With strong civil society SA is deep-rooted in democracy

    Thembile Ndabeni

    The culture of debate in the ANC alliance has always been vigorous especially in the 1990s, the era preceding and during negotiations. The ANC alliance demonstrated to the people of South Africa what discussions, dialogues and debates meant.

    There were sharp differences over the issue of negotiations among the ANC members.  The debate started in Robben Island, exile and inside the country, with members being pro and anti-negotiations, dividing the groups into doves and the hawks, with the late Harry Gwala among those who were anti-negotiations.

    The suspension of the armed struggle added a bitter taste to the differing view and that had a potential of breaking the organisation. There was one heated debate, Sunset Clause. That was a compromise from the ANC’s side.

    Sunset Clause was an open debate with the likes of Gwala, Pallo Jordan, Joe Slovo, Blade Ndzimande, and Jeremy Cronin with differing views. But that was not perceived as enmity. Jordan had been an independent and critical thinker since in exile. Those were the times when independent and critical thinkers would not be tolerated. He was not a rank-and-file but part of its leadership.

    Gwala challenged the “untouchable” Nelson Mandela. At Gwala’s funeral Mandela admitted that even in Robben Island Gwala would change the situation to 50/50 if he (Gwala) disagrees with him (Mandela). This was even if Mandela had already won all others.

    It was only when the ANC was in power that it started to lose that culture of debate. Maybe it’s because it is now in office now and no longer a liberation movement. But be that as it may, that culture of three Ds’ (discussion, dialogue and debate) is the one that enhanced cit (critical and independent thinking).

    That is the reason the ANC even today it is the only party to have people within to be the first to challenge it when it crosses the line. Even those not active ANC members are free to do it. Emeritus Bishop Tutu is the best example. In 1996 there was tension between Mandela and Tutu at the Bishop’s farewell function. Tension emanated from the phrase of “Gravy Train” from Tutu. Mandela complained that Tutu is referring to his government as the “Gravy Train”. The Bishop did not apologise but instead told his friend that he got it from the members of the public. Tutu did not bow but Mandela had to live with it. That’s the very same Bishop Tutu who challenged Mandela to account about wearing shirts, and not jackets being elderly and head of state.

    Same applies with the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin and former NUM President James Motlatsi who once challenged former President Thabo Mbeki. When Mbeki said anyone who disagreed with the ANC can leave. In reply Motlatsi said that also applied to the ANC president.


    This is why today people like Sipho Pityana, Ronnie Kasrils, and Trevor Manuel from the ANC and government are in the forefront in defence of democracy against their own party. Other parties cannot even deal with minor things, individual racists from within. The way Kasrils took up the battle in challenging the party he was not only a member, but of its army and a minister. Pityana ignited fire especially in the late Makhenkesi Stofile’s funeral. There are many more ministers and deputies who were axed for refusing to comply with the Guptas. The former Public Protector herself, Thuli Madonsela, is from the ruling party, how about that? Her report on state capture came after she endured a pain of being made a mockery. There are many more members and supporters of the ruling party challenging and exposing wrongdoing that are not even shaken by death threats and political killings and amongst those is the fiery Makhosi Khoza.

    Other African states must learn from South Africa how to enhance and defend democracy. South Africa demonstrated as it is still demonstrating through three of the important pillars:

    Informed and strong populace:

    The populace of South Africa is informed and strong especially civil society, with leaders from unions, legal fraternity, clergy, business and academic.

    Strong Opposition:

    Strong opposition is a remedy for the country and the ruling party. It is the strong opposition in South Africa that consolidated the Public Protector’s investigations. They did that by taking up the issues of Nkandla, and Guptas. They challenge almost every wrongdoing by the government.

    Independent Judiciary:

    Without an independent judiciary the Public Protector’s report would have not been published. Therefore the judiciary must stay independent all the time.

    Strong and independent media:

    Media has a critical role to play in any democratic country. It is not a watchdog for the government but a source of information for the citizens and the world generally.

    It’s good that the ruling party gets challenged from inside. Other parties must learn and practise before they are in power. They must start demonstrating now by effectively dealing with racists within. They must expect and accept what they do now will also be done to them when they are in power.

    Members of ruling parties in Africa must learn to challenge from within without breaking away. Strong populace and opposition are necessary to challenge those in power and break their tyranny. Countries must encourage strong civil society. Besides this without a strong and independent judiciary and media the state can be captured in various ways. Borrowing from Mandela “the state cannot be a player and the referee” at the same time.

    Thembile Ndabeni is a freelance Writer, Researcher and Commentator.

    He holds Master’s degree in South African politics and political economy from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University. 



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