FOUR very long years have passed since Polokwane, which lends perspective to what happened there and its aftermath. It is ready for a deeper and more objective analysis.
I recall in graphic detail how events unfolded and how new and foreign developments took root within the movement. I and other long-serving members had to make a stark choice: stick to the values and policies that had served the African National Congress (ANC) so well up to that juncture, or compromise and accept the advent of a personality cult that was overwhelming all other considerations.
After much soul searching at the time, I decided to write an open letter to Gwede Mantashe regarding the "unusual situation" that had arisen, which required the leadership to take "extraordinary steps".
I drew attention to the "dangers" the movement faced in veering away from the "policies, political culture, values, history and commitment to the interests of our people, black and white" that others and I had been drawn to and so fervently cherished.
I also cited growing intolerance within the movement, with members who voiced "views that are contrary to popular opinion in meetings and conferences of the organisation" later being "hounded out and purged from organisation and state structures". This was contrary to the ANC’s democratic culture as I had known it.
For me and many other long-standing members it was intolerable that "sectoral and individual interests" were being "elevated to levels of national priority". I wrote that I strongly disapproved of ANC members showing up "at criminal court cases or carry(ing) shoulder high individuals convicted of crimes unrelated to" any worthwhile objectives set out in the Freedom Charter. By not consciously "instilling respect for institutions of democracy" and by demanding that judicial proceedings produce a preferred outcome, the leadership was creating an untenable situation.
My conclusion was that "this state of affairs (left) me and many other comrades, no doubt, with a clear sense that our membership of the organisation" would constitute "an endorsement of practices that are dangerous to the democracy that many people in our country struggled to bring into being". We could not be made to endorse such deviation by our presence inside the organisation. The party had to return to its pristine ways for us to continue supporting it.
My earnest appeal to have these concerns addressed in "an open and frank manner" was rebuffed by Mantashe, who took the stance that I would not even be called on to explain my "irresponsible remarks", nor would I be disciplined by the party. He called on the national executive committee to respond to me "robustly" in public.
Jeff Radebe, accordingly, responded that my letter was a notice to leave the ANC and that I had been un-ANC in the run-up to the Polokwane conference. I had not done anything contrary to policy in strongly criticising the "100% Zuluboy" T-shirts as being a tribalistic manifestation and in condemning the singing of Umshini Wami as not promoting constructive politics and national reconciliation.
I was confronted with a choice between remaining and endorsing the adulteration of the long and glorious history of the ANC or walking away to defend the constitution and keep alive the objectives of the Freedom Charter. My duty and the legacy I wanted to preserve compelled me to leave.
Those who shut their eyes to what was happening are now being forced to make the endorsement not from conviction but from expediency, if not hypocrisy.
Anyone who tries to live a lie cannot journey far. Abraham Lincoln made the trenchant remark that you can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time. That is how it is. To counteract the dawning of the truth, Blade Nzimande is demanding a law preventing sharp criticism of the president and the institution of a media tribunal to muzzle journalists. This law and the so-called secrecy bill are needed in their armoury to silence criticism.
Within the ANC itself, however, there are people similar to me and my COPE comrades who are now in an extremely difficult space. Spare a thought for the deputy president who is facing dire threats regarding the nomination contest. Other delegates are being pistol-whipped to give their support in a certain manner. If the mafiosi take control, no place will remain within the organisation for people with a conscience.
Those who will go to Mangaung, taking note of all that is going on, will have to choose to endorse what is unconscionable by remaining or follow the dictates of their own conscience and seek other pastures.
The manner in which the Protection of State Information Bill (the so-called secrecy bill) was rammed through the National Assembly and the ministerial pressure under which all the good work done by the National Council of Provinces is being unravelled must pose a serious moral conundrum to people of conscience within the ANC. Are they willing to lend their names to the undermining of constitutionality, accountability and transparency? Ben Turok and Gloria Borman have reflected the moral dilemma they face, and unfortunately there is no escape. They can stay and condone the steady erosion of democracy or get out and stand up to defend the constitution and the values it enshrines.
I understand that much has been made of the internal wrangles within the Congress of the People (COPE), some of which were self-inflicted injuries and some of which were engineered from outside for obvious reasons, to derail us.
However, the point must never be lost that our leaving the ANC, when we did, prevented that party from having the two-thirds majority with which it could alter the constitution. Ngoako Ramatlhodi, Mantashe and Blade Nzimande have shown unmistakably how antipathetic they are to the constitution. They have many others behind them with the same mindset. Had they half the chance, they would by now have inflicted serious damage on the rights enshrined in the constitution. The existence of COPE must be seen for the good it has done and will continue to do.
What came to be called COPE was the first big break away from the ANC. It came about because the moral centre had collapsed at Polokwane in 2008. That collapse has become a veritable abyss. Those who supported the party with a clear conscience and a profound understanding of history will now inevitably be revolted by what is happening and withdraw their support, recognising that the descent is unstoppable. As there is no distinction to be gained from remaining in a party that is so fundamentally flawed, people will increasingly leave and go somewhere, or nowhere at all.
For those of us who left the organisation in 2008, the battle to defend the constitution and keep the struggle alive for the rule of law rages as intensely as ever. Together with the committed support of sister opposition parties, we fight to hold the government accountable. As our respective electoral support grows, we will enhance our ability to prevent the ruling party from becoming a law unto itself and an agency for self-enrichment.
Those who leave the ANC after Mangaung will learn from our travails and guard against what we have had to ward off furiously and frequently for showing the temerity to leave and set up as COPE. They will also see how feasible it is to work with other parties for the things we value most in our society and for undertaking our tasks in the spirit of the Freedom Charter. To be in politics and remain credible, one has to operate as a public representative with a clear conscience.
Finally, remembering president Nelson Mandela, we must call to mind the obligation to "solemnly honour the pledge we made to ourselves and to the world that South Africa shall redeem herself and thereby widen the frontiers of human freedom".
The ruling party is dismally failing all of us with regard to that solemn pledge, and therefore it behoves those inside the ANC who feel morally obligated to keep faith with that undertaking — as well as the rest of us who belong elsewhere — to pick up the challenge and "widen the frontiers of human freedom" to redeem ourselves and our country.
On one side, therefore, we have those who are determined to narrow the frontiers of human freedom. On the other side are ranged those of us who will steadfastly fight to widen the frontiers of human freedom.
Whatever happens at Mangaung, the opposition will keep growing in size and strength at the expense of a ruling party that has lost its way.