South Africa Journal: ANC Glasnost

In this morning’s Cape Times, Minister Trevor Manuel–formerly the well-regarded Minister of Finance under Thabo Mbeki, now serving in Jacob Zuma’s cabinet–published an op-ed that fully repudiated the views expressed earlier in the week by the ruling party’s provincial leader, Sonzego Mjongile. Among other things, Mjongile accused the Times of being “a mouthpiece for neo-liberal fascists” and claimed (without proof) that former editor Alide Dasnois was a racist.

In response to those charges, Manuel writes:

[Mjongile] makes the argument that “the Cape Times (which) has traditionally been a mouthpiece for neo-liberal fascists”, and I have to question the historical correctness of this conclusion. The problem is that each of these labels has a heavy weight in political discourse, and we should not allow the abuse of them for the purpose of mere name-calling. 

But the bigger problem is that they are devoid of the truth.

Manuel’s stilted prose aside, the rebuttal is remarkable, and would not have happened during Mbeki’s presidency. Then, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) hewed to the Leninist tradition of “democratic centralism,” and no provincial secretary would have commented without permission from the top. Debates existed within the ANC, but rarely so openly or contentiously. Manuel’s op-ed might be seen as a sign of glasnost within the ANC, and the country as a whole.

The new debate is not necessarily a sign of greater political openness within the country. There are certain things the ANC would still like to put beyond debate: both Mjongile and Manuel seem to accept the centrality of race, for example, as well as the need for “transformation,” which in practice amounts to the ruling party exerting control over more and more of the country as a whole. Personality, faction, and ethnicity are driving some of the divisions, rather than ideas.

Still, to the extent that the new fissures within the ANC signal a more contested political space, then there may yet be hope that South Africa will emerge from one-party hegemony into a more open system. There may even be room for a revival of the classical liberalism that undergirds (against all odds) South Africa’s new constitution, and that lies at the philosophical roots of its leading opposition party, the Democratic Alliance. Change often comes in unexpected ways.