Divine right. Mind what you say

The   ANC has a penchant for assuming it has a divine right to rule. President Jacob Zuma has stated this on several occasions. In 2008 he told a May Day rally in Cape Town: “Even God expects us to rule this country because we [the ANC] are the only organisation that was blessed by pastors when it was formed. It is even blessed in heaven. That is why we will rule until Jesus comes back.”

Martin Plaut

In January this year Zuma made a similar claim while handing over a new school at Libode in the Eastern Cape: “We want to eradicate all mud schools. We are already doing so. We are not in a hurry because no one is going to rule but the ANC.”  This assumption that the fate of the ANC and South Africa are as one has a long pedigree – one that I experienced at first hand.

In 1973, the United Nations, fed up with South Africa’s prevarications over South West Africa, conferred on Swapo the title of “the authentic representative of the people of Namibia”. Soon it was being described as “the sole legitimate representative of the people of Namibia”. It was an extraordinary decision for the UN, since it left all other Namibian political movements “illegitimate”. It was a response to the highly unusual situation in which the South African government would not accept the International Court of Justice ruling that its mandate over Namibia, established after the First World War, was at an end.

All this seemed pretty academic when I became Africa Secretary for the British Labour Party in 1979. I was delighted to have been given the post. My own history had been of working with the Nusas Wages Commissions at the University of Cape Town and Wits University between 1973 and 1976. My friends had been banned for attempting to revive the non-racial union movement. My car was being followed and my phone bugged.

I had a place at Warwick University to read Industrial Relations. I decided to leave for the UK immediately – planning to come back – but as it happened, I fell in love, married and did not return to live in South Africa. In 1979 Craig Williamson had just been exposed as an apartheid agent at the International University Exchange Fund and it was not an easy time for a white South African to get a job with a “progressive” organisation. I worked for Mobil Oil for a year before getting the position with the Labour Party.

As I read through the documents and dossiers left by my predecessor, Michael Wolfers, I came across a resolution passed by the party’s Africa Committee, to be considered by the International Committee in a few days’ time. It was a proposal to recognise the ANC as “the sole legitimate representative of the people of South Africa”. Based on the Swapo decision, it was a first step towards winning similar recognition from the Organisation of African Unity and the UN.

At first it seemed entirely appropriate. After all, the ANC was clearly the major liberation movement; where was the harm? But as I thought about it, I realised its importance. Labour would be giving the ANC a veto over all future relations with South African organisations. If, say, Labour wanted to speak to the Black Consciousness Movement or Helen Suzman, we would have to get the ANC’s blessing. It could block links with the non-racial unions, which its trade union allies in Sactu had attacked as “yellow unions” and – most important of all – it would mean withdrawing the Labour Party’s recognition of the PAC. This was no decision for a British democratic party to take: it smacked of the worst form of Stalinism.

I thought a letter to the International Committee spelling this out would end the matter. But my boss (Jenny Little, a former Foreign Office apparatchik and Labour’s International Secretary) was horrified that I would question the Africa Committee’s decision. Joan Lestor, a left-wing MP of independent mind, was more sympathetic. It was decided to convene a meeting with the ANC to consider the matter.

The ANC was clearly furious and sent a high-level delegation, led by Abdul Minty. I was required to explain my position. I said there was no suggestion that the ANC was not the most important South African liberation movement – and that the Labour Party should acknowledge this – but the ANC did not have exclusive ownership of the title of “liberation movement”. For the Labour Party to pass the resolution would put us at odds with the OAU and the UN, since both recognised the PAC. I argued that the decision of who represented the people of South Africa was one that only South Africans themselves could take, in a free election, after liberation.

A rather awkward silence followed, since the case was pretty unanswerable. The ANC said it was not at all happy, but left it at that. The resolution was withdrawn from the International Committee, but the fallout continued. Soon dark rumours began circulating about me. This was very uncomfortable for me, since white South Africans were not exactly flavour of the month.

I continued to work with the ANC and to represent the Labour Party on the Anti-Apartheid Movement but henceforth the relationship was cold and sour. I got on with individuals in the exile community (including the Pahad brothers) but henceforth I was regarded with suspicion by the ANC and its allies. It was only revealed years later that it was Solly Smith, the ANC official London representative (and not I) who was the South African spy in Britain.