidence in the ANC and its government. He thus seems to be imitating a senile spinster eating dinner with all her imaginary lovers, deceased or otherwise departed. Of course he isn’t really mad or senile; it’s just that he and the ANC announced that there would be an immense turnout of foreign supporters, and since no such immense turnout has materialised, it is necessary to pretend that it has happened anyway, in order to save face (within the inner circle) even at the cost of making Zuma look imbecilic and ridiculous.
Even as little as five years ago, a national celebration of the ANC would have been an extremely popular affair. There was considerable recognition, from every sane person, of the decisive contribution which the ANC made to liberation, and back then a lot more people were sane. There was also substantial, even if controversial, appreciation of what the ANC had done to straighten out the country after liberation. There was plentiful respect for the ANC’s leaders. A 95th-anniversary party would have been well received. Of course, there would have been dissent — the press would have denounced such a party because the ANC was still led by people whom the press hated, and the white community would have jeered almost en masse. But these would have been conspicuously a minority expressing a viewpoint which was notably held to be false, and easily showable as such.
Now, things have changed immensely. The centenary party is, of course, going to be a success in any case. Offer people free food and booze, and they will come — most of them, anyway. Even so, however, it is striking that the ANC’s leadership has been astonishingly sensitive about the possibility that the party might not go well. They have hijacked the SABC to run a week of propaganda, they have bought immensely expensive inserts in all newspapers, and the whole government of the country and the party has come to a full stop while everybody on the National Executive Committee flooded to the Free State to charge around demanding that people must, shall, please, O God please, come and eat the free food, drink the free booze and wave the flags and wear the T-shirts which are to be provided. Please. We beg of you.
It’s all quite humiliating. In the past, the ANC would just have held the party and people would have come and that would have been that. Now, instead, it becomes an essential function of the ANC and of government — a hundred million rand has been spent, plus God knows how much state money wasted — and a triumph for the entire nation if people show up for freebies. A couple of years ago we were patting ourselves on the back for being able to organise a soccer tournament. Now we’re shaking our own hands with pride at being able to organise a party. What next? Medals to be awarded for successful completion of a bowel-movement?
The non-appearance of the international community is also rather striking. Mugabe decided not to come — almost certainly as a deliberate snub to Zuma. The Russians sent a delegation, but no leading lights. The Americans, with the exception of the senile mountebank Jesse Jackson, were conspicuously absent; so were the Chinese and Indians, so were the Latin Americans. A few years ago, this wouldn’t have happened; the ANC would have expected a much bigger international turnout. What’s happened since then? It’s certainly not that Zuma hasn’t devoted time to international activities — he’s spent much of his term of office jetting around the world clamouring to shake hands with foreign leaders in front of cameras. Instead, however, it simply seems that the international community isn’t greatly interested in reciprocating. To be blunt, the people who like Zuma don’t like the ANC (or at least its record as a principled anti-racist and anti-rich world organisation), and therefore don’t want to celebrate the party’s history; meanwhile, the people who like the ANC are not particularly fond of Zuma (or, like Mugabe, don’t trust him) and therefore don’t want to lend too much credibility to the man.
This, in fact, seems to be the essence of the problem with the party. It’s supposed to be a celebration of the successes of the ANC over a hundred years, but conspicuous by their absence is virtually everybody who has ever criticised or opposed Zuma and his cabal. Most conspicuous is a refusal to celebrate anything which was done by the ANC in government between 1994 and 2008, which means virtually all of the ANC’s administrative and political achievements. All this is because the party is not really a celebration of the ANC at all — it’s an attempt to bolster Zuma’s credibility within the party, in a province conveniently central to the country so that every possibly anti-Zuma province (except Limpopo, which is irretrievably lost anyway) can be brought on board, contacted and encouraged to do the right thing, whatever that might be.
And this, of course, is why the party has to be a success, and why the organisers have to pretend that the party is a success even though it is (in its wider ramifications than organising a gigantic Eatanswill By-Election) anything but a success. If it fails, then Zuma is perceived as failing, and then that’s one step further towards a troubled and contentious election at Mangaung, in that very same city where Zuma is posturing and pontificating now.
It would be a great opportunity to renew the organisation, of course. Instead of silly ceremonial lightings of eternal flames which will soon go out, the party could include a real ANC and Tripartite Alliance discussion on what has worked in the last hundred years, what has failed, how the last few years have not lived up to the party’s promise and how the party could transform itself into something much more able to get things sorted. But if that were to happen, inevitably there would be criticism of Zuma and his cabal, a thing which simply cannot be tolerated.
So instead there is anodyne, anaesthetic and decidedly apathy-inducing celebration. A noted Communist atheist named Mantashe calls on the churches to throw their weight behind the ANC (by which he means, of course, Jacob Zuma). Zuma himself, after holding a traditional-healing ceremony in a Wesleyan church (that must have delighted the Christians) calls on the business community to be nice to everybody and give the poor money, because obviously you can’t expect the ANC to do that. A few ancient politicians are wheeled out to dodder for the cameras. Someday we shall all be weak and senile and unable to resist voting for Zuma, apparently. There will be a disco. And the NEC organises a round of golf at an exclusive club inBloemfonteinto show their sympathy for the poor and downtrodden. (It does become increasingly difficult to see the validity of satire inSouth Africa, or anywhere else in the age of Bombardier Peace Prize.)
After it’s all over, what will remain? A hangover, which will swiftly lift. A few Chinese T-shirts which will remind the wearers of a few days of embarrassing nonsense. The memory of a pretentious time of empty speeches and politicians hectoring one to vote for them someday. Nothing that has happened at the centenary celebrations serve to solve any of the ANC’s problems or take the country forward in any way. All of it, instead, serves to show that the actual ANC has ceased to bear any workable relationship to the imaginary ANC being celebrated at the great vacant party.
It’s sad. It’s shabby. It’s a great, great pity.