Sometime in the middle of the 19th century in the rural Eastern Cape, a young man of about seventeen sits with his peers under a shade of a small tree to shield from the extremely hot African sun. They are engaged in a conversation typical of young men his age during those days gone by. The young lads discuss livestock, crops, and as all teenage boys do; they discuss girls. They seem to relish in the latter topic, but this particular young man’s attention is somewhere else. He is keenly observing a number of prominent men in the village who are gathered under a bigger tree, just a small distance from where he is sitting with his mates.
These men are also engaged in a conversation but these are not boys’ matters; they are elders’ matters. A calabash of traditional beer is making the rounds, following a circular shape the way the elders’ seating was arranged, as it was during those early days. From a distance, the young man assumes that the elders are merely catching up and quenching their thirst. He pays close attention and he soon realises that these important men of the community are wearing sombre faces. The air around them is filled with grief and sorrow. These men are in mourning, he notices. Some exhibit signs of regret.
Suddenly voices are raised and there seems to be a disagreement among the elders. ‘Could it be the tasty African beer taking charge?’ he thinks to himself. But this sort of disagreement he has never seen let alone men showing such strong emotions. Some are blaming the young girl for their loss while the others blame the colonial invaders. The joy that the young man initially thought he was seeing was just a figment of his imagination. These respected men of the community are grieving. They have lost their cattle and crops…
That is the image that is evoked whenever one thinks of Isaac Wauchope Citashe’s poem; at least that is what I think. Noticing that his countrymen were beginning to revel in despondence and hopelessness, I.W Citashe took it upon himself to inspire his people both in action and in verse:
Your cattle are gone, my countrymen!
Go rescue them!
Leave the breechloader alone
And turn to the pen.
Take paper and ink,
For that is your shield.
Your rights are going!
Load it, load it with ink.
Sit on a chair.
Repair not to Hoho
But fire with your pen.
Words have always been a source of inspiration, and this I.W Citashe understood very well. Citashe’s countrymen heeded his call and loaded their pens with ink and began firing. Among these countrymen was John Tengo Jabavu, the newspaper editor whose loaded pen was not only influential in the political sphere, but was also influential in the development of education in the African society, culminating in the formation of Fort Hare University in 1916.
Africans were beginning to realise that the only way to defeat the colonial powers that had made them, to paraphrase Solomon Tshekisho Plaatje, pariahs in their land of birth was to unite under one large African umbrella. Various organisations were spawned but they were not one in the way forward. Their differing voices in what the ‘natives’ needed could not reach the arrogant ears of colonial masters who believed that the relationship that could ever exist between them and Africans was that of master and servant. Thus it would take a while before Africans could gather under one tree to form a single, united organisation that would fight on behalf of the people; but there was no doubt that the masses were starting to believe.
In 1911 a youngster who had captured the world’s attention with his resounding ‘Regeneration of Africa’ speech at Columbia University in 1906, returned to his native homeland South Africa. His name was Pixley ka Isaka Seme, and he was armed with a law degree which he had just completed in England. Realising that despite their efforts, Africans could still not overthrow the shackles of oppression and subjugation, Seme and his fellow university educated contemporaries including Alfred Mangena, George Montsioa and Richard Msimang resolved to form a united organisation that would fight for the rights of all Africans; and thus forming the South African Native National Congress (which was changed to the ANC in 1923).
Addressing a large contingent of African representatives who had descended on the capital Bloemfontein on that historic day of 08 January 1912, the 30-year-old Pixley ka Isaka Seme had this to say: ‘Chiefs of royal blood and gentlemen of our race, we have … discovered that in the land of their birth, Africans are treated as hewers of wood and drawers of water. The white people of this country have formed what is known as the Union of South Africa – a union in which we have no voice in the making of laws and no part in their administration. We have called you therefore to this Conference so that we can together devise ways and means of forming our national union for the purpose of creating national unity and defending our rights and privileges.’
If there had ever been a perception that this newly formed liberation movement of the people was just a collective of supple minds who like empty cans were simply making futile noise, then sceptics choked on their words. Since its historic formation in the early 20th century, the ANC has gone to capture the imagination of many minds across the world; rich and poor, black and white, young and old. They all watched in astonishment. The movement produced leaders of the highest calibre; varying in their leadership style but united in the goal of emancipating their people. In his book Thabo and The Battle For The Soul Of The ANC, Mervin Gumede notes this large pool of leaders that the ANC was endowed with. He writes: ‘By contrast with many other liberation movements in Africa and the developing world, the ANC is in the enviably unique position of having leadership skill and talent in abundance.’
Indeed one could easily shake the ANC tree and potential candidates for leadership would fall in their numbers. Names like Moses Kotane, Chris Hani, Robert Sobukwe who would later break away from the liberation movement to found PAC in 1959, O.R Tambo, Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela, Anton Lembede, Thabo Mbeki and so on are just many that one could think of. However, the question that needs attention is whether the ruling party is still in the same ‘enviable unique position’ today. That the ANC has over the years managed to produce such an enviable list of great leaders is testimony that the people’s movement has served its masses well; finally delivering a new democratic dispensation to its people in 1994.
But in the past six years or so the home of many Africans – not only in South Africa and the continent but across the world too – has seen its foundations disintegrate and its walls crumble. Unfortunately, today after decades of illustrious service, we mourn our beloved liberation movement; the ANC. Many will be quick to argue otherwise. In their argument, those who disagree will dismiss us as delusional, counter-revolutionary, ungrateful and so on and so forth and other unnecessary names like that. But even in their aggressive argument, seeking to undermine us with their fancy intellectual rhetoric, the underlying painful truth like a festering sore will burst and pronounce itself; we are holding on to memories and what is roaming around us is an apparition of the ANC.
We cannot pretend that all is in order while what was the beacon of light flickers under the powerful winds of avarice and corruption. We cannot continue to act as if our once resourceful fountain of distinguished leaders has not dried up. And we can no longer keep quiet while it is evident that our voices of reason have ceased to speak. A factory that was once renowned for producing shrewd minds that astonished both Apartheid leaders and their allies, locally and abroad, has been shut down.
Next year South Africa celebrates twenty-years since the dawn of a new democracy. We will once again as a nation travel to different polling stations across the country, to elect our preferred political party, and those of us who have known ANC as our only home will be caught in a dilemma; not that other political parties present anything better, but that we are conscious of the fact that what was once was is no longer what it was.
Bidding farewell to his comrade and friend, the nation’s father Nelson Mandela said this of O.R Tambo: ‘While the ANC lives, O.R Tambo cannot die!’ These melancholic words of praise continue to haunt us along with the nostalgic memories which are the ghost of the ANC. So after a bit of hesitation at the voting booth, feeling guilty we will once again put an ‘X’ next to the ANC emblem; for we do not want to contradict or defy Nelson Mandela, nor do we want O.R Tambo to die. Kgotsong!