Our central political paradox, when you compare rhetoric against reality, is that we have a neo-liberal economic policy often driven with Stalinist ruthlessness.
Most ANC leaders who returned from exile, including President Thabo Mbeki, received their training in the old Soviet bloc. They may have shucked rigid Marxist dogma for gung-ho free enterprise, but habitually—especially when having to force through harsh capitalist measures—they robotically revert to a paranoid, intolerant mindset and stale, formulaic Stalinist jargon.
Recently I picked up a copy of Lenin’s 1920 manifesto, ‘Left Wing’ Communism: An infantile Disorder. The style seemed familiar. Aha: Thabo Mbeki’s former weekly online letters! Frankly, it would be extremely odd if the well-read Mbeki hadn’t studied this work when sent to Moscow’s Lenin Institute in 1969 for ideological instruction.
One phrase jumped out at me, regarding the necessity of an alignment between the vanguard party and “the masses”, who must be convinced “by their own experience” that their leadership is right. “Without these conditions,” wrote Lenin, “all attempts to establish discipline inevitably fall flat and end in phrase mongering and grimacing.”
This describes our current reality exactly. The black majority may still vote ANC, but with unemployment and poverty rising, polls (and disturbances) show that the party’s popularity is wilting. So this yawning gap is regularly filled with a hollow bellowing and posturing by party apparatchiks. Now a younger generation of leaders, forged neither in exile nor in battle, has taken up this hackneyed jargon with gusto, rendering it even more mendacious.
ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema clarified his “kill” for Zuma boast by specifying: kill “counter-revolutionaries”. That same day Jacob Zuma informed a Financial Times dinner in Johannesburg that he had no intention of changing our economic policy. Yet this didn’t prevent Malema thundering: “An attack on Zuma is a direct attack on this revolution,” or Cosatu secretary general Zwelinzima Vavi parroting that he’ll “shoot and kill” for Zuma too.
Of course Zuma’s homily at the Financial Times dinner sounds less like Lenin than, well, “counter-revolutionary”. But to plug this all too glaring gap his supporters—like Thabo Mbeki’s before him—have to resort to “phrase mongering and grimacing”.
How else can one explain the response to our recent xenophobic mayhem by Christine Qunta, deputy chairperson of the SABC? She asked: “What if we were in the middle of an attempted coup?” Qunta drew a chilling picture of the 1973 overthrow of Salvador Allende and concluded by urging us “never to allow our hard won democratic gains to be stolen by criminals and right-wing elements, as happened in Chile”.
When Willie Madisha was sacked as president of Cosatu it was seen widely as a purge for arguing that trade unions should not support Zuma’s presidential ambitions. When subsequently expelled from the Communist Party he likened this to Stalinism. He was, of course, smeared as a “counter-revolutionary”.
It was Mbeki himself, in fact, who started much of this Stalinist-style abuse.
In his epic novel, Life and Fate, Russian author Vasily Grossman tried to explain the slavishness of “party-mindedness” and the acquiescence of once brave revolutionaries who kept quiet as Stalinism took hold. “Fear alone cannot achieve all this,” he wrote. “It was the revolutionary cause itself that freed people from morality in the name of morality, that justified today’s pharisees, hypocrites and writers of denunciations in the name of the future, that explained why it was right to elbow the innocent into the ditch in the name of the happiness of the people.”
How else to explain that not one of Mbeki’s ministers took issue with his Aids denialism? Minister of Health Manto Tshabalala-Msimang even trained at a Soviet institute influenced by Stalin’s lauded agronomist, Trofim Lysenko, who applied Marxist dogma to biology with disastrous results. “Perhaps,” observed James Wilmot, “this is why she does not appear to understand how the genetics of retroviral co-evolution works.”
Grossman, famous for his war reporting from Stalingrad, witnessed the corruption of Stalinism from within. His great, breathtaking novel was published only in 1980, after his death, yet Grossman also captured something of what is going on in South Africa today: “The hide was being flayed off the still living body of the Revolution so that a new age could slip into it; as for the red, bloody meat, the steaming innards—they were being thrown on to the scrap-heap. The new age needed only the hide of the Revolution—and this was being flayed off people who were still alive. Those who then slipped into it spoke the language of the revolution and mimicked its gestures, but their brains, lungs, livers and eyes were utterly different.”
He could have been describing many of our new generation of ANC party hacks.