The Convention that should have been…
November 2008

This is an op-ed that I wrote 6 years ago, nearly to the day, but for some reason or another, didn’t publish it. Reading it today I found it an interesting #flashback to the space and time we were once in. I’ve published it exactly as I wrote it, errors and all. enjoy

By all accounts, the new kid on the political block’s; Congress of the People; (CoP) convention three weekends ago was a resounding success.

Well-organised, and over-subscribed, the convention opened to an air that has been described as “taut with excitement and expectation”. In critical contrast to the recent series of disastrous conferences of the party that many attendees were defecting from, there is said to have been an air of calm, soberness even as people poured their hearts unto parchment, itemising all that they found lacking within the African National Congress (ANC) of the day.

And whereas there can be little doubt that bulk of those in attendance arguably constituted yet another “coalition of the disenchanted” not unlike that which swept ANC president Jacon Zuma to its helm in Polokwane last year, the objectives of the convention were finessed as being ostensibly about defining a stand-point in relation to democracy and the constitution. The promoters of the convention were fortunate to seemingly have found a congruence of views with regards this finessed position with many from our exalted press corps.

Neither threats; veiled or otherwise; prior to the convention, nor the overwhelming show of force by the ANC the following day in Soweto, could dampen the mood of the convention’s organisers. Instead Cheshire cat smiles hinted at a raft of more bombshells to come – more defections and more bloodletting of the organisation the so-called dissidents had served and loved for much of their adult lives.

A model of efficiency the convention determined in under 12 hours that a new party was the solution to all manner of woe discussed to date. It was not unexpected. Since the dethroning of the country’s president by a room of his compatriots six weeks prior, the rumblings had been in the air. In fact the grumblings had been audible since the same president lost his bid for a third term as leader of the ruling party.

Post the innocuously dubbed “recall” of former-President Mbeki, national shock gave way to grievous complaints that the incumbent ANC leadership was “undemocratic”, “vengeful” and seeking to purge “Mbekites”, “un and anti-intellectual”, “promoting tribalism”, “hijacked by ultra-leftists” and willing to let the “ill-discipline” and “disrespect” of allied organisations flourish for the sake of political expediency. Divorce papers were quickly served and the Freedom Charter as rapidly dusted off. It became increasingly clear that the planned convention was indeed, as the long-suffering cleric Allan Boesak (who then went on to announce the formation of his own party) suggested simply a “rubberstamp” of a foregone conclusion. The speed of arrival at this conclusion seemed to bear this out. Perhaps it was just a case of focused minds.

Against this backdrop an oft-unasked question began to make the rounds: “Had the promoters of the Congress of the People (CoP) done enough to address their laments within the structures of the ANC before defecting?” The ANC constitution, specifically section 29, allows for the calling of a Special Conference with a month’s notice at the behest of the NEC or a majority of provinces for any stated purpose. The publicly stated grievances of many former ANC members would apply. Such a conference would have provided a platform for the then various factions internal to the ANC to address issues key to their divisions. That there emerged a tussle over who had rights to the traditional symbols, iconography, language and documents thus far associated with the ANC suggested that the defectors gripes with the ANC did not strike at the core of what the ANC purports to be. This then was the congress that the convention of 1 November could have been; a dose of sanity for feuding comrades.

It is doubtful that the initial stimulus that led to the problems of the once-lauded “party of the revolution” was only to be found in a post-Polokwane ANC, or that the new party is immune to them. Indeed many of the CoP’s party bearers bore witness and presided as senior ANC leaders over the deep chasms that followed.

Which brings us to the crux of the real issues facing SA politics today. Since the dawn of South Africa’s democracy, the country’s politics have increasingly manifested the worst of the human condition. Bloated with hyperbole, raked with arrogance and insincerity, divisive and jingoistic at best; blaming and fear-mongering at worst, we have seen 15 years of political musical chairs and increasing polarisation of different communities for political and personal interests alone. Any sense of national interest has been subjugated to a “winner-takes-all” syndrome. Politics in SA today is in a word immature.

Ironically whereas every political fissure or coalition we have witnessed since 1994 has touted “upholding democracy” as a rasion d’ etre, the country’s constituents are more divided then ever along political lines, racial lines, and now class-lines. The sole upside of South African politics today is the increased political interest of SA’s citizenry. However this interest is better moulded into a drive of inclusiveness in a process that recognises that SA over the next 20 years will not work as a nation, at its optimum, unless all South Africans can in unison stake their claim to its future.

The Freedom Charter’s preamble: “We the people of South Africa, declare… that South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white…” suggests a clear unity of vision for all South Africans. Such a vision is not the consequence of more political parties or the blind adherence to any political dogma, but rather the methodical engagement of said parties and their respective constituents to arrive at a collective dream for SA that all can buy-in to, that all South Africans can be proud of and work towards regardless of the governing party of the day. Such a vision can no longer just be the pursuit of democracy, nor the pursuit only of economic superiority, which global events have shown isn’t the panacea, and locally has been more divisive in its manifestation. Such a vision can only be crafted by a multi-party, multi-constituent event mirroring Kliptown in 1955. This then is what convention of 1 November should have been.

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