Loyalty must never be blind
"MY COUNTRY, right or wrong," the American journalist and politician Charles Shurz told the US Senate in 1872.
Here in South Africa it has become "my party" and, as often as not in the run-up to this week's Mangaung conference of the African National Congress, "my faction, right or wrong".
That factionalism, which President Jacob Zuma refuses to acknowledge, threatens to take the ANC down over time, because it demands a suspension of personal judgment and permits a denial of personal responsibility. The result is a headlong rush in the faction's favoured direction, with no opportunity for reflection or review.
Julius Malema stated it quite plainly during his brief ascendency when he warned that no politician would succeed in the ANC who did not back his campaign for nationalisation of the mines.
With the circular logic that factional loyalty demands, he said nationalisation was open to debate, but only if the conclusion acknowledged up front was to support the premise that majority ownership of the mines should be ceded to the state.
For the moment, at least, his assumption that he was in charge of the Zuma faction and could determine its direction has marginalised him. But he is not out in the cold because the faction discovered that his policy was wrong. He is out because he misplayed the internal politics of his faction.
In the campaign for Zuma's return as ANC leader for another five years, that same factional loyalty has required everyone in Zuma's camp to deny the damage his leadership has caused. At the same time, nothing which does not emanate from within his inner circle can be acknowledged to be good. If it cannot be claimed to his credit, it must be denigrated, seems to be the rule of thumb.
That is a dangerous context in which to stage a major party convention - dangerous for the party and the nation. A party congress is by its nature self-congratulatory.
It is a celebration of support and an opportunity to bind members to the core principles of the ANC.
But the closed sessions should also be an opportunity for introspection - a time to formulate and review policies on the basis of past experience and new expertise. When factionalism attaches policies to slates, however, there is little room for real debate. Instead, support for certain ideas goes with support for a certain set of people.
On the available evidence, it is difficult to imagine that the 4500 delegates will weigh policies, or that they will elect a national executive committee based on merit. Those who go onto the NEC are likely to be elected because of the factions they belong to rather than the ideas they carry in their heads.
Shurz is most often quoted in just those five words I opened with, but what he actually said was: "My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right."
The message that our country needs to be set right on many issues is coming from so many quarters that it is rising to a cacophony. Even within the ruling party, more and more people are daring to speak their concerns aloud.
To cite just a very few, yesterday Archbishop Thabo Makgoba of Church Leaders Consultation, Bishop Joe Seoka of the SA Council of Churches, Rev Edwin Arrison of Kairos Southern Africa and Rev Moss Ntla of the Evangelical Alliance of SA wrote to Zuma saying South Africa had lost its moral compass.
South Africans "yearn for a change from an increasingly corrupt political, business and societal culture to one that is accountable to the people", they said. And it would not be enough just to change "one self-serving political leader for another".
Also just in the past few weeks we have had Thabo Mbeki break his silence on internal politics to warn of "a dangerous and unacceptable situation of directionless and unguided national drift".
Pallo Jordan, whose ANC roots are as deep as any, has gone public to warn that the party is in crisis. "The leadership of the ANC has been stripped of its dignity. The ANC has lost its legitimacy," he said in one of several recent criticisms.
If the ANC players fear, as they tend to do, that every critical voice inside the country is part of a vast conspiracy to elevate or to topple someone, perhaps an outside opinion would carry weight. Bill Keller, New York Times bureau chief in Johannesburg during the transition to democracy and later the paper's executive editor, is in the country and writing about it.
"I wish I could say the lessons from here are easy. But it is becoming clearer by the day that a glorious constitution carries you only so far if its values have not taken root in the culture," he wrote on Monday.
"So South Africa has an exquisite balance of powers on paper - but is, in effect, a one-party state, riddled with corruption. It has a serious, independent judiciary - but is now contemplating loopholes to let tribal courts practise South Africa's version of Shariah. It has a vibrant, diverse press - and a president who keeps trying to muzzle it.
"As a witness to its birth, I would not say the thrill of South Africa's democracy is altogether gone. South Africans are resilient, blessed with tourist-alluring beauty and abundant natural wealth; there is a growing black middle-class and a robust civil society.
"And 18 years is still young. But I imagine that some days the news - if it penetrates the fog that I'm told enshrouds the 94-year-old Nelson Mandela - must break his heart."
Dare we hope that each ANC delegate will heed just one voice from the wilderness and that together they will return a leadership with the skills and ideas to set South Africa right?