The ANC, religion and ‘the truth’

by The Editor

SPEECH: This past Tuesday I delivered an address on the ANC, religion and ‘the truth’. For those interested, a copy of that speech follows below. It argues that there is much to be understand about the ANC when it is viewed not as a political party but a religious movement and explores what happens when a party which once held a monopoly over ‘the truth’ suffers a crisis of legitimacy?

12 AUGUST 2014

The ANC, religion and ‘the truth’

I wish tonight to talk to you about the African National Congress (ANC), religion and the truth.

Ultimately, I would like to try and answer the question: What happens to a society’s understanding of ‘the truth’, when a single party that once held a monopoly over it suffers a crisis of legitimacy?

In turn, I hope it is helpful and illuminating to look at the ANC as a religious movement, rather than a political party. In doing so, I believe there are number of insights to be gleamed as to how it conceives itself and its role in society more broadly.

The demonstrable relationship between the ANC and religion, particularly over the last six years following President Jacob Zuma’s election in 2009, has been fairly well documented, not least of all by the President himself.

Zuma once said, “I start from basic Christian principles. Christianity is part of what I am; in a way it was the foundation for all my political beliefs”.

That quote is as significant an insight into the man as any, and it is a relationship he wears on his sleeve, with pride and conviction. Certainly with some disregard for the consequences.

There are few modern democracies in the world – and South Africa, we are constantly reminded, is a quintessential example of a progressive, rights-based constitutional order – in which a sitting president would get away with the repeated mantra that his party will govern until Jesus returns.

Not just that a party will hold power indefinitely and by the grace of God but that its opponents – those who support democratically elected political alternatives – will burn in Hell fire and brimstone.

“When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven”, said Zuma in 2011.

“When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people. When you are carrying an ANC membership card, you are blessed. When you get up there, there are different cards used but when you have an ANC card, you will be let through to go to heaven.”

That sentiment is anathema to freedom. If elections are predetermined in accordance with divine will, there is no point to democratic choice in the first place – the very idea at the heart of any democracy is denuded of its worth. Human agency is rendered redundant.

It is significant that many of Zuma’s religious utterances are made from the electoral stump to generally uneducated, rural voters with whom religion resonates so much more powerfully.

While they might be an authentic reflection of his personal convictions he understands full well the impact they have on the ANC’s core constituency.

To the right audience, God can be used to motivate political behaviour and augment demagogic values much more powerfully than democratic best practice.

Zuma has learnt to play this particular game exceedingly well.

This much is obvious. But Zuma, in his fervent and blatant religiosity, has given fuel to the idea that he stands alone from the ANC; even, in some quarters, that he is an aberration – unrepresentative of those more general impulses that define the ANC’s true political and historical ideology.

It is a useful distinction for many angry or disillusioned with the ANC, who seek to separate Zuma and what he represents from the ANC, in order to strengthen the argument that, should he be removed from office, the ANC might return – or at least arrest its decline – and begin a journey back to the glory days.

But this, I believe, is to profoundly misunderstand the ANC and its relationship to religion.

In many respects it is a quasi-religious organisation. It boasts many traits similar with those of the grand monotheistic religions and, when there isn’t an overt overlap between its programme of action and that of the church, there exists an informal one.

Religion is, of course, a complex phenomena but at the heart of its many and varied manifestations is the idea of ‘the truth’.

It differs from the philosophical and scientific method in that it claims to know, definitely and with absolute certainty, the truth. Whereas ideas like conjecture and refutation, the hallmarks of sceptical thought throughout the ages, regard knowledge as a stepping stone – that, constantly, one is moving closer and closer to the truth and enlightenment – religion claims to have already arrived at its destination.

The more fundamentally held the religious belief, the greater the fervency with which those who hold it make such a claim. The consequences are serious indeed.

In a letter to a friend, the great Isaiah Berlin put it like this:

“Few things have done more harm than the belief on the part of individuals or groups (or tribes or states or nations or churches) that he or she or they are in sole possession of the truth: especially about how to live, what to be and do – and those who differ from them are not merely mistaken but wicked or mad and need restraining or suppressing. It is a terrible and dangerous arrogance to believe that you alone are right, have a magical eye which sees the truth and that others cannot be right if they disagree.”

But you can be sure the ANC believes itself to be South Africa’s own magical eye. That it has come more to represent the Eye of Mordor as it has deteriorated is lost on the party.

The assumption that lurks beneath its words and sentiments, occasionally seeping through, is the firmly held conviction that it alone can see and be responsible for South Africa’s progress.

It is the past, the present and the future; an omnipresent force in every citizen’s life; and, a fundamental force for good at that.

This is not something particular to the ANC’s brand of racial nationalism. Nationalisms the world over is prone to this kind of thinking.

In Nationalism and Modernism, Professor Anthony Adam says, “Nationalism… like millennialism, seeks to abolish the distinction between the private and public domains; nationalism, like millennialism, seeks to institute a new morality of absolute purity and brotherhood; nationalism separates its devotees in the movement from the crowd much as millennialism elevates its virtuous elect; and, like millennialism, nationalism renounces earthly pleasures to achieve through struggle its goal of justice on earth. Both are revolutionary rather than reformist doctrines and both seek a radical break with a corrupt and oppressive past.”

One begins to see why it is that religion and nationalism so easily blend into one another.

It is one thing to embrace a particular belief in your personal capacity; quite another to impose it on others – the primary reason behind the principle of divorcing church from state and, in turn, the personal from the public. For the nationalist, however, this distinction becomes blurred.

In its most virulent form, nationalism will adopt a particular religion as part of its mythology entirely, while a less fundamental movement might simply see itself as a parallel but equal social force.

The ANC tends towards the latter, rather than the former.

Inherent in this idea are a number of others. Chief among them – the notion that, because both the nationalist and the religious zealot are chosen, in the diametric world they occupy they are ‘good’ and their respective beliefs ‘true’ and paramount; and, by default, any belief that stands in opposition to its own is intrinsically false and ‘evil’.

Nor is it enough simply to accept any opposing belief as flawed, it must also be actively defeated as morally corrupting and intrinsically tainted.

A moral quality is attached to opinion – anything that is not good, must be bad – and, by merely existing, any opposing view is evil (or at least, morally wrong) and evil must be sought out and destroyed.

Much of this attitude is prevalent in the ANC’s attitude to its political opposition.

And so it is that both religious zealots and fervent nationalists seek out opposition to their respective beliefs and act to end their influence on society. I have exaggerated somewhat for effect but, in broad terms, the principle is accurate and the accompanying attitude is certainly prevalent in the ANC’s policy and practice.

Competition is not something the ANC encourages. It does not value a marketplace of ideas, rather control over a monopoly on ‘the truth’. Intellectual progress – through the trial and error of argument – is not how the party arrives at its conclusions. They are seen more as the organic product of its own inherent moral virtue.

But there are more practical similarities between the ANC and the church. And here I use “church” as a euphemism for religion more generally.

That relationship was formalised in 1995 with the establishment of ‘The ANC Commission for Religious Affairs’ – an inter-faith organisation that “has a spiritual function which, includes a chaplaincy; a political function which relates spiritual and theological insights to current issues; and a religious function in promoting understanding and cooperation with religious bodies”.

In other words, the ANC has an in-house chaplaincy. It was the ANC Chaplin-general Rev Dr Vukile Mehana who would offer a more official defence of Zuma’s 2011, ‘Heaven’ and ‘Hell’ comment.

“While the popular Christian understanding of heaven is equated to a physical place, theologically heaven can also mean the presence of God. When the President urged citizens to vote for the ANC, equating that with heaven, he meant that voters – theologically may miss the opportunity of being in the presence of God if they do not vote for the ANC.”

There is an argument to be made that represents and even more ominous threat than Zuma’s initial claim; for while he, at least, dealt with the life hereafter, Rev Mehana is suggesting God is here on earth, and inside the ANC is where you will find him.

Almost every ANC President, from Albert Luthuli to Oliver Tambo, to Nelson Mandela (the first person to advocate for an ‘RDP of the soul’) has, at one time or another, invoked, encouraged and used religion as a central metaphor around which to articulate and on which to base the ANC’s political programme.

The result is an occasionally formal and often informal merging of politics and religion.

Here is a 2004 description of the ANC from ANC Today, the party’s weekly newsletter:

“Those who say the ANC is atheist are simply wrong… The ANC believes that Faith and Politics go hand in hand, two sides of the same coin. We believe that the African worldview of religion as an inclusive factor of life is accurate: ubuntu is a holistic view of life in the whole community. It is spiritual politics.”

As a consequence, one can see this manifest in the party’s attitude to key democratic tenets.

Take accountability for example. Very often the ANC’s problems with accountability are explained as a consequence of cadre deployment, patronage and political expediency.

There is much truth to this. But something given less attention is the degree to which the party sees itself as a church, there to guide and, ultimately, forgive those sheep that stray.

Asked in 2003 why the ANC did not act to demand Tony Yengeni’s resignation, then-secretary general Kaglema Motlanthe, said, “The ANC never abandons people. A saint is a sinner who is always trying to correct his ways.”

Accountability is a well-established democratic and constitutional principle. For the ANC, however, it is an exercise in redemption not consequence. It is a mechanism to forgive, not to judge. And, so long as you remain loyal to the party, ultimately it does not matter what your sins are, you will be absolved of them.

There are many other parallels which space does not allow for a full examination of:

• The way in which the idea of transformation, much like faith itself, is used as a kind of moral litmus test for the good citizen;
• The ANC’s constant calls for rejuvenation, an idea to be found in its policy literature too in the Stalinist notion of a “new man”, each citizen reborn transformed, morally pure and committed to the ANC’s objectives;
• And the constant appeals, led by Zuma himself, for the church and its elders to guide the party’s thinking inside and outside government.

While Zuma’s religiosity is certainly more extreme than the underlying ideas and assumptions inherent in the reasoning of, say, Thabo Mbeki (a man often seen as Zuma’s polar opposite), they both draw from the same well.

And if one accepts that the ANC more generally has many of the characteristics and traits that a religious movement might have, one can immediately see how the two reinforce and complement each other with regard to the idea of the truth.

Locked deep in mortal combat with one of his imagined enemies (in this particular instance, the South African Institute of Race Relations, which had argued more people were living in poverty in 2007 than had done so in 1996), Mbeki wrote in ANC Today:

“…for those among us who see themselves as agents of progressive change, complete and accurate knowledge, representing accurate understanding of objective reality, liberated from prejudice, false assumptions and propaganda, becomes an imperative and inalienable condition for the untrammelled but responsible exercise of the hard-won right to self-determination. We have the possibility and latitude and the necessity to speak thus because we live during our own age of revolution. Exactly because it is such an age, all of us face the demand to understand objective reality accurately and objectively, to enable the revolution to decide on the correct strategy, tactics and operations…Opponents of change see it as their obligatory task to falsify reality, in their interest.”

It is helpful to look at this idea through the eyes of Mbeki, because he was far more of a rationalist than Zuma, not prone to the kind of popular religious demagoguery Zuma indulges in.

Nevertheless, there it is, in plain sight – the “agents of progressive change” (the ANC) are duty bound – indeed, it is an “inalienable” necessity – that it present “an accurate understanding of objective reality”, because only they are capable of doing so, in the face of the enemy, determined to “falsify reality” in the other direction.

How is that any different, aside from tone and style, from Zuma’s assertion that “God expects us to rule this country because we are the only organisation which was blessed by pastors when it was formed”?

‘The truth’ is the ANC’s to define. And only the ANC can define ‘the truth’.

“I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.”

For all his blunt populism Zuma is perfectly capably of saying the same thing as Mbeki however. In his eulogy for the former SACP General Secretary and former Treasurer-General of the ANC, Moses Kotane, in March this year, Zuma would say:

“Moses Kotane had a scientific approach (to Marxism-Leninism) and if you take that approach, you never go wrong,” he said.

“We are dealing with science… knowledge obtained through observation critically tested and brought under one principle. So if you talk about Marxism-Leninism, you are talking about people who never go wrong because you are practising science and do not wake up every day to say here (there’s something wrong) and there.”

Only Zuma could merge the scientific method and fundamentalism with this kind of certitude. The very point of science is to discover, through test and evidence, what is wrong, to explain it and learn from it and improve. Error is the path to enlightenment.

‘The truth’ for the ANC is as much a belief as it an intellectual pursuit. It is not a matter of discovering it, or it emerging through a series of arguments and disagreements, as it is a natural by product of the ANC itself.

In other words, it does not matter what the ANC does – what an elective conference resolves or a policy conference determines – if it is a natural product of the ANC, it must be true and, in turn, it must be good.

The ANC is the will of the people and from that assertion all other moral authority flows for the party. Even the constitution becomes subservient to its will.

At least this was the ANC at its finest hour, post 1994.

The ANC of today is not, by some considerable distance the party it was in, say, 2004.

Then it was united, a behemoth that rode roughshod over the South African political landscape. Today it is fractured, broken and locked into a perpetual low-grade war with itself.

Almost every public institution is defined by this kind of infighting.

Cadre deployment might well have delivered to the ANC iron clad control over the state for the better part of a decade, but with the collapse of central control, so the system itself has imploded in on itself.

Zuma has replaced centralized control with centralized chaos; ironically, a kind of control itself, and, at least so far as his own personal aspirations go, fairly effective too.

Supplementing these are a range of national crises that need little or no explanation here. Electricity shortages, local government service delivery, the public sector wage bill, infrastructure backlogs, visa regulations, corruption and maladministration, the conduct of the police, the management of parliament, a judiciary under siege. All of these and many more have been well reported on.

What happens, then, to a party that believes it has a divine mandate and access to the truth, when it implodes in this fashion, when it suffers, as the ANC is slowly coming to turns with, a crisis of legitimacy?

There are three stages worth identifying:

The first is denial: During this stage, minor or potential problems are ignored. It is an attitude born of self-delusion, the notion that nothing fundamentally damaging can ever occur to a party that is a true expression of the will of the people and moral virtue.

The second is to downplay the extent of the problem. Again, the underlying impulse is denial, but the sheer weight of evidence forces some kind of acknowledgment, even if only to reassure and convince they are not problems at all.

The third stage is collapse. This is avoidable, if the first or second stage is identified for what it is. If not, visible collapse, in the form of factionalism and institutional decay, is accompanied by ideological collapse – the truth fractures like the organization.

The ANC today is somewhere between the second and third stages. Too much denial, one fears, to arrest the decline. The graph seems inextricably headed towards the third and final stage.

Accompanying this, for the first time, we are seeing a period of multiple truths. It is something to marvel at.

In the place of one hegemonic narrative we find not just internal contestation – as the ANC and its alliance partners argue about everything from economic policy to ideological character – but external competition too as ideas are increasingly publicly fought for.

Civil society has found new life; once beaten into submission it no longer sees its role as working with government but independently from it, with some exceptions. The media has become more forthright, less concerned with obsequiousness. Political opposition is being taken more seriously.

These developments are a welcome byproduct of the ANC’s legitimacy crisis and South Africa’s growing maturity, but they are accompanied in turn by the ANC’s own attempt to re-establish its stranglehold over the one truth it knows – its own self-righteousness.

The result is a strange universe indeed. One where great truths live side-by-side with great lies. The ability to distinguish the one for the other becomes both more difficult as the problem becomes more profound.

In his Notes on Nationalism, George Orwell wrote,

“Indifference to objective truth is encouraged by the sealing-off of one part of the world from another, which makes it harder and harder to discover what is actually happening. There can often be a genuine doubt about the most enormous events…The calamities that are constantly being reported – battles, massacres, famines, revolutions – tend to inspire in the average person a feeling of unreality. One has no way of verifying the facts, one is not even fully certain that they have happened, and one is always presented with totally different interpretations from different sources.”

And so it is in South Africa. Every grand narrative is contested. Is Eskom’s condition a product of maladministration or the legacy of apartheid? Is Marikana the carefully planned consequence of a calculated police agenda or the spontaneous result of violent workers confronting security forces? Is unemployment 25% by the narrow definition or 34% by the expanded definition?

The truth has never been more contested before. How the ANC copes with this will be fundamental to its long-term prospects.

Its self-belief has resulted in many now well-established party mechanisms that act as obstacles to difference and diversity. Block voting in parliament; the lack of a constituency-based electoral system; cadre deployment and an internal bureaucracy that discourages dissent and rewards centralised control.

All these kinds of political mechanisms and many others, used by the party to enforce its hegemonic agenda, are reliant on a single unified truth to function properly. If that single truth fractures, they collapse under the weight. We are beginning to see signs of that already.

The problem the ANC faces is that, once the truth has fractured, once Pandora’s box is opened, it is next to impossible to contain again.

Christianity suffered a similar crisis once. The reformation was the consequence. A once general unified global force was fractured. Today, while some off shoots have survived stronger than others, Christianity continues to splinter into smaller and smaller component parts. Chose any variation of Christianity and you can find a church that preaches it. It has, ironically, become something of a marketplace itself; a fundamental and self-contained one to be sure, but with a range of products on offer. The Christian church can no longer agree on what ‘the truth’ is.

As a result there is an argument to be made that Christianity is no longer as fundamentally held a belief as it used to be. Certainly the likes of Christopher Hitchens is of that view – that one of the legacies of the Reformation is the fact that many of the destructive and anti-freedom practices and demands Christine doctrine makes of its followers have been rendered inert, now seen more as metaphors and allusions than absolute and divine will.

He compares this to Islam, a religion he describes as still in its first flush, yet to undergo a reformation and thus, more extreme and unyielding.

The great ANC religion is reaching its own critical period in its development. Whether it has the wherewithal to recognise the crisis facing it, to reform and accept it no longer is the one true church, but one of many competing for similar ends, or whether it will stubbornly deny the obvious to the end, remains to be seen.

There is little evidence it self aware enough to understand let alone recognise the problem. And, even when it does, its response is to heighten control. It would seem, then, to be firmly of the belief that now, more than ever, it remains the truth and the light.

Ultimately its problem is that the truth is now free. The ANC’s internal fundamentalism is at odds with a more general freedom that is running wild. And all the control in the world is not going to reign that in.

“We ask for prayers. Do not just pray for government, pray for the ANC,” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told a church congregation in Parys in the Free State in March last year.

But can one pray for God? If the divine is itself corrupted, who is there to answer that particular lamentation? Sooner or later the ANC will be forced to look down from the heavens and into the mirror. What it finds reflecting back will depend entirely upon how long it takes to realise introspection, not divine intervention, is where ‘the truth’ resides.