The ANC Conference as a Heritage Site

Published on 3rd April 2018

Heritage is an embodiment of a past we wish to take into our future without losing the benefits of a changing present. It defines not only a sense of belonging, it makes the past a form of the present and an abstraction of what a future will look like with us as a presence of the past which is a present we are living in now. Like its adjunct tradition, it creates and reorders our background of permanence. It assists us to transmit the merits of the past to modern-day originality.  Such a background anchors the values with which a society can be normed.

The ANC conference, as the single most event that makes it possible for society to ‘rethink the dispersion of history in the form of the same,’ is in itself a heritage site not only for its members but observers of how a democratic process unfolds. It is in fact a display of how far the will of its members can be respected, manipulated and/or disregarded.

This display will unfortunately add a layer that sediments upon existing ones constituting that heritage. A heritage that has enabled various cohorts of ANC members to pursue without discontinuity the endless search for its original values.

The Heritage character of the conference is one element of ANCness that has made it go through most of its challenges over the years. It has in fact become convention for ANC members to almost and in a faith-based manner subject all doubts that they have about their organisation to its conference. It has in fact grown to become a 5 yearly pilgrimage of the democratic character of the ANC.

The conference is a meeting where the ANC congregates every five years to find itself, refine its strategic pathways, define new policy trajectories, reconfirm its strategy and tactics and elect from amongst its members in good standing new leadership. Treated like a pilgrimage for its polyvalent ideologues to create a consensus without a gluing ideology, the conference has become mythical and somewhat ‘spiritualized’; barring the fluidity of where it occurs, it is a political shrine for the diehards.

Mirroring its origination conference in 1912, the conference invites into the ‘sacred’ space, euphemistically called the festival of ideas, various sectors of society to enrich its continuum of ‘prayers’ for and about the future. These prayers, unlike their religious equivalents, are expected to be guides on how to develop policies in the state it aspires to always rule, the ultimate price for successful ANCness. In a multi-party democratic context of South Africa, where the ontological position of the ANC is under constant review by a society that wants to claim portions of its glorious history of fighting all forms of chauvinisms, with racism as its apex of enemies, its conferences have become a form of privileged shelter for the sovereignty of its consciousness as a liberation movement.

As a heritage site the conference has consistently been able to display as intangible artefacts the following;

•The principle that every member can be elected into the highest office

•All are equal in front of the rule governing the organisation

•All members of the organisation are ‘represented’ at the conference

•Resolutions of the conference are an outcome of a member-canvassed and driven process

•Organs of civil society that have an interest in ANCness participate in its process

As a conglomerate of political orientations on how best South Africa can be governed, its heritage includes being accorded the status of leader of society. Whilst this status accentuates/ed one of its prayer items, it, and for some time, earned it through conduct and the leadership it produced. The various conditions and epochs it went through became its capacity building process. It did not only become a leading institution but itself an institution of leadership. Members would, and to a degree still, have their steps being ordered by internal practices that have grown into its virtual artefacts defining its heritage. They are unwritten rules of conduct that stand as sign posts which members know how to react when they see them. Adherence to them by the apparatchik serves the purpose of inducting the new and upcoming to its originality. 

However, heritage can also be defeatist and decadent, trapping us in absolute attitudes and outmoded nationalisms. The currency it uses to defeat a society is nostalgia, and at best mythology. Since its character is sacred, it is often a difficult thing to challenge the conference heritage, albeit having flaws and weaknesses, in a democratic sense of its facile meaning, This risk of heritage seems to have engulfed the ANC conferencing process. The quality of leadership and prayer items proposed at its five yearly pilgrimage gathering, the conference, is of such a quality that it being uncontested publicly created a sub-culture of one way communication; of which later leaders seem to have taken advantage of.

The ultimate change this pilgrimage is known have been consistent about is that of leadership change and new policy adoption. As part of the conferencing heritage, the process of selecting leaders is assumed to have been anchored in branches. Being a historically elite and middle class formation, the assumption of a class nuanced character of society became the assurance for the quality of individuals sent to contest, whence the machinations required to filter from amongst its members the best to stand for elections is one of the most ignored aspect of ANCness.

The deferral, up until 1994, of the enfranchising of non-whites by various non-black regimes called for new methods of petitioning ‘the powers that be’ on the demands of society. These new methods also defined new breeds of heroism in the ANC and thus opened avenues for new standards for what constituted meritorious leadership. These standards grew within the process leading up to the conference as a heritage and yet did not change the conference itself.

Assumptions of quality would therefore be nuanced outside the traditional modes of social class and criteria changed outside what the ‘historical dominant middle class’ had hermetically sealed themselves into. This heritage also occurred in conditions of illegality whose variable influence churned an unconscious pecking order not traditional to the ANC’s historical self. Merit as it is known in the heritage changed and the template of being ANC got altered. Out of the template a new breed of merit concretized whilst the heritage of Conference stayed static. In the new standard being a member in good standing became the basic requirement to elect or be elected into leadership.

The demand to have the conference, despite its heritage significance, being recalibrated to meet the ‘demands of the new era’ by the 101 ANC stalwarts remains one of the decisive attempts by the ‘party apparatchik’ to ‘fix-in-flight’ how ANCness should be. The demand was in the main about revisiting the manner in which ‘delegates-from-branches’ are ‘selected’ in order to ‘elect’ the ANC leadership. This attempt would have reconciled what informed the traditional method of giving branches a carte blanche to determine the overall direction of the organisation and the vexing demands of being political coalition charged with the responsibility of leading society beyond its membership base.

Given the changed ‘social thought’ about being South African as entrenched in its 1996 Constitution, the assumption that the ANC, and alone, has a somewhat ‘monopoly’ in leading society, became increasingly suspect and thus required a ‘higher order’ interaction with how it positions itself outside its membership base. Politics has in the meanwhile also grown into a ‘career option’ and can thus not be perpetually be subjected to the adage of ‘I can only serve where the ANC want me to’; it must instead be calibrated to accommodate the ‘new mode’ ‘I am qualified to be a politician and should be allowed to openly say so without the ‘occult-like’ requirement to be ‘raised’ or ‘allowed to phakama.’ The 101 Veterans led demands for change have not been tested in respect of how they derail the ‘heritage path’ of being ANC and thus sustaining to the conference as a ‘heritage site.’

By Dr FM Lucky Mathebula

Madyatshamile Holdings (Pty) LTD.

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