Afrika’s oldest liberation movement, ANC, turned 110 years old yesterday. It was on the 8th January 1912 that an intellectual giant, Pixley ka Isaka Seme, delivered what he had conceptualized, an organisation to unite all the oppressed Afrikan people in order to fight against the run-away exploitation, dispossession and exclusion of the natives of this Afrikan land, Azania.
At the centre of this suffering was the theft of the wealth, cattle and land of Afrikan natives by white settlers. But the seemingly never-ending exclusion, Seme figured out, required a radical response saddled on unity of the natives across tribal lines. This measure, therefore, demanded the spirit which the ANC founder imbibed from the gourd of Pan Africanism.
The 30-year-old Seme was thus heavily influenced by the revolutionary minds of the likes of WEB Du Bois and Marcus Garvey that swept the existential spaces of Black America in the latter part of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century.
The genius of the young Pixley ka Isaka Seme did not only reside in the theoretical realm. He transcended into the world of action. This node of praxis was spectacularly demonstrated by his proposition to involve, not only the politicians, but also the clergy as well as Afrikan kings and queens. Not as mere appendages to the cause, but as genuine leaders.
It is in this way that he resolved the problematic mentality of a tribe, in favour of the might of a united black race. This was necessary in order for the union of blacks to effectively confront the union of white settlers, the Union of South Africa, forged three years earlier, which excluded the natives of this land.
The obnoxious anti-black system that Seme and his people were fighting was manifested in the colonial and apartheid institutions, which included parliament. This is the institution that churned hundreds of odious pieces of legislation over the years to further marginalize the natives in the land of their ancestors. Unfortunately, 110 years on, the Afrikan people are still victims of the selfsame system. Painfully, today, the system is presided over by black bodies from his own organisation. Its leadership, 28 years in political office (still known as Union Buildings), has been pontificating about what Seme and his generation many moons ago had identified as things to be addressed, with land repossession as the crucial issue. It is his organisation, with a dominant majority in the Parliament of the “Union of South Africa”, that lambasted the EFF in February 2017 as reckless and anarchic for moving for the repossession of the land via the amendment of Section 25 of the Constitution to ensure the “expropriation of land without compensation”.
When the parliamentary building caught fire last week, it shamefully precipitated bickering by different role players in the political spectrum. It further revived the debate about the continued novelty or joke of parliament still being kept separate from the Union Buildings. But the debate should be elevated to address whether this whole system serves the objective of dismantling the anti-black colonial system in favour of the natives of Azania. Indeed, Azania must rise, while the Union of South Africa must fall!
I don’t know what to make of the incident in Braamfontein where a solitary man in broad daylight, blatantly and openly, vandalised or broke the windows of the Constitutional Court building. Of course, many buildings of the state and infrastructure (including the parliament and railway tracks) have lately, and consistently, been torched and dismembered. When this unfolded before our eyes, I couldn’t resist interpreting this event in the light that our ancestors must be perturbed. As the Chinese curse goes, we live in interesting times. Right?
We need to start seriously engaging on the real substance of the historical 1912 moment, and the ANC’s tradition of the January 8 Statement, as suggested by Oliver Tambo and his comrades. The tradition began in 1972 during the dark days when all the liberation movements were banned and persists to date (with the exception of the years between 1972 and 1979).
But, what is the real essence of this annual event? Is it one of those mere annual rituals devoid of political significance? It’s known that the January 8th Statement is meant to outline clear achievable programmes of the organisation for the year ahead. Obviously, this historical event has morphed into something that is quite “eclectic”- encompassing a multiplicity of activities, including fund-raising schemes which entail granting opportunities for capitalist role players to consort with the party leaders (who happen to be leaders in government).
And this is sustained even in the dramatic milieu of the so-called state capture, which should correctly be called a syndicated criminal activity involving capitalist actors and government. What is there for capitalists (business people) to pay fortunes to sit with the president of the country at a gala dinner table? Nothing?
One needs to be ignorant to not see what certain arrangements breed in our troubled society. On the face of it, I read hypocrisy and doublespeak. The optics of this initiative make this practice smack of arrogance and insensitivity to the vexing issues of “state capture”. I have consistently argued for a conscious and discerning citizenry if we still have hopes for a liberated society. Stifling the articulation of truth, whilst aiding the growing sheepish citizenry is extremely anti-revolutionary.
It is to perpetuate the uncritical mentality of the herd. Thomas Sankara identified the damage caused by such an attitude to say, “the enemies of a people are those who keep them in ignorance”, whilst Seme himself, in 1906, had pronounced, “woe to tongues that refuse to tell the truth!”
The description of the identified themes of the January 8th Statements read in the past few years should, partly, answer the question as to whether the event still serves the genuine purpose intended. Or is it just a run of the mill or a mere pastime? Methinks, the respective January 8th events post-1994 have mostly been platforms where the leadership merely spouts rhetorical catchphrases.
The issues of unity, renewal, economic growth and service delivery have been quite thorny in the last 28 years of the ANC in political office. These persistently remained elusive to the leadership albeit predominating the themes of the January 8th statements issued by the NEC to date. For instance, unity and economic growth are central to the themes of the January 8th statements of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2017, 2018 2019 and 2020.
Would anyone believe that the 2015 January 8th statement was themed, ”the year of the Freedom Charter and unity in action to advance economic freedom”? Ironically, the challenges that the party has been facing, which have led to the plummeting of membership and electoral support, have largely got to do with the failure to implement the Freedom Charter. As we speak, the cancer of factionalism remains a crippling factor in the organisation. It has in fact worsened; yet the themes of so many January 8th statements rested on the issue of “unity”.
I have recently made the observation that the ANC has never had a female president in its entire history, now 110 years. Charlotte Maxeke was the only woman to attend the founding meeting in 1912. It’s so interesting that 2021 was themed the year of Charlotte Maxeke. Incidentally, the Lilian Ngoyi Memorial Lecture spearheaded by the ANCWL (as part of the January 8th celebration this year) was aborted at Lebowakgomo last Thursday.
But the point I intend emphasizing is that talk of women emancipation or gender equality is all but cheap rhetorical sloganeering by the leadership. With the party heading to its national elective conference later this year, already there are men intent on running for (re)election or selection as president or deputy president of the ANC 110 years on. Yet, the language of “gender equality”, “Wathinta abafazi”, “50-50” and “mbokodo” is mouthed in abundance.
This lip service is all that matters in this respect, but where it matters most (that is, the ANC presidency) the patriarchal instinct kicks in ruthlessly.
Whilst on the matter of unity, it is Pixley ka Isaka Seme who, in 1912, preached unity of all Afrikan people in order to reclaim the stolen land. He forged the spirit of pan Afrikanism and thus inspired the likes of Muziwakhe Anton Lembede and Robert Sobukwe who emphasized the need for “awakened race consciousness” as a powerful vehicle. Moss Mashamaite observes that the “idea of the unification of the tribes into a nation took form in Seme’s mind and snowballed until it was an imperial force”.
His protégé, Lembede, loathed the inferiority complex and reminded us that “Africa is a black man’s continent, and that it was up to Africans to assert themselves and reclaim what was rightfully theirs”. Of course, this was against the backdrop of the reality that whites, who were nationals of various countries were “united only by skin colour and common purpose”.
It is painful that the fundamental problem, essentially a mental slavery factor, identified by Seme, is still rooted in many of our black leaders today. That is the malady of leaders who seek affirmation and love by the oppressors. Most of the time this is disguised as “non-racialism” and “rainbowism”. Seme observed then that such black leaders “were finding refuge in the dubious arms of the hypocritical marauding land-grabbing colonial invaders”.
In the spirit of January 8th celebration, it is important to avoid all distractions and refocus on the fundamental issues that the January 8th statement was really about. It was not about the pursuit of factional trivialities, but the unity of all Afrikan people for the purpose of liberation and reclaiming our land.
This year demands of the oppressed to extricate ourselves from the imprinted shackles of the mythical rainbow nation. This thing simply doesn’t make sense at all! We should avoid spending too much time and energy on useless things that distract us from the substantive issues that underpinned our freedom struggle. Once again, I argue for unapologetically pro-black political leaders to unite on the liberation principle to take state power for the benefit of the masses of the oppressed people, the working class of Azania.
Mama Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, back in the 1970’a, had also asserted that “it is only when black groups join hands and speak with one voice that we shall be a bargaining force which will decide its own destiny”. It is my view that black unity has been the forever missing link to ensure that black people do realize true liberation. The true Azania has eluded us despite the rhetoric and lie of freedom colourfully sponsored and punted as a “rainbow nation” since 1994.
Pixley ka Isaka Seme is not dead. But where is the Pixley of today, 110 years on?
David Letsoalo is a Sankarist, an activist and Law academic