ANC should pay centenary costs by Farieda Khan

26 January 2012

HISTORIC SLICE: Thandi Modise, Gwede Mantashe, President Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Jeff Radebe and Mathews Phosa cutting the ANC centenary cake at the Free State Stadium in Bloemfontein during the ANC’s centenary celebrations, which will be marked by another 12 months of commemorative events Picture: Elmond Jiyane

The ANC celebrated its 100th anniversary last week with much pomp and ceremony, while 12 months of commemorative events lie ahead to further highlight the issue of heritage.

What constitutes national heritage has proved to be a thorny issue in SA, given that the country’s history of racial discrimination and inequality has bequeathed a legacy of heritage structures and sites which are perceived by many to be divisive and unrepresentative of the country’s cultural diversity.

While the unrepresentative nature of heritage structures has been addressed since the democratisation of the country in 1994, the transformation of this sphere – strongly influenced as it is by political considerations and cultural and emotional factors – remains a sensitive issue.

One of the reasons for the continuing sensitivity is the fact that the issue is particularly vulnerable to the influence of party politics. As the history of SA shows, heritage has often been exploited by politicians to serve their own narrow agenda.

This has allowed dominant political parties to use state resources to promote their culture and traditions; pay tribute to their heroes; and ensure that their interpretation of political history was accepted as the norm.

One example that comes to mind is the celebration of the 1938 centenary of the Great Trek, a symbolic re-enactment of a series of migrations undertaken by Afrikaners from 1838 onwards. The 1938 re-enactment started off at the statue of Jan van Riebeeck in Cape Town and ended on Monument Hill in Pretoria, where the first cornerstone of the Voortrekker Monument was laid. As the ox wagons rolled through the small towns en route to Pretoria, they were greeted by fervent crowds in Voortrekker dress, solemn ceremonies were held at the graves of Voortrekker leaders and streets were renamed in their honour. In fact, the main road running through Cape Town’s northern suburbs owes its name (Voortrekker Road) to this event.

By presenting the migration as a flight from oppressive British imperialism and casting the disgruntled Trekker leaders as brave, pioneering heroes leading the volk away from the threat posed to their culture and way of life, the commemorative event gave further impetus to the growing cause of Afrikaner nationalism and solidarity which would ultimately culminate in victory in the 1948 elections.

That election, in which Afrikaner nationalists came to power on a pro-apartheid ticket, opened the door to some of the most egregious examples of the cynical exploitation of the issue of national heritage by a political party in the name of the state. Public funds paid for almost the entire cost of building the Voortrekker Monument.

The hijacking of national heritage to serve short-term political ends is still fresh in the public memory, so it is little wonder that the ANC’s call for national support of its year-long centenary celebrations has attracted criticism from a number of quarters.

In reply, however, it could be said that SA is now a democracy, that the current situation is very different from the apartheid past and there is no longer a need to be suspicious.

The position of the ANC, as articulated by national chairwoman Baleka Mbete, is that the centenary should not be viewed solely as a party political matter, as this is an unnecessarily narrow view of an organisation that has played an influential role in shaping SA’s history, since its founding in 1912.

According to this position, the ANC’s centenary transcends party politics and thus should be commemorated by all citizens as an intrinsically SA event.

On the face of it, this certainly seems to present a persuasive case. After all, there can be little argument that the ANC is a venerable political institution that played a leading role in fighting racial and other types of discrimination throughout its existence.

Theirs is a rich legacy bequeathed to SA and one in which all its citizens can take pride. Thus it would be churlish indeed not to acknowledge the ANC’s 100 years as an organisation which played a leading role in creating a free and democratic SA.

However, in acknowledging the party’s history and heritage, it must also be recognised that, despite claims that “the ANC liberated the country”, the party is but one roleplayer (albeit an important one) in the story of how racial discrimination was fought and democracy (or “liberation” to use ANC terminology) was eventually established.

This is a story of great complexity and diversity which encompasses the contribution of a wide range of political organisations, including the All African Convention (established in 1935), the National Liberation League (established in 1935), the Unity Movement (established in 1943), the Liberal Party (established in 1953), the Pan Africanist Congress (established in 1959), the Progressive Party (established in 1959), the African Resistance Movement (established in 1960) and the Black Consciousness Movement of the 1970s, among many others.

It should also be remembered that, while political parties certainly played a major role in the eventual establishment of democracy, they were assisted by countless numbers of civil society organisations in SA and abroad, from humble civic and faith-based groups to mighty workers’ organisations.

These, in turn, were actively supported by ordinary South Africans from all walks of life: parents who sacrificed to educate their children, teachers who encouraged critical thinking among their students, workers who stood up to racism and exploitation in the workplace.

Every day and in innumerable ways, ordinary citizens, black and white, asserted their common humanity and resisted the unrelenting assaults on their dignity and freedom by successive governments.

All these role-players worked to create a climate in which democracy could eventually take root – no single role-player can take the credit for this.

Thus, in considering the issue of whether the ANC’s 100 years of history is part of the nation’s heritage, the answer is a qualified “yes”, inasmuch as the history of all other SA political parties also forms a part of that heritage.

However, acknowledging the historical role of political parties is the easy part. It is in the utilisation of the state’s resources in conserving and commemorating the contribution of a political party that the difficulties lie.

This is because party politics is by definition narrow, subjective and biased, and there is the danger that, by linking the issue of national heritage (which should be broad-based, inclusive and unifying) with that of a political party, the two will be conflated.

It is important to understand that the reputation of politicians and political parties, however admired by supporters, is ephemeral and subject to the vicissitudes of political power and changing interpretations of history. Today’s revered leader can just as easily become tomorrow’s villain or a forgotten footnote in history. Hence, agreeing with the ruling party’s view that its centenary celebrations should be regarded and supported as a national event would blur the distinction between party and state, a principle which is already either ignored or not understood by some senior politicians.

Transnet was unsuccessfully approached by the ANC for a donation towards its centenary celebrations, while millions of rand of public money were used to fund security, transport and accommodation for more than 60 heads of state who attended the celebrations. Millions more were allocated by the Free State for events and the provision of infrastructure related to the anniversary, and the acquisition and restoration of heritage structures such as the church in Waaihoek where the ANC was founded.

It is difficult to imagine that in Britain and the US, where the major political parties are more than a century old, that a situation where the state’s resources could be used to fund the anniversaries of these parties would be tolerated.

The ANC’s achievement in reaching its centenary in January 2012 is indeed a milestone for any political organisation to have reached and for this the ruling party has rightly been congratulated and acknowledged by Ban Ki Moon, secretary-general of the UN and David Cameron, the British prime minister, as well as by all parties in our Parliament.

However, there is a fundamental difference in recognising the role played by the ANC in achieving freedom and democracy in SA, and using state resources (whether directly or indirectly) in the commemoration of that achievement.

The ruling party should be paying for all costs (both direct and indirect) related to its centenary celebrations.

This is because ideally, the field of heritage should be completely outside the influence of narrow party politics while the voice of the diverse range of civil society should be dominant.

There should be a vigorous assertion of the principle that those who wish to pay tribute to their political heroes and commemorate events related to their political party’s history should pay for these tributes and events themselves and not use public money to do so.

For this to happen, however, it is essential that the distinction between party and state, already blurred as a result of numerous transgressions in the sphere of heritage, be recognised and upheld.

Dr Khan is an independent social and environmental historian, with an interest in heritage matters.