Every so often we are told we are witnessing a “battle for the soul of the ANC”, a confusing claim since the ANC hasn’t had a soul for decades, and power struggles among the party elite tend to be less a battle than a process of rolling slowly over on the banana-shaped lilo without capsizing it, and allowing the last, unchewed mouthful of quail egg to roll out of their mouth into the pool before muttering about the step-aside rule.
Things were certainly different back in 2005 when William Gumede first published Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, and spawned a thousand journalistic imitators. Indeed, as Mbeki popped up at Jessie Duarte’s memorial last week as part of his multi-city “It Wasn’t Me, I Wasn’t There, It’s Not My Fault” tour, some pundits allowed themselves a moment of nostalgia, remembering a more confident time in which the leader of the ANC had principles he was willing to stand by, such as the efficacy of garlic and beetroot in treating Aids, or the efficacy of ignoring election results in propping up the Mugabe family, or the efficacy of firing Vusi Pikoli in protecting Jackie Selebi and undermining the rule of law in SA.
These days, however, things are obviously quite different. I mean, when you make Mbeki look like an intellectual and moral giant, you know you’ve got problems. Still, I can understand why Cyril Ramaphosa regurgitated the old cliché earlier in July, telling the SA Communist Party that “we are in a fight for the soul of the ANC”.
I’ve written before about the parallels between the ANC and the Christian church in the Middle Ages, in which vastly wealthy clergy, wearing silks and furs and sitting in gilded palaces, debated the poverty of Christ in between plotting the overthrow of their rivals.
The parallels are not just material though. Religious thinking runs deep in the ANC. It was common during Jacob Zuma’s administration for him and his cardinals to declare that the ANC was God’s instrument on earth and that, like the medieval church, the ANC would look after the country until Jesus returned. We even have a papal schism under way, with one pope sitting in Pretoria, the other in Nkandla, and the followers of both declaring the other a heretic in need of excommunication.
In this context, conferring a soul on the ANC has some obvious political uses, not least because it turns even the grubbiest squabble over the dirtiest earthly spoils into a struggle between good and evil, a mythology potent enough to seduce even the most sceptical atheists. Scratch the surface of some really secular analysis and you’ll quickly find pure supernatural melodrama, with a dog-collared Ramaphosa shouting “The power of Christ compels you!” as poor little ANC, dressed in a frilly nightie, alternates between projectile vomiting and singing “Awuleth’Umshini Wam!”
It was oddly fitting, then, that the new anti-Ramaphosa faction that swept to power in KwaZulu-Natal at the weekend should name itself after another group of religious fundamentalists. According to members of Siboniso Duma’s “Taliban” faction, the group chose the name because it liked the “commitment, resilience and firmness” of the paranoid know-nothings currently preventing girls from going to school in Afghanistan. (I hope the KwaZulu-Natal Taliban hasn’t printed their T-shirts yet because they’re definitely going to want to change their name once they accidentally switch on the History Channel and discover the commitment, resilience and firmness of Hitler’s SS and Stalin’s NKVD.)
Still, I suppose there are a couple of obvious similarities that make the name less incongruous. Both groups, for example, are working very hard on destroying their only source of income, with the Taliban cracking down on poppy farmers and the ANC continuing its tireless efforts to destroy taxpayers. I also suspect some of the local “Taliban” see themselves as secular mujahideen, fighting a sort of political holy war against the invading infidel Ramaphosa, an ANC leader without a home constituency and therefore, to traditionalists, unanointed by a higher power and lacking any true faith.
But this is where the parallels fall apart, for one obvious reason: most of the real Taliban believe in their dogma, whereas nobody in the leadership of the ANC believes in anything except acquiring wealth. Certainly, newly elected provincial chair Duma made his priorities clear when he ended the conference by demanding that the nonpayment of salaries by the ANC should be termed an “atrocity”. I suspect there are a number of girls in Kabul who might disagree with his definition.
No, if the ANC ever had a soul, it’s long gone, bled out into the sewers of the arms deal, Aids denialism, Marikana and state capture. Yet still it moves, undead and lurching; animated not by love or care or excellence but by money and fear jolting through its rotting muscles as its masters goad it onwards and pray it can lumber through one last election before the townsfolk finally hunt it down and put an end to it, once and for all.
May it find its final rest, and soon.
• Eaton is an Arena Holdings columnist.