Interview with my father…

First Published in City Press December 23, 2012 

Max and Shaka Sisulu

Max and Shaka Sisulu

I have always enjoyed my political chats with my father, over the years he has become more generous with his view, when I was younger he was prone to just shaking his head…

or dismissing my questions; particularly leading questions. I didn’t know how things would work out for an interview in one of our Sunday papers, which he was initially vehemently opposed to.

We were both in Mangaung, together for the ANC’s elective Conference. I was working in the Policy and Communications committees and he was doing whatever it is that ANC Big Wigs do. We were catching up as we often do at the end of a long, long day of politics.

In the event, openness won the day and he allowed me to capture and transcribe some of our discussions that went well into the night. Here is the nub of that, just slightly longer than the piece that was published in the City Press.

Thanks to my friend Mandy Rossouw (not be confused with Mandy Weiner who edited my book) for editing it so succinctly. 

SS: Papa, going into Conference, did you share any of the anxiety others expressed about the potential outcomes of Mangaung? What of the Doomsday predictions of a split?

MS: No. Not at all. The ANC has been through more challenging times. During Apartheid. And In exile. After Polokwane for instance where we recalled a sitting President for the frist time and that led to the formation of Cope. That was a political crisis. Going into Mangaung we had no such fears of political crisis just political contestation.

SS: What was the big thing at Previous Conferences – Kabwe (1985) and Morogoro (1969) for instance?

MS: In Morogoro and Kabwe, like any conference, the big thing was about the ANC’s ability to face its problems head on.

In Morogoro for instance there was an impatience in the membership – people wanted to go home and fight. In Kabwe there were issues of ill-discipline, in-fact many issues and at each Conference the ANC has had the ability to recognize its problems and introspect on them. And then we have also documented all of our failures and short comings as well as our proposed solutions for posterity. Just as we did with this Conference.

SS: …But what of the movement’s record in dealing with these problems?

Problems are inherent in society. Political organisations reflect the issues of society – hence like society they go through ups and downs. Overall the ANC has fared well historically in dealing with its challenges, especially when we look around the world. The Chinese, for instance, had their cultural revolution where many people died. Many countries have violent changes in government, some have coups. In some developed countries like Japan, they resort to fisticuffs in Parliament. But here, the ANC has remained resilient and largely disciplined in the face of many challenges because it is so highly self-critical and introspective.

SS: Why is this? 

We must look at it in context, the advantage of the ANC is that that it has a long history of struggle, of operating in very difficult conditions. It has operated in conditions of illegality and now operates in conditions known to governments everywhere – susceptibility to the abuse of power and money.

SS: Ja, but can ANC survive these new challenges that come with power and money  and social distance

MS: Why wouldn’t it survive? This is a mass-democratic movement with regular elections. People will exercise their rights to ensure that the ANC remains legitimate. The issue is legitimacy – the ANC has to work to remain legitimate. And comrades may disagree on many fronts but are able to work together in the best interest of the ANC and the people. That is one of the ANC’s strength, when under pressure it rises to the top. It has this inward strength and resilience. When the chips are down everyone goes back to defend their organisation, whether the threat is on the outside or inside or both.

SS: Many political commentators doubt the ANC has the political will to overcome these particular problems

MS: Some commentators may generalize and tout their wishes as fact; they hope that the ANC doesn’t survive and then express that hope as fact.

SS: Are the commentators not just raising issues of concern? 

Well, the ANC people are concerned, we don’t wait for people outside the ANC to point things out for us to be concerned. It is like a home, problems in my house concern me long before they concern my neighbor. And yet somehow there is a belief that everyone within the ANC is stupid and people outside the ANC know better than us what is good for us and for the movement that we have built over many years.

There are mistakes that we make. We make them everywhere – in the branches, in the provinces, in the leagues. And hence we have renewal. We find ways to revitalize the ANC, bring processes and people back into line.

SS: How did the movement get to this point though?

MS: One of the reasons is that leaders today aren’t tested. Yesteryear leaders were tested because they were targeted just for being a leader of the ANC. Not so today. We are quite conscious of this. Hence we emphasis political education and discipline.

We do believe we know how to remedy our problems. Our internal mechanisms speak to correct wrong things. They don’t always work well but again we are self-critical and reflect on what is going wrong and what needs to be changed. We go out and study the best models in the world that have had to deal with similar challenges. We spend a lot of time weighing up the pros and cons of different solutions being mindful of unintended consequences.

We are like a big tree, a landmark that anyone can point out. While some parties have never had a conference since the day they started, they can tell you the dates and content and issues to be discussed at our conferences – because it is in the open. And because of that everyone knows where to locate us and where to bring their axes.

SS: There have been some claims that Conference is or soon will be just a voting Conference where people just come out and put ticks on boxes and leave…

 MS: Hmmm. You know this really undermines the intelligence of delegates. I was in the commissions and I must say the quality of debate is amazing. There was active participation and this is not just confined to conference. Before this we had a policy conference just dedicated to policy discussions, we had provincial workshops, we have had an NGC, in between that branches debate these things. And all of this is in the open.

That is why there is so much talk about our policies. The ANC is a major force for social change and people understand this and they want to influence this change. All the noise around the policy positions of the ANC is about influencing them.

Now our discussions in the ANC are very frank and documented. You can go back in time and look through the discussions that informed our positions at different times. It is all there. Sometimes our discussions bordering on extreme with pointed questions and personal insults at the highest levels. And yet the ANC survives. No leader has ever been above criticism within the ANC. In 100 years. Who else has a record like that?

SS: What will go on record as highlights in this Conference?

MS: Not only were we first to admit where there were problems, this conference gave time lines to the changes we wish to see effected.

Things were brought out in the open – where issues with certain structures were raised, it was done so in plenary, and discussed. Not hidden or decided behind closed doors.

We were also happy that Motlanthe was recognized for his contribution. And that conference did not denigrate into personal attacks. We don’t want that.

And when we agree  on a line of march then we agreed to discipline people stepping out of line.

It was very instructive. In many ways people who have been long-time comrades and had drifted have been recruited back and brought home. The ANC is home and even when harsh at times the ANC is very forgiving.

SS: Is this not to the movement’s detriment? Shouldn’t it be more firm?

MS: We have a humane society. We don’t kill anyone that has done wrong. Our humane laws come out of our suffering; we understand inhumanity and don’t wish to visit it upon anyone. Now the issue of being tough is another matter – that is discipline, it is the flip-side of consciousness and education. And this is not just about political education, but education in general, education in worldly issues.

Our people need constant and consistent education to be a people who can determine their own fate. We have moved from a time where a leader decides for people to where people decide for themselves.

SS: Speaking about deciding for themselves, isn’t this undermined by the “Slates” as witnessed in this Conference? 

MS: You know any election has a line-up, they are called candidates. Just as the US elections had a line up for candidates for President, Vice President and so on. In the UK, the Labour Party and the Conservatives candidates in an elections are different slates. Here at home the DA has shadow ministers, candidates for cabinet posts in the unlikely event that they become the ruling party. There is nothing unusual about this.

What we don’t want to see however, is a situation where it’s driven underground. We want people to have preferences, to open it up so that people can challenge a Zuma or a Cyril for their positions. There will always be contestation, what we are most worried about is that denigrating into vitriol, violence, personal attacks, divisive campaigns and breaking the  of organization. And after elections a time of healing and working together in unity must be fostered.

SS: So in closing, how would you recap on the last few days papa?

MS: It was as vibrantly colorful as our national flag, it was noisy as our people are, it had thorough discussions, it was serious, frank, it was emotionally draining. It was in the true spirit of the ANC.  We had serious depth in respect of the number of committees and the number of delegates that attended and participated in all of those committees right up until the resolutions were brought to the plenary floor. We had serious discussions about matters that matter most – how to improve the lives of our people. In that it was a successful conference.


Many thanks to City Press Editor Ferial Haffajee for your “guiding” hand…


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