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As if on point, the conference itself started seven-and-a-half hours late. If there was any doubt about why our country is in the turmoil it is in, why infrastructure is collapsing and why we flounder around in the dark (literally), this conference provided all the answers.

It started with Pule Mabe vacuously rambling on about why exactly there was a late start. Anyone who has even cursorily followed the way in which the ANC operates would understand that a delayed start is par for the course.

Quite why the media believed Mabe would bring pearls of wisdom and why they hung around to cover this as “breaking news” boggles the mind. But those are weak editorial choices and as citizens we could simply tune out, which the majority of South Africans no doubt did – either because they could not bear the incompetence and venality on display, or because they had no electricity.

Of course, Nasrec was exempt from power cuts and ministers are exempt from them anyway. And so, Minister of Mineral Resources and Energy Gwede Mantashe could happily tweet about the ANC gala dinner on the eve of the conference while Stage 6 load shedding was in full effect and Eskom CEO André de Ruyter announced his resignation. The President, too, was silent. Presumably, too busy fighting for his political life.

But this disinterest in governance is what we have come to expect from a governing party venal to the core and obsessed with only one thing: power and access to state resources.

After much drama, which included a late day-one entrance by former president Jacob Zuma and much talk of a Mkhize presidency, none of it came to pass. In fact, President Cyril Ramaphosa slightly strengthened his hand with more votes than he garnered in 2017 at Nasrec, as well as five of the Top Seven in his “camp”. Of course, the Phala Phala report has been taken on judicial review and Zuma, at the eleventh hour, sought to lay a charge against Ramaphosa in a desperate bid to have him “step aside”.

And so, nothing is as it seems and the Zumarites/Radical Economic Transformation supporters on social media, together with the likes of Carl Niehaus and Iqbal Survé predicting a Mkhize win, were left eating humble pie. So, this is a moment of opportunity for Ramaphosa, a narrow window to shake off the tag of indecision and act in the interests of the country above the interests of the party. South Africans are tired. Tired of hearing about unity within the ANC. The party is a house divided, broken, corrupt and mostly beyond redemption, and Ramaphosa should act urgently to deal with the multiple crises we face.

Quite what he will do with this victory remains to be seen. For our sake, he dare not squander it. If he were thinking strategically, he would start with a Cabinet reshuffle and reshuffle Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma and Lindiwe Sisulu straight out of their portfolios and into the political wilderness where they belong.

That would be a good start.

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But While Ramaphosa and his allies can breathe a sigh of relief, for most South Africans life will remain miserable as they fight abject poverty, neglect of public institutions, a Christmas with consistent power cuts, and burgeoning inequality. Even a respite at the beach is not safe in many parts, as sewage spills are now commonplace.

Our institutions have been battered and bruised by a decade of State Capture, and the National Prosecuting Authority and the judiciary remain targets of the corrupt within the ANC who will do anything to avoid accountability.

While watching some of the scenes at Nasrec this week, one was compelled to ask, “What has the ANC become?”

The Mafeking Diary of Sol T Plaatje, written between 1899 and 1900, makes for fascinating reading. It is the only account by a black person of the Siege of Mafeking that took place during the South African War of 1899 to 1902. Plaatje’s formal schooling was limited, yet he excelled at the then civil service examinations and on the eve of the war he was sent to Mafeking. During the siege, he acted as a court interpreter.

An account of his life tells us that he was drawn to journalism and set up the first Setswana-English weekly newspaper in 1901. He spoke at least eight languages and is considered one of South Africa’s great public intellectuals.

In 1919, Plaatje took part in a meeting with then British prime minister Lloyd George on the land question. He played a key role in the founding of the South African Native National Congress (SANNC) in 1912, which would become the African National Congress in 1923. He was its first secretary-general. The first president of the SANNC, John Dube, was a minister and educator, while Pixley ka Seme, a lawyer, was regarded as the founder of the congress.

Plaatje’s life and work provide lessons not only in activism but, more importantly, in leadership and values. They also provide us with insight into those who founded the ANC and their ideals. Like any party, it was often riddled with divisions. Any cursory reading of history shows this.

Reflecting on all of this in 2022, one cannot help but notice the contrasts and how the ANC’s intellectual roots have diminished. The Zuma years in particular were rooted in a dangerous anti-intellectualism, which persists. In the cause of populism, Zuma joked about “clever blacks” at rallies and the presidency itself became an empty shell.

It’s easy when looking at the tired, tawdry ANC of today – bereft of leadership and ethics – to forget its history and its intellectual roots. Its founders were individuals who understood the power of engagement and ideas, even when the ANC was divided and its internal politics fraught.

ANC policy debates are mostly mired in factional battles and debate about whether to use the term “White Monopoly Capital” or simply “Monopoly Capital”. When Ramaphosa penned an open letter to his fellow ANC comrades in 2020 (a lifetime ago, it would seem), it spoke volumes about what the ANC has now become – an organisation mostly bereft of values. The claims in the letter are irrefutable, given the information in the public domain regarding the near-decade of State Capture. “The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as Accused No 1,” Ramaphosa wrote. It was a damning indictment of the party he leads. Of course, Ramaphosa himself now stands accused in the Phala Phala matter. While we live through load shedding and its devastating economic impact, we feel the full effects of State Capture and we fully understand what the ANC has become and how that has hollowed out state institutions.

Given its ethical bankruptcy, the ANC cannot steer public debate on the crises we face.

Given that it is the governing party, it is reasonable for South Africans to hold the ANC to a standard that fulfils the promise of the Constitution. But, even in the face of increasing electoral competition, the ANC seems to have run out of transformative ideas and we now talk openly about the possibility of it either losing an election in the future or the prospect of a coalition government.

Our greatest challenges remain poverty, inequality, unemployment, cleaning up the state and repurposing institutions hollowed out by State Capture.

This will take time, energy and a commitment to building cross-sectoral solidarity and linkages. That, in and of itself, will require the ANC to lead with integrity and clarity of purpose. But then the ANC itself must be fit for purpose. Nothing on display recently at Nasrec suggests that it is.

The obituary for Plaatje reads:

“He was a man who, by force of character and sharpness of intellect, rose to the front rank of leadership … never have I found him autocratic, contumacious or narrow of outlook.”

Sadly, in 2022, there are precious few within the ANC of whom the same can be said. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

This content was originally published here.

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