The ANC needs a genuine renewal and refocuses in order to achieve the socio-economic transformation of society

THABO MBEKI

AN outstanding African patriot and freedom fighter, our irreplaceable and beloved leader, Xhamela, Walter Sisulu, passed away on May 5, 2003 aged 91 years.

Twelve days later, on 17 May, I was honoured to deliver the Funeral Oration as we were about to lay to rest his mortal remains at the end of a solemn and dignified Official Funeral. 

I began that Oration in these words:

“Our country, and nature herself, have been in mourning since that fateful day, the 5th of May, when Walter Sisulu ceased to breathe.

“While he lived, there were many in our country who knew nothing about him, except perhaps what they had been told or not told by those who had been his jailers.

“While he lived, there were many who did not understand the unwavering humanism of the cause to which he dedicated his whole life, who were blind to what he did to ensure that his movement and his people remained forever loyal to their humanist calling.

“When these came to know that there had been such a gentle giant in their midst, hidden from them as though he did not exist, they asked themselves the question – why did we not know!

“But there were many others who knew of the place he occupied among the great galaxy of leaders of our people who had given their all, to ensure that all our people and all Africa were liberated from oppression, from poverty and underdevelopment and the intolerable pain of contempt and humiliation.

“These knew that Walter Sisulu belonged among those through the generations, who are the best representatives of the unheralded nobility of the masses of our people, the representatives who decided that their lives were worth nothing, unless they dedicated those lives to the service of all our people.”

Having said all this, I thought it right that perhaps as an epitaph on Tata Sisulu’s grave we could inscribe the famous words of the Poet Laureate, Krune Mqhayi, when he spoke of those other heroes, the hundreds who perished when the Sailing Ship, Mendi, sank in the cold English Channel. 

And so I said of he who had been driven to act as he did throughout his adult years, inspired only by the noble sentiment of selfless service to the people:

“Asinithenganga ngazo izicengo;

Asinithenganga ngayo imibengo;

Bekungenganzuzo zimakhwezi-khwezi,

Bekungenganzuzo zingangeenkwenkwezi.”

I am certain that all of us will recall that the Defence during the Rivonia Trial used Walter Sisulu as in fact its principal witness, a responsibility he discharged with distinction – truly cum laude!

At some point Tata Sisulu was interrogated by their lead Defence Counsel, Advocate Bram Fischer, QC. Here is one particular exchange.

Adv Fischer asked: And when you were detained for 90 days (that is to say, from day of the arrest at Rivonia) were you approached and interrogated in any way?

Walter Sisulu responded: Yes, I was interrogated by members of the Special Branch several times. They said they believed I was in possession of vital information which would help the State, and that I was facing a very grave charge, the penalty for which is death. They told me I could escape if I was prepared to give evidence, or rather to give them information confidentially. They said it would not be known by anybody. And they told me that some of the Europeans (whites) had already spoken and given information about me. They repeated examples of the rebellion of 1914 when Jopie Fourie was hanged. I, however, said that I would never give information about my colleagues and they could do what they wished.

Fischer: So you did not accept any offer, though it may have saved you from the death penalty?

Sisulu: Yes.

The journalist John Carlin interviewed Tata Sisulu after he was released from prison in 1989. Here is part of the exchange:

John Carlin asked: On the night before the sentencing at the Rivonia Trial … what do you remember of Mandela’s state of mind, his behavior on that very night? …

Tata Sisulu replied: Well, I can’t specifically say I remember this but I remember that his reaction was made up that he must face the situation…But I made up my mind. I was convinced that there was no way of escaping the death penalty. That’s how I looked at it. I looked at the cases that were going on, comparatively minor cases, sentences were very heavy, and I reasoned that if that be the case with ordinary rank and file leadership, where you have people who deliberately were prepared for prison, you must naturally expect that the death penalty … would be inevitable.

Carlin: Did you have any plans in the event of getting the death sentence? Was Nelson going to give a speech or something, or had you looked that far ahead?

Comrade Walter: Yes, we did look at the question that the very fact that … I was chosen to play a particular part, Nelson would play a particular part. Therefore, we had different parts to play. And … I wanted … Nelson to take the line he took.

Carlin: Meaning … ?

Comrade Walter: The line of defying, of speaking irrespective of what the consequences would be, of speaking as a leader, fearlessly.

Carlin: The sort of great historical moment, that would be the idea?

Comrade Walter: Yes. As for myself, I had reached the position of deciding my personal role that is the death penalty, I must face it with courage. I will in fact sing when I go to the death sentence. To the gallows.

Carlin: You actually pictured that?

Comrade Walter: That’s right. I worked at that properly…that this is a situation where there is no way…in which we can avoid the death penalty in terms of the law of the country. Therefore, my own situation is if we are sentenced (I thought at least four of us) to death, and I should go to the gallows singing, in order to indicate my determination for the other people who may come.

The conversations I have just cited, between Tata Sisulu on one hand and Bram Fischer and John Carlin on the other, tell us this important story about Comrade Walter Sisulu:

In him our liberation movement, led by the ANC, and the people of South Africa, were blessed to have a true revolutionary –

who would never betray his comrades, the struggle and the revolution;

who was prepared to sacrifice his life for the revolution to succeed;

who would go to the gallows singing, to give courage and set an example to future generations never to betray the people. 

Knowing all this about Comrade Walter Sisulu, I thought it most fitting that to thank him for his invaluable contribution to the liberation of our country and people we should borrow other words from the Poet Laureate:

“Kwaf’ amakhalipha, amafa-nankosi,

Agazi lithetha kwiNkosi yeeNkosi

Ukufa kwawo kunomvuzo nomvuka

Ndinga ndingema nawo ngomhla wovuko,

Ndingqambe njengomnye osebenzileyo,

Ndikhanye njengomso oqaqambileyo.”

When we say – Ndinga ndingema naye ngomhla wovuko – this is to pay tribute to the role Walter Sisulu played to help ensure the defeat of the apartheid regime and the victory of the democratic revolution.

In this regard there is no gainsaying the fact that the ANC played a leading role in securing that victory and that Walter Sisulu was a very important member of the collective leadership of that Movement.

When Comrade Walter joined the ANC in 1940 the organisation had become moribund, facing the threat of withering out of existence. Fortunately, a new leadership was elected, with Dr A.B. Xuma becoming President and Rev James Calata Secretary General. 

Under their leadership began a process affecting both the ANC and the struggle as a whole, which, through a number of strategic stages, led to the victory of 1994. Certainly Walter Sisulu would not have known in 1940 that he would play a central role in all those stages.

The first stage consisted in the rebuilding of the ANC. Among others, that process led to the formation of the ANC Youth League and the ANC Women’s League. Comrade Walter, one of the founders of the Youth League, was elected to serve as its Treasurer. That process of rebuilding also included a more detailed elaboration of the ANC vision for a new South Africa spelt out in the document adopted in 1943, The Africans’ Claims.

We can say that that first stage of the rebuilding of the ANC concluded with the adoption by the ANC of the 1949 Programme of Action. Comrade Walter was central to this as the Programme was tabled and promoted at the ANC National Conference by the Youth League. The same National Conference which adopted the Programme of Action elected Comrade Walter as the full-time Secretary General of the ANC, replacing Rev Calata who had been part time.

That 1949 Programme of Action defined the major struggles the ANC led until it was banned in 1960. These were mass struggles which represented a strategic break from the previous approach of the ANC since its foundation which effectively consisted in petitioning the successive white minority regimes. Though the apartheid regime banned Comrade Walter from membership of the ANC and participating in its activities in 1954, he continued to serve in its leadership. 

The implementation of the Programme of Action drew the masses of the people directly into the struggle, helping to prepare millions of the oppressed for the sustained offensive which forced the apartheid regime to enter into negotiations to end apartheid rule. This process further entrenched the ANC as the trusted leader of these masses and therefore the centre which would end up recognised by the overwhelming majority of those masses as their authentic representative.

Again Comrade Walter played a central role in helping to bring about these strategic outcomes.

Of course it was also during this period of the sustained implementation of the Programme of Action that, as we have said, the Congress of the People convened in Kliptown, Johannesburg and 66 years ago, today, adopted the seminal policy document The Freedom Charter, which succeeded The Africans’ Claims. Yet again, though he was banned, Comrade Walter played a critical role in these processes.

The campaign to implement the Programme of Action reinforced and expanded an important process initiated during the Xuma Presidency of the ANC, marked by what came to be known as the Xuma-Dadoo-Naicker Pact, in fact the birth of the united Congress Movement which helped to bring freedom to our country. It was also that Congress Movement which got together at the Congress of the People and produced The Freedom Charter.

All this entrenched in the ANC the understanding of the strategic consideration of the vital importance of building a broad front for a sustained offensive against a common enemy. It was this development which ultimately led to the ANC opening its ranks to all South Africans and later the formal emergence of the Tripartite Alliance of the ANC, the SACP and COSATU.

Needless to say, again Comrade Walter played an important part in cultivating the united front during the period of the implementation of the Programme of Action and its enrichment after he came out of prison in 1989.

But as all of us know, the strength and militancy of the mass struggle panicked the apartheid regime which carried out the criminal Sharpeville Massacre in March 1960 and followed this by banning the ANC and the PAC.

Refusing to accept this eventuality, the ANC leadership, Walter Sisulu among them, took three important decisions. One of these was that rather than dissolve, the ANC would reconstitute itself as an underground organisation. The second was that it would form an External Mission based outside South Africa. The third was that it would break with its 50-year-period of non-violent struggle and take up arms, leading to the formation and activation of Umkhonto we Sizwe in 1961. 

The latter did not mean the abandonment of mass struggles as shown, for instance, by the Stay-at-Home called to oppose the declaration of a Republic by the apartheid regime on May 31, 1961 as well as advance the demand for an inclusive non-racial National Convention to draw up a new Constitution for South Africa.

I would like to believe that many of us will recall that years later, speaking from Lusaka, Zambia, the ANC leadership called the construct I have just described as the Four Pillars of our struggle, these being –

underground organisation;

mass struggle;

armed struggle; and,

international solidarity. 

Again Comrade Walter was intimately involved in the conceptualisation and putting in place of this very new construct in terms of both the functioning of the ANC and the conduct of the struggle. As we know, ultimately he and others of our leaders were captured in 1963, appeared in the Rivonia Trial and were sentenced to life imprisonment.

Even as it prepared to launch the armed struggle in December 1961, as it organised the May Stay-at-Home which called for a National Convention, the ANC leadership said it preferred the latter, i.e. inclusive and non-racial peaceful negotiations, as the best way to end the system of white minority apartheid domination in our country. At that point in time, the apartheid regime did not listen.

28 years later, in August 1989, the OAU Ad-Hoc Committee on Southern Africa adopted the Harare Declaration which the ANC had drafted. That Declaration, later adopted by the UN General Assembly in the same year, called for Negotiations to end apartheid rule, and the release of political prisoners as one of the pre-conditions for those Negotiations.

Two months later, in October, Comrade Walter and other political prisoners were released, following Govan Mbeki’s release two years earlier, in 1987.

As all of us know, Nelson Mandela was released in February 1990. The same month, at last, and almost 30 years after it rejected the call for a National Convention in 1961, the apartheid regime agreed to participate in such an inclusive and non-racial National Convention to end the system of white minority apartheid domination.

The very first negotiated agreement between the ANC and the Apartheid Government in 1990, was The Groote Schuur Minute concluded on May 4 of that year. Walter Sisulu was part of the ANC delegation which negotiated this agreement, a mere six months after he was released after 26 years in jail. He stayed part of this negotiating process until its conclusion in 1994.

During the same year, 1994, he retired from active politics because of ill health. Nevertheless, he was present at the Union Buildings on May 10 when his friend and comrade of many decades, Nelson Mandela, was inaugurated as the first President of democratic South Africa.

And here I must make the important point that it was our other beloved leader, Mama Albertina Sisulu, Comrade Walter’s very dear wife and comrade, Honourable Member of the National Assembly, who stood up in Parliament on May 9 1994 to nominate Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela for election as President of the Republic.

Towards the end of the Oration at Walter Sisulu’s funeral to which I have referred, I said:

“One that was as mighty as the baobab has fallen. But because he planted mighty seeds, he has risen again, and will rise again in the tomorrows and the new births that the African sun will bring. That sun will supply, as well, the living energy that will bring to their noble maturity, the little and tender and delicate plants that Walter Sisulu nurtured with such devotion and care, and love.”

Today, 18 years after Comrade Walter passed away, we must ask ourselves the question and answer it honestly – was this prediction correct?

As he was preparing to retire from active political engagement in 1994, Comrade Walter participated in preparing the Election Manifesto the ANC adopted for our first democratic elections.

That Manifesto said, among others:

“On 27 April, for the first time in our history, all of us will stand tall and proud as equal citizens in our common home…

“To eradicate the serious problems caused by apartheid, South Africa needs a government with the political will to meet the challenge. A government that understands the needs of the future because it understands the neglect and division of the past. We need a government that puts people first…

“The ANC is a home for all South Africans. Our strength flows from our roots among the people. That is why we inspired people’s resistance during the darkest moments. That is why we initiated and led the negotiations process. Our programme reflects years of people’s struggles and is informed by their aspirations…

“The ANC is ready to govern: we are ready to listen…

“While others throw up their hands in despair or point fingers, we want to roll up our sleeves and tackle the problems. We are aware that eliminating the mess created over decades by the National Party will not be easy. But we know that you can make a difference. If we all work together, we are capable of achieving even more…

“Democracy means more than just the vote. It must be measured by the quality of life of ordinary people – men and women, young and old, rural and urban. It means giving all South Africans the opportunity to share in the country`s wealth, to contribute to its development and to improve their own lives…

“Together let’s change South Africa. So that, once and for all, our country can know peace and security. So that we can join the rest of humankind as a proud and united people working together for a better world.

“Now is the time!”

Today, 18 years after Comrade Walter passed away, we must ask ourselves the question and answer it honestly – have we, the ANC, kept the promise we made to the people?

To answer the first question, let us first hear what the ANC says about itself.

As many of us probably know, in the Resolution on Organisational Renewal, the December 2017 54th National Conference of the ANC said that some of the principal challenges facing the ANC are that:

“(There is) A loss of confidence in the ANC because of social distance, corruption, nepotism, arrogance, elitism, factionalism, manipulating organisational processes, abusing state power, putting self-interest above the people. Even the strongest ANC supporters agree the “sins of incumbency” are deeply entrenched. Many organisations and thought leaders have become critics of the ANC and its leadership and we are losing much of our influence and appeal among students, young intellectuals and the black middle class…and,

“(There are also) Leadership weaknesses and loss of integrity, characterised by competition to control state resources, factionalism, conflict, ill-discipline and disunity, and the use of state institutions to settle differences. Slates and vote buying have delivered leaders who have difficulty driving our programmes or commanding respect from society and our supporters.”

Again as you will recall, later, in August last year, ANC President Comrade Cyril Ramaphosa, issued an important letter to the members of the ANC headed – LET THIS BE A TURNING POINT IN OUR FIGHT AGAINST CORRUPTION. The President wrote:

“Today, the ANC and its leaders stand accused of corruption. The ANC may not stand alone in the dock, but it does stand as Accused No. 1. This is the stark reality that we must now confront.”

Responding to the bleak situation facing the ANC, the 54th National Conference had said:

“Organisational renewal therefore is an absolute and urgent priority, and we may go as far as to say, to the survival of our great movement.”

But what happened which caused the ANC to sink into the lower depths described by Comrade President Ramaphosa and the 54th National Conference?

In this regard I would like to remind all of us what our late esteemed Comrade President Nelson Mandela said 24 years ago at the 50th National Conference of the ANC, three years after the ANC effectively took power as our country’s governing party. He said: 

“…A number of negative features within the ANC and the broad democratic movement have emerged during the last three years…

“One of these negative features is the emergence of careerism within our ranks. Many among our members see their membership of the ANC as a means to advance their personal ambitions to attain positions of power and access to

resources for their own individual gratification…

“In reality, during the last three years, we have found it difficult to deal with such careerists in a decisive manner. We, ourselves, have therefore allowed the space to emerge for these opportunists to pursue their counter-revolutionary goals, to the detriment of our movement and struggle.

“During this period, we have also been faced with various instances of corruption involving our own members, including those who occupy positions of authority by virtue of the victory of the democratic revolution.

“(There are also those among our members who) see our movement for national liberation as a mere political party which participates in elections at the conclusion of which it places its members

in remunerated positions of authority…

“Clearly, we have to take all necessary measures to purge ourselves of such members (as well as the careerists) and organise ourselves in a way that will make it difficult for corrupt elements to gain entry into our movement.”

Before I say anything about all these matters relating to the ANC let me quote two statements made respectively by Mr Arthur Fraser, the former DG of the State Security Agency and Comrade President Jacob Zuma. 

In an April 2019 document Arthur Fraser said:

“(The) apartheid intelligence formations were established with the mandate to maintain, advance and protect the Apartheid social system through destroying opponents of Apartheid including the destruction of the ANC and its allies. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume that these Apartheid intelligence operatives disappeared with the disappearance of Apartheid from the law books. They are very much active and seek to influence even what may seem to be attempts to transform or correct the problems that affect the SSA. They are hell-bent, not just to undermine the State, but the governing party. This is not a theoretical conjecture…”

Jacob Zuma delivered an Oliver Tambo Centenary Lecture in November 2017 in Kagiso on the West Rand. Among other things he said:

“(After the unbanning of our organisations and the beginning of the negotiations) The countries which were our enemies got an opportunity to woo and recruit us. They would say to us – please work with us secretly. Nobody else will know. We will give you everything you want. 

“When some among us agree to these overtures, we become weaker… Comrades return from training and we give them tasks – not knowing that they are now working with the enemy as its secret agents…

“This person, now an enemy agent, has already been trained how to conceal him/herself so that he/she is not discovered. He/she behaves as though he/she loves the ANC more than all other people. After he/she has spoken, we all decide to elect this comrade…he/she should be the Chairperson!

“They have trained him/her about what to do to get elected. It’s a silent war in the process of the balance of forces…

“As we examine the problems we are experiencing today, we should not look at them on the surface, or merely look at individuals. We must understand that we are involved in a global war…

“The ill wind blowing through the ANC is not self-generated. There are those who are blowing this wind from below… It is the enemy agents who were hard at work who caused the division after (the) Polokwane (52nd National Conference of the ANC).”

I believe that after the extensive quotations I have cited to describe the malaise in the ANC and point to at least some of its causes, there is no need for me to say anything else to add to all that.

The essential challenge is to act exactly on what the 54th ANC National Conference called for when it said – “Organisational renewal therefore is an absolute and urgent priority, and we may go as far as to say, to the survival of our great movement.”

In this context, we must draw attention to the fact that the 2017 ANC Conference said that it “Mandates the NEC to drive a sustained programme of Organisational renewal and report on such to the (2020) NGC.”

To add, we must also point to the fact that in this year’s January 8th Statement, the ANC NEC said “…We must this year forge ahead with the fundamental renewal of the ANC. It is only an ANC with ethical, selfless and disciplined members that can lead the national effort to reduce coronavirus infections and drive radical social and economic transformation.”

But here is the deeply worrying reality in this regard – the ANC NEC has done nothing to honour both the 2017 Conference directive and its own 2021 commitment!

Obviously and naturally, the question arises – is the ANC National Executive Committee willing and able to discharge its responsibilities with regard to the ‘absolute and urgent priority’ of the renewal of the ANC?

I pose this question during this Lecture because this is not a matter of concern only to the ANC and its members.

The ANC remains the dominant political formation in our country and is likely to sustain this position for the foreseeable future. The 54th National Conference called for the urgent renewal of the ANC to end the corruption, the corrosion of the governance capacity, the radical weakening and subversion of the democratic State institutions, and all the other negatives it identified.

All these negatives are a fundamental cause of the serious general political-socio-economic crisis in which our country is immersed.

The 2017 ANC National Conference said the renewal of the ANC concerned ‘the survival of our great movement’! In other words, failure to effect that renewal would threaten the very survival of the organisation.

Our political reality of the continued primacy of the ANC, which our electorate regularly elects as the national governing party, means that that very threat to the survival of the ANC simultaneously threatens our country and all sixty million citizens with a virtually intractable general political-socio-economic general crisis.

It cannot and must not be that if we, the ANC leadership, are trapped in an organisational death wish, South Africa at large acts in manner which allows that the macabre within the ANC visits immense disaster on our already suffering population and millions of others elsewhere in our region and Continent.

The genuine and thoroughgoing renewal of the ANC is an urgent national imperative! It remains a prayer to the future that the ANC NEC will not be found wanting in this regard, inspired by what was meant when in 2003, referring to the ANC and the democratic revolution, we spoke about “the m living energy that will bring to their noble maturity, the little and tender and delicate plants that Walter Sisulu nurtured with such devotion and care, and love.”

I am certain that all of us would agree with the 1994 ANC Election Manifesto 27 years after it was composed, where it says:

“Democracy means more than just the vote. It must be measured by the quality of life of ordinary people – men and women, young and old, rural and urban. It means giving all South Africans the opportunity to share in the country`s wealth, to contribute to its development and to improve their own lives…”

And I also believe that it would be right that especially the ANC should make an honest assessment about how much the quality of life of the people of South Africa has improved since the majority of our electorate first elected it as a governing party in 1994 on the basis of the Manifesto one of whose authors was Walter Sisulu.

Of course this is not the moment for us to make such an assessment. However, we have to make some comments on this matter taking into account our country’s contemporary challenges.

I speak here of the discussion in our country generated by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this regard, I must, first of all, congratulate our Government for the close attention it is paying to the supremely important task to defeat the Covid-19 pandemic. The very dangerous current Third Wave emphasises the vital importance for the population to respect and implement the directives which our Government regularly issues.

On October 21 last year President Ramaphosa replied to the debate which had taken place in Parliament in response to his presentation of the Government’s Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan. Among others the President said:

“This plan is a response to a severe economic contraction unlike any we have experienced in recent memory. South Africa is not alone in experiencing an economic crisis of this depth and extent.   

“Unemployment has risen across the world and nearly every economy has shrunk. It is true that the measures that were necessary to delay the spread of the virus and prevent deaths led to a sharp decline in economic activity…  

“For South Africans who have been watching this debate these are not theoretical issues.  

“They have a direct effect on their livelihoods, their prospects for finding work, the recovery of their businesses, and indeed our collective future.

“Business owners worry about being able to cover their overheads and pay their employees. Families worry about their ability to pay their bills and see the year through. Those who are unemployed worry about their prospects in this climate of economic hardship.”

Even before the onset of the pandemic, others, including COSATU, had drawn attention to the parlous state of our economy.

In a January 2020 document entitled ‘Key Eskom and Economic Intervention Proposals’, COSATU said:

“Organised Labour…seeks to help stabilise and save Eskom and its workers’ jobs…and ensure the economy has access to affordable and reliable electricity.  

“Equally important are urgent interventions needed in the economy and the state as a whole to stabilise them and ensure economic growth that can begin to reduce our dangerously high and rising levels of unemployment…

“The economy is facing its worse crises since 2008.  Unemployment is 40% and rising.  GDP growth barely reaches 1%. There are 600 000 new job seekers annually.  

“The state is fast running out of options.  Eskom with a debt of R450 billion and rising is the ticking time bomb threatening to implode the state and economy.

“Other SOEs (are) in varying stages of collapse…

“10% of the budget is still lost on average to corruption and wasteful expenditure.  Tax revenues are declining.”

All of us will recall that in the exceptional circumstances described by President Ramaphosa and COSATU, there was a virtual and welcome chorus that the social partners – government, business, labour and civil society – should get together to implement an agreed Economic Recovery Plan.

It is interesting that COSATU saw the need for this even before the Covid 19 pandemic. In the document we have cited, the Federation said:

“Organised Labour’s approach is based upon a social compact, where all parties from government to labour, business and civil society make a contribution and where necessary, a sacrifice for the sake of the national interest.”

Indeed, when President Ramaphosa presented the Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan to Parliament in October last year he said:

“The South African Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan builds on the common ground established by the social partners – government, labour, business and community organisations – through intensive and detailed consultations over the last few months.

“I wish to applaud the remarkable efforts, particularly from our social partners in NEDLAC, in reaching consensus on the actions required to rebuild our economy, and the firm actions that all social partners have committed to contribute to the country’s recovery.”

This, indeed, was excellent news that for the very first time since 1994, the social partners, as already defined, were resolved and determined to join hands to rescue our country from the abyss!

But here is the problem! 

When the Business Unity South Africa (BUSA) Vice President addressed the NEDLAC Summit last December, he said:

“…In agreement with the President and our social partners, we started engaging on the economic recovery for the short, medium, and long term. These engagements have been more challenging, and we have not made as much progress as the situation requires in agreeing upon, and implementing, fundamental issues imperative for economic growth.

“We need to reflect on why, during the most severe socioeconomic crisis since the birth of our democracy, we have not acted with the necessary resolve and urgency to address the economic, social, and fiscal crises we face, many aspects of which pre-existed the pandemic. We offer the following observations on this:

“We need to move beyond ideological debates to a real time and pragmatic, fact-based assessment of our circumstances. In that context, Government must show leadership in rising above ideology to implement critical actions that are in their domain. We recognise the difficulty of making hard choices and trade-offs but that is the reality confronting us and is clearly visible to all stakeholders.”

We may not necessarily agree with BUSA about the reasons and solutions relating to the failure of the social partners to agree on ‘short, medium and long term’ plans for economic recovery.

However, the observation they make that the NEDLAC social partners ‘have not made as much progress as the situation requires in agreeing upon, and implementing, fundamental issues imperative for economic growth’ is correct.

This is very disturbing indeed.

In the first October 2020 Parliamentary Address we have cited, President Ramaphosa said:

“As even the darkest of clouds has a silver lining, we need to see this moment as a rupture with the past and an opportunity to drive fundamental and lasting change.

“It is an opportunity not only to recover the ground that we have lost over the course of the pandemic, but to place the economy on a new path to growth.

“We are therefore presenting before this joint sitting of Parliament and the country a reconstruction and recovery plan to drive growth that is inclusive and transformative…

“We shall not rest until we have built a new economy based on fairness, justice and equality. This is the task of our generation: to renew, to repair, to rebuild.”

As we all know, Present Ramaphosa was talking about an economy in dire straits – in which at least 40% are unemployed, in which at least 50% of the population falls below the upper-bound poverty line, and which has the highest income inequality in the world. 

In this context the February 2021 Budget Review of the National Treasury says:

“…The (economic) outlook remains highly uncertain and the economic effects of the pandemic are far-reaching. By the third quarter of 2020, there were 1.7 million fewer jobs than in the same period in 2019. Rising unemployment and income losses have entrenched existing inequalities. GDP is only expected to recover to pre-pandemic levels in late 2023. Given South Africa’s structural constraints, its recovery will be slower than many of its developing-country peers…

“Beyond the pandemic: lifting barriers to growth South Africa faces severe economic challenges. Real GDP per person has been falling since 2013/14, meaning that the average South African is becoming poorer, despite high and rising fiscal deficits. Private and public investments are lower than at any time since 2005, having declined to 12.5 per cent and 5.4 per cent of GDP, respectively, in 2019.”

In its July 2020 document, A New Inclusive Economic Future for South Africa: Delivering an Accelerated Economic Recovery Strategy, Business for South Africa [B4SA], the formation representing the private sector, says:

“Absent decisive leadership and action, South Africa will not be able to escape the pernicious effects of policy uncertainty, corruption, lack of accountability, and a lack of capacity which were all evident prior to the crisis. These will continue to depress growth and they may become so entrenched that they lock in a negative growth trajectory for the next decade.

“If, however, the country’s leadership makes the right strategic choices over the near term and takes decisive and bold action, based on a data-driven, empirical and rational approach, then South Africa may be capable of delivering economic growth of 5% per annum or more, to potentially double GDP over the next 10 years and materially reducing unemployment, inequality and poverty in the process.”

The hard reality however is that this achievement and the glorious outcome spelt out by President Ramaphosa cannot be realised except through a serious, real and implementable Economic Reconstruction and Recovery Plan to which all the social partners are committed.

As President Ramaphosa said, that glorious outcome is about “a rupture with the past and an opportunity to drive fundamental and lasting change.”

A rupture with the past is about the achievement of that historic objective – the eradication of the legacy of apartheid and colonialism and therefore a decisive advance towards the creation of the non-racial, non-sexist and prosperous society prescribed by our National Constitution.

In this context I recall the very disturbing observation made by Arthur Fraser, the former SSA DG, when he said some former apartheid operatives continue to work to destroy institutions of the democratic State. I mention this to draw attention to the task in the context of the Economic Recovery to defeat what has been a sustained campaign to destroy the State Corporations.

The social partners, led by the government, have an absolute responsibility to the millions of our people urgently to work together to produce and implement the said Reconstruction and Recovery Plan, and here I mean a Plan not a Vision, important as the latter might be!

In this regard they must be guided by what COSATU said, namely:

“Organised Labour’s approach is based upon a social compact, where all parties from government to labour, business and society make a contribution and where necessary, a sacrifice for the sake of the national interest.”

The extraordinary work which Walter Sisulu and his other outstanding comrades did, successfully to lead the liberation struggle for half-a-century to its victory, required mastery of the complex strategy and tactics which, despite all domestic and international opposition, led to the birth of a democratic South Africa.

It is obvious that what this emphasises is that fortunately the movement for national liberation had in Walter Sisulu, his fellow leaders and the cadres of the movement, genuine revolutionaries who could think.

Indeed, we know this as a matter of fact that the most determined opponents of the ANC, here at home, consistently advanced to themselves the strategic proposition that they would only be able to defeat the ANC when it ceased to think!

In my comments so far I have spoken of two major challenges our country faces – the task to achieve the genuine renewal and refocus of the ANC, the dominant political formation on our country, and the fundamental progressive socio-economic transformation of our society. 

Of course there are other important challenges we do not have time to address, but which will have to be attended to.

What all this means is that as demonstrated to us by Walter Sisulu and his comrades, our society, including its political formations, will have to generate within its ranks the cadre which would also have the mastery of the complex strategy and tactics which must result in the successful eradication of the legacy of colonialism and apartheid and therefore our country’s fundamental socio-economic transformation.

I believe that it is obvious that if we fail to develop this cadre we will not accomplish the fundamental transformation our country desperately needs.

During the year 2014 the Walter Sisulu University community listened to an Address by Ms Nombulelo Hackula entitled “Repositioning Education central in the SA transformation agenda to deal with socio-economic challenges facing the country in the 21st century”.

She said: 

“In the South African Green Paper of December 2006 on Higher Education Transformation, Professor Bhengu – the former Minister of Education states that:

“Higher education is one of the most important activities organised in modern societies. It creates a demanding but rewarding environment in which individuals may realize their creative and intellectual potential. Through high-level training across the disciplines, it equips people with the necessary knowledge, skills and values to play a wide range of social roles and to become effective citizens. Through research and the production of knowledge, higher education provides a society with the capacity to innovate, adapt and advance.”

Ms Hackula went on to say:

“…It is about time that South Africa faces up to the “triple challenge” of unemployment, poverty and inequality, with education playing its vital if not the main role towards winning this battle. Education is not an end in itself, it serves broader objectives. We cannot continue to view education in isolation to its own environment…The question is – are institutions of higher learning up to the challenge?”

In 2016 the then Vice Chancellor of WSU, Professor Rob Midgely, emphasised the point raised by Ms Hackula when he told a Graduation Ceremony: 

“The reality is that only 4% of black people complete a degree. Our graduands therefore belong to a privileged group. This also increases the responsibilities that they have, especially to ensure that their privilege also impacts on their communities back home. So, graduands, please use your education wisely, and make a difference to other people’s lives.”

The question whether institutions of higher learning were up to the challenge posed by Ms Hackula was obviously very appropriate, certainly in the context of the development of the cadre for transformation we have spoken of, exactly the educated cohort among our people which must play the role identified by Ms Hackula and later Prof Rob Midgely.

However, because of the strategic importance to the future of our country of the creation of the critical mass of the cadre for transformation Ms Hackula and I have spoken of, which must be developed through our system of formal education, we must consider the matter of the readiness or otherwise of the institutions of higher learning together with the other levels in our educational system.

What is happening in our education system, dramatically and painfully represented by the dropout rates throughout the various stages of the process of learning, should sound a very loud alarm that something must be done to address the many patent deficiencies within the system.

We do not have time today to make a comprehensive presentation about this matter. Let us mention a few figures with which you will be familiar.

It was reported in 2017 that around 60% of young South Africans effectively drop out of school, with no school-leaving qualification to their names, and that out of each 100 learners that begin school in Grade One, half will dropout, 40 will successfully complete the NSC exam, and only 12 will be eligible to pursue higher education. 

It has also been reported that our universities can accommodate only 18% of our matriculants, and of that 18%, nearly half (47%) will drop out! 

Earlier this year, the Department of Higher Education and Training reported that in the period 2016-2018, only 9.2% of students who enrolled for the National Certificate Vocational (Level 2) in 2016, completed the qualification within the 3-year expected time frame, which was a far cry from the target of 75% set by the National Development Plan (NDP) for 2030.

All the foregoing communicates the deeply troubling story that practically our educational system destroys the futures of many of our young people and simultaneously fails to create the critical mass of the transformation cadre we have spoken of.

This University enjoys the unique privilege and unmatched honour of having been named after an eminent human being and outstanding architect of our emancipation. 

However, I believe that that unique privilege and unmatched honour carry with them a heavy and serious obligation for the University to be as excellent as Walter Sisulu was or, at worst, earnestly to strive to discharge that obligation.

In her article, “The impact of covid-19 on online teaching and learning at a historically black university in South Africa – A case study at Buffalo City Campus”, your colleague, Victoria Magaba, makes some important observations about the historically black Universities. She writes:

“Historically, black universities are situated in small towns and the majority of students come from former homelands that were created as a form of segregation during apartheid…Most of these universities are marred with challenges, for example, they are poorly resourced, they attract a lot of students from underprivileged backgrounds as they are mostly located near small towns and rural areas where job prospects are scarce. A high number of students enrolled at these universities come from schools which are themselves poorly resourced, meaning that they were not exposed to technology like computers, and therefore, the students start university with no computer skills. By virtue of its location, Walter Sisulu University attracts a lot of students from the above category, meaning that the university has to put in measures to support students to have computer skills, and for lecturers to be trained in incorporating this in their lessons.” 

Yet another of your colleagues, Qonda Makala, also reflected on this reality in his article entitled “Peer-Assisted Learning Programme: Supporting Students in High-Risk Subjects at the Mechanical Engineering Department at Walter Sisulu University”. He says:

“The majority of the students who enrol at the Walter Sisulu University (WSU) in South Africa are not equipped with the necessary academic/learning skills to cope with the university environment, especially in Mechanical Engineering.

“In order to address this gap, a Peer-Assisted Learning (PAL) programme was implemented to provide support targeting high-risk subjects for at-risk students in Mechanical Engineering at WSU. The programme therefore is pro-active and student-driven in that senior students assist junior students with their academic work and learning processes. The programme is designed to encourage collaborative and cooperative learning approaches during group sessions and active student engagement to support student learning…”

I have referred to these articles to make this statement that I believe that by working in such a focused way to empower the students to succeed in their studies, rather than drop out, WSU is indeed responding to its obligation to honour the memory of a truly humanist change agent, Walter Sisulu.

It is also important, in this same context, that located where you are, you have positioned WSU as a developmental comprehensive University which, providing more than 186 qualifications, focuses on urban renewal and rural development.

Without detailing any further your other outstanding achievements, including the important role you are playing in adding properly qualified people to what we have called the critical mass of the transformation cadre, I would make bold to say that our beloved leader, Xhamela, and his dear wife, also our leader, Mama Albertina, are very proud of this, their own University!

What you have done and are doing here at Walter Sisulu University serves as an example and a challenge to all of us in our country, and especially those of us who claim Comrades Walter and Albertina Sisulu as our comrades and leaders, to approach the historic task of the fundamental transformation of our country with the same dedication as well as commitment truly to serve the people of South Africa, which you continue to sustain.

As I was about to end my Oration on the day we laid our father and leader, Walter Sisulu, to rest, I said:

“Voices of amazement and surprise have spoken of a miracle that many things they thought impossible (in our country), have been done. They have endowed the outcomes with the attributes of a miraculous wonder.

“But we who have the gift of knowledge, the people of whom the poet Krune Mqhayi spoke, know that the miracle is not in the creation, but in the creators. It is not in the outcomes, but in the blessings unbound, that gave us a Walter Sisulu, whose quiet voice and quiet ways and gentle touch, gave our people the knowledge and conscience and conviction to do what is right, the impulse to create the outcomes that evoke pride and joy in all of us, and give us cause to dance in celebration of our humanity.”

  • This is an edited version of the Walter Sisulu Memorial Lecture delivered by former South African President Thabo Mbeki.
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