Caring leaders will make  ANC strong again

David Masondo

Almost 33 years ago, on December 16, 1990, Oliver Tambo when handing over the leadership of the ANC after leading its external mission for 30 years, said: “I devotedly watched over the organisation all these years. I now hand it over back to you, bigger, stronger – intact. Guard our precious movement.  As in the past, our cadres should be the first to rally to the defence of the people and the last to seek rewards.”

Tambo’s words are worth reflecting on today to raise important questions about the current challenges facing the ANC.

Have ANC leaders and members devotedly watched over and guarded their precious organisation? And, when the time comes, are we going to hand it back to its members bigger, stronger, and intact? Have ANC members and leaders first rallied to the defence of the people and lastly, sought rewards?

The ANC-led movement is riven with destructive factionalism, tribalism, regionalism, clientelism, rank consciousness, elitism, demagoguery and moneyocracy.

These tendencies continue to erode the ANC’s values and principles. They cripple the ANC’s ability to carry out its historical mission of creating a better life for all. This seems to have been one of the reasons leading to a loss of trust by the people and electoral losses, the latest being the 2021 local elections during which the party lost key metros.

 As the national [and provincial] elections loom, the ANC is looking for answers regarding where exactly it lost the plot. The ANC cannot win or retain the confidence of the people through the reference to its history. Or by reminding the black middle class how the overthrow of apartheid has set conditions for their class upward mobility. Neither the banning of critical intellectuals such as Ibbo Mandaza, nor silencing democratic dissent within and without the movement, will work.

The ANC cannot do what many post-colonial countries did, including silencing intellectuals. Ngugi wa Thiong’o and Ali Mazrui in Kenya, Thandika Mkadawire in Malawi, Tai Solarin and Wole Soyinka in Nigeria, Mahmood Mamdani, Dan Nabudere in Uganda, and many others were jailed, killed or exiled.

The sooner this alien emerging political culture in the ANC is nipped in the bud the better, before it infests the whole of South African society. This culture will alienate the ANC from the middle strata, which is critical for building a united and democratic SA as Tambo envisioned.

Tambo took criticisms well. Ben Turok, in his memoir, said that Tambo warmly welcomed criticism.

After the failure of the Wankie campaign and the arrest of Chris Hani and others in Botswana, the ANC leadership, including Tambo, came under heavy criticism for neglecting to build its structures in SA. Tambo was called a “globetrotter”, moving from one international conference to the next, and paying less attention to building internal resistance in South Africa.

Hani and others who petitioned the leadership for a successful and famous 1969 Morogoro conference, were punished. If it were not for Tambo’s intervention, Hani and others would have been militarily executed or expelled from the ANC.


Many in the current ANC leadership prefer demagoguery. The ANC can only regain its lost plot if it defends and maintains the culture of fearless discussions within the movement and society. Unity is not conformity and uniformity. Unity is also about guaranteeing democratic dissent and creating possibilities for minority voices to become new majorities.

Majority views are not maintained through terrorising into silence those who hold a minority view.

Without freedom of speech and debates, there is no way the majority can democratically win debates and major policy decisions in the movement and society.

If Hani and others were not brave enough to express their democratic discontent at the degeneration of the ANC even under Tambo, the movement would possibly have died in exile. It is out of these debates that the ANC emerged stronger out of the 1969 Morogoro conference.

Tambo was human. He made mistakes. When the discussions were hot, Tambo announced his resignation from leadership and walked out of the conference.

 It took JB Marks to convince Tambo to resume his leadership position. ANC leaders and members should not resort to tantrums when criticised. The ANC should have more JB Marks to retain good ANC leaders and members.

Tambo did not only hand over an organisation bigger and stronger, but also smoothly. Leadership transitions and contests in the ANC have become destructive. Leadership positions have become a means to accumulate wealth.

  • Masondo is the principal of the OR Tambo school of Leadership

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