The revolutionary discipline of Oliver Tambo preceded the adoption of a supreme Constitution
25 April 2023
In marking the 30th anniversary of the death of the former leader of the ANC, Oliver Tambo, President Cyril Ramaphosa remarked:
“We need to embrace the concept of revolutionary discipline as understood and practiced by Oliver Tambo.
For him, discipline was the product of a deliberate decision by an individual to dedicate their capabilities, resources and energy to the aims of the movement. For him, discipline was a consequence of the decision of an individual to join the African National Congress.
Discipline is about abiding by the decisions of the movement, and contributing actively to the development of policy and the design of programmes. It is about working hard and placing the interests of the people above one’s own interests. It is about fighting factionalism, resisting corruption and safeguarding public resources.”
President Ramaphosa surely knows that the ANC made a deliberate and well-considered decision to abandon its revolutionary activities in favour of entering into negotiations for the ending of apartheid in SA. He also knows, because he was there, that in place of revolutionary dogma, the ANC embraced constitutionalism and fashioned a new order in SA in which transformation of society via legal, not revolutionary, means is embodied in the supreme law of the land, our 1996 Constitution. It is a cause for great sadness that Oliver Tambo did not live long enough to see this crowning achievement of his long struggle for freedom for all who live and work in our lovely land.
It is astonishing that a movement that has been in power since 1994 still talks of revolution. All parties who entered into the settlement negotiations that led to the establishment of Archbishop Tutu’s “rainbow nation” know that the values of the new constitutional order trump those of the apartheid order and those of the revolutionary struggle that was crowned with the achievement of constitutional democracy under the rule of law.
Professor Kader Asmal, a member of the first cabinet of free SA, publicly called for the abandonment of the national democratic revolution because he could see that it is wholly inconsistent with the values embraced by the ANC in its miraculous transition from struggling revolutionaries to governors under the Constitution.
The Constitution itself records the supremacy of the rule of law and is our highest law. It is quite different to the apartheid era parliamentary sovereignty and to the revolutionary striving for hegemonic control of all levers of power in society. To continue the revolutionary ethos after adopting the values of the Constitution is to act in bad faith and leaves objective observers wondering whether the ANC leaders who signed up for the new Constitution had their fingers crossed behind their backs as they did so.
The values spelt out in the Constitution are transformative in nature. The word revolution does not appear in the Constitution. Instead it requires a system of multi-party democracy under the rule of law that is open, accountable and responsive. This system is the antithesis of revolution aimed at wresting hegemonic control of all levers of power in society into the hands of deployed cadres of the revolution. Our free press, our Chapter Nine Institutions acting without fear, favour or prejudice to perform their constitutional mandate (including calling out state capture), and our impartial judiciary are all features of constitutional democracy valued by the world and the South African public, they are not in the nature of revolutionary dogma.
Any doubts about the wisdom of clinging to revolution-speak are dispelled if regard is had to the words of Section 2 of the Constitution:
The Constitution is the supreme law of the Republic; law or conduct inconsistent with it is invalid, and the obligations imposed by it must be followed
The main obligations that the state which President Ramaphosa leads are to respect, protect, promote and fulfil the rights guaranteed to all in the Bill of Rights which is Chapter Two of the Constitution.
Doing so with revolutionary zeal is permissible only if it is done within the parameters of the Constitution and NOT in accordance with some or other programme that is inconsistent with it.
Much of the trouble and strife, factionalism and corruption of which the president complains in his Tambo memorial speech is due to efforts to paint outside the bright lines drawn by the Constitution, lines that were drawn by the negotiating team of the ANC which dominated the interactions which preceded the adoption of the interim Constitution and then the final Constitution which remains the supreme law of the land.
As a lawyer and a person of sound principles, Oliver Tambo would be dismayed to see how far his beloved movement has strayed from the values and principles it adopted in supporting the passing of the final Constitution in February 1997 after it was signed by President Nelson Mandela in December 1996. He would have had no hesitation in supporting our constitutional values, his DNA is in the Bill of Rights as Justice Albie Sachs is wont to note.
The ongoing prevalence of corruption and dysfunction in the public administration and state-owned enterprises, not to mention in government itself, are all conspiring to ramp up the levels of anger in the land, if multiple media reports and social media posts are anything to go by.
It appears that deference to the governing alliance is being replaced by derision. It is vital to the survival of our constitutional project that all political parties take note of the rising anger, and that they adjust their 2024 election campaigns accordingly.
Displaying fealty to constitutional values, which all elected politicians swear to uphold would be a good start.
Make no mistake about it: the root cause of the malaise in SA is corruption. All of those who seek office in the 2024 elections need to recognise this factor and tailor their campaigns to meet the challenges posed by an indulgent or tolerant attitude towards corruption in SA.
Fanning the flames of anger is one thing, addressing its fundamental cause is entirely another. Responsible political parties will encourage voter registration and promote greater public participation in the election. Getting people to vote on election day instead of treating it as a public holiday is participative democracy in action. Talking up the notion of “revolutionary discipline” is not.
Preaching to the converted is a waste of time; converting the stayaways, the disaffected youth and the disenchanted is possible if the focus is on the right issue. It is countering the corrupt via radical reform of the criminal justice administration, which currently lacks the capacity to do so.
Active citizens need to put pressure on their favourite political parties to make anti-corruption reforms a central part of their election campaign. All citizens should insist that all political parties formulate their policy on corruption and no citizen should vote for a party with no such policy or a wishy-washy stance on corruption in its manifesto.
Voters should do one thing: cast their votes for a party with a credible and proactive anti-corruption stance. One that will see the loot of state capture recovered and those orange overalls issued to all convicted for their corrupt activities. A political party with no stance on corruption, no articulated and credible policy position on the issue, is not worthy of a vote.
All South Africans need to be aware that an uninterrupted supply of electricity, proper service delivery and respect for their human rights are all impossible in a cesspool of corrupt activities. As Oliver Tambo put it:
“The fight for freedom must go on until it is won; until the country is free and happy and peaceful as part of the community of man, we cannot rest.”
A suggestion for radical reform of the criminal justice administration, made by Accountability Now, has been gathering dust on the presidential desk since August 2021. The establishment of a new anti-corruption entity that complies with the standards set in binding terms by the Constitutional Court in the Glenister litigation is long overdue. A body that has a mandate to prevent, combat, investigate and prosecute serious corruption is urgently required.
The cabinet does not understand the applicable law properly and appears to be impervious to correcting its stance in a way that would properly reflect the rulings by which it is bound and then take steps to implement those rulings by the highest court in the land, a court created by those who participated in good faith in the formulation of the Constitution.
It is not enough to mouth anti-corruption platitudes as the president did when he commemorated the life and work of Oliver Tambo: radical enforcement transformation is necessary now before further disasters like those in the Gupta extradition proceedings and the Nulane trial take place. The draft legislation is ready to be debated, the DA has its own Anti-Corruption Commission bill in the works, all that is missing is the will to move forward against the corrupt in our midst. It is time to shake off the Phala Phala paralysis, Mr President, and engage on urgent reform of the criminal justice administration.
Paul Hoffman SC is a director of Accountability Now and was lead counsel in the Glenister litigation.