How ANC is trying to rewrite the anti-apartheid struggle
Published 06/01/2012 | 08:00
The past is not another country. It is here and now and riven by the same issues and acrimonies as ever - because they who shape understanding of the past are well-placed to mould the future.
Recent intemperate exchanges between British historian Niall Ferguson, who believes that the Empire was a jolly good thing for the dusky sorts, and Indian novelist Pankai Mishra, who reckons that the blood never dried on the imperial banner, have little to do with whose research is the more reliable and a lot to do with the disputants' contrasting views on Britain's proper role in the world today.
The same holds true for a potentially dangerous dispute between the ANC and other elements of the anti-apartheid movement about the balance of moral entitlement to the legacy of the liberation struggle.
Something of the same consideration looms large here, too, in the controversy about a putative offer from the Thatcher Government in July 1981 which might have ended the Republican hunger strike and saved the lives of six of the 10 who died, but which allegedly was rejected for dishonourable reasons by Provisional leaders outside.
Clashes over perspectives on the past are likely to be especially sharp when participants are still active in the political arena and so have a personal stake in which version wins out - even more so when the contested area is partly or wholly hidden from view, with few reliable records left behind and orders and dispositions and even the identities of leading actors kept secret.
In circumstances such as these, the argument may become more a knife-fight in a darkened cellar than a civilised exchange of views.
It will be 100 years exactly next Sunday since the foundation of the African National Congress. A year-long party is planned. But not everyone has been invited. "This isn't a celebration of the party's centenary," says Bishop Desmond Tutu, "but of the whole history of struggle - which the ANC is now claiming is its own property".
The ANC was founded in an Anglican church in Bloemfontein. The church has been involved ever since in campaigning for equality - which is not to say that every Anglican in the land or even every Anglican clergyperson has been an opponent of apartheid.
Now, says Tutu, "We are being airbrushed out of history".
The murdered Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko, once the best-known anti-apartheid figure of all apart from Mandela, scarcely figures these days in official accounts. Also virtually erased are Nobel Prize-winning novelist and long-time ANC member now turned dissident Nadine Gordimer, academic Mamphela Ramphele, Helen Suzman, for many years a fearless lone voice in parliament against the all-white racist regime, Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) founder Robert Sobukwe and many others.
The pivotal 1960 Sharpville demonstration which ended in the killing of 69 marchers was organised by the PAC in the face of ANC disapproval. But official commemorations now depict the ANC as sole custodians of memory of the massacre.
Anger at misrepresentation of the past was strikingly expressed by Tutu last October: "I will pray for the downfall of the ANC."
One powerful reason the ANC has to distort the past is that it cannot be confident of maintaining its dominance on the basis of its performance in government.
True, the task it faced on taking office was daunting, and expectations of change may have been pitched too high. But the reasons for growing disillusion and disengagement from the political process are not hard to find.
The World Bank estimates that South Africa is the 25th richest nation in the world - but also ranks it among the most unequal. Fifteen million of its 50 million people are officially categorised as living in poverty. Unemployment stands at 25%, rising above 50% for under-35s. Despite euphoric promises of decent homes for all, more than five million still live in "informal settlements".
This is the context in which the ANC feels it necessary to fix the eyes of its electorate on the unique and flawless role it claims for itself in the struggle for freedom.
Something of the same tone can be detected in the gouging attacks and counter-attacks between former Republican comrades over the leadership's role in the hunger-strike.
I note, however, that the main player in that drama has not been mentioned at all in the course of the current argy-bargy. Perhaps we will repair that omission next week.