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Sat Nov 01 02:25:04 SAST 2014

THE BIG READ: Tambo as our teacher

joel Netshitenzhe | 12 November, 2012 00:48
ANC presidents, right to left, Oliver Tambo, Sefako Makgatho, Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma stand proud on cooling towers in Soweto.
Image by: SIPHIWE SIBEKO/REUTERS

The celebration of the lives of presidents of the ANC constitutes more than just an opportunity to learn about history.

By elevating the memory of the best among us we seek to extract the best from within ourselves.

It is our strategic posture and policies that define the character of the ANC. In turn, the character of the movement should inform the quality of cadres that we elevate to positions of leadership. The quality of leadership, in turn, is fundamental to determining the level of popular confidence, and whether we are able to implement our policies and realise our strategic objectives.

Then there is the role of the state, which should have capacity and enjoy popular legitimacy. Such capacity and legitimacy depend in large measure on the quality and conduct of the leadership of the ruling party.

In other words, good or bad leadership choices by the ANC have fundamental implications.

This is the challenge that the life of Oliver Tambo places before us today. He occupied positions of responsibility because, in his generation, he was of that crop of the best.

Tambo represents the best example of how good leaders can contribute to forging excellence, and to raising the movement's performance to a high pedestal. His incisive mind encouraged all of us to learn and his ethical conduct encouraged us to strive to be saints. In the words of Bishop Trevor Huddleston: "It hasn't come out nearly sufficiently . how much . ethical and moral principle mattered to [Tambo]; far more than any political philosophy.''

Tambo commanded reverence and awe not because he demanded respect or instilled fear. He simply towered above the rest: as an organiser, an accomplished intellectual, a master strategist and tactician, a source of inspiration, a force of example and a paragon of transformative virtue and revolutionary ethics.

Those of us who had the good fortune of working in the Department of Information and Publicity at the ANC's HQ in Lusaka can say that we keenly experienced his leadership qualities to teach without explicit instruction, and to correct without humiliating.

The stroke from which he barely recovered happened in 1989 after he had crisscrossed Southern Africa to seek advice on the negotiating positions that the South African liberation movement should adopt [after it became clear that the apartheid regime would seek a negotiated settlement].

Working until late in the night and trekking from capital to capital with little rest, it was as if he had decided to fulfil the last mission of the mandate he received some 30 years earlier when he was sent abroad.

OR's life was consumed by the struggle. To quote Nelson Mandela at his funeral: "[Tambo] lived because his very being embodied love, an idea, a hope, an aspiration, a vision. While the ANC lives, Oliver Tambo cannot die!"

Relevant to the current environment is the quality that leaders such as Tambo brought to the ANC, rather than merely being made by it. Besides being a mathematician and lawyer, OR was also a teacher, a musician and a devout Christian.

So is it sufficient that leaders of the movement should narrowly be "professional politicians", with no other link to communities; and with no skills other than political activism?

Having referred to some of the lessons that we can extract from the life of Tambo, let me identify some of the strategic issues to which we need to pay attention as we prepare for the [ANC's] 53rd national conference.

The first is about leadership in social transformation. There is no doubt that we have made progress in extending many of the rights enshrined in our constitution. This includes some of the socioeconomic rights fundamental to eliminating the social roots of apartheid.

However, we should be the first to acknowledge that the quality of these services in many areas leaves much to be desired.

Critically, the economic relations inherited from apartheid remain largely intact. This requires a drive to raise the level of economic growth and this cannot be carried out by the ANC or by the government alone. As such, part of the ANC's responsibility is to lead society in forging a social compact.

This requires an appreciation on our part that the ANC is a leader not just of its members but of society as a whole. The second issue is the need to clarify key tenets of our constitution. We need to appreciate that what makes our constitution progressive is not our so-called "political miracle". It is rather its articulation of the human rights that should form the foundation of the ideal society we seek to attain. We need to challenge the notion that, where we have failed, it is because of the constitution and thus turn a blind eye to weaknesses of capacity, unbecoming conduct and sheer indecisiveness.

However, as this happens, the ANC needs to distinguish itself from the rest not merely by hanging onto the coat-tails of Tambo and invoking the history of the Struggle. It should eloquently articulate the vision to which society should aspire. It should demonstrate its capacity to lead in the implementation of that vision, display ethical conduct and respect for public resources, and pursue unity in its ranks.

The fourth issue pertains to a failure on our part to articulate clear theoretical approaches to the challenges we face. Part of the success of social transformation is the emergence of black middle and upper strata. But for many activists, the possibility personally to ascend to a better quality of life is through relations with the state, or through leadership in the trade unions.

As such, a dependency is created for corrupt patronage. Desperation creeps in as people cling to positions of responsibility because there is no other platform for personal accumulation. The movement as a whole gets compromised.

In a sense, the Marikana tragedy and the ensuing miners' revolt are a concentrated expression of the deficits that the ANC, and indeed all of society, need to address.

  • Netshitenzhe is a member of the ANC national executive committee and director of the Mapungubwe Institute. This article first appeared in ANC Today

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