05/07/2017 12:38 BST | Updated 05/07/2017 12:40 BST

Hanging The ANC On The Thread Of Memory

The party is turning its back on a long-standing tradition of passing values from one generation to the next.

From left: Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu.

As a young state facing capture by private interests, it is little use for the ANC to ask what its triumvirate of great leaders Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu might have done. This week, the unravelling #Guptaleaks story of state capture is the illegitimate child that the ANC is too ashamed to bring to its broad church. It is conjecture, of course, to ask whether Tambo et al would have done things differently. Struggle on the one hand, and freedom on the other, present distinct challenges.

Turning Its Back On Tradition

President Jacob Zuma's most confounding position this week was to lay into "these so-called veterans" as he did at the top of the ANC policy conference on Friday. Scores of ANC stalwarts and veterans have raised their voices against the rapid deterioration of the movement and sought a consultative conference.

Zuma has crafted an identity as a traditionalist leader – first to distinguish himself from his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, the urbane, pipe-smoking intellectual, but later as an expression of his true self. As such, respect for elders is sacrosanct.

It has been so in the ANC with the Isitwalandwe/Seaparankoe Award that honours leaders after a lifetime of service. It is also bestowed on martyrs like Solomon Mahlangu. From its ranks, the party draws those who will guide the organisation through the rapids. The integrity committee, with potential new authority after this week's ANC policy conference, is drawn from the elders.

But by sidelining the crisis the veterans are singling, the ANC is turning its back on a long-standing tradition of passing values from one generation to the next. It will not look into the mirror the veterans are holding up.

Wisdom Of The Elders

On Tuesday evening, the Tambo Foundation and Nelson Mandela Foundation held an event around distilling the lessons of these two leaders. Both would have turned 100 years old this year if they were alive. The ANC strategist, militant and more recently Zuma's spokesperson, Mac Maharaj, made a return to the political scene to share his thoughts. As did author, poet and former ambassador Lindiwe Mabuza, and Luli Callinicos, historian and author of Tambo's biography, "Beyond the Engeli Mountains".

None of the three took the populist path of post-mortem: to chide today's leaders through the lens of what a Mandela or Tambo would have done in the same circumstances. But their observations revealed the wisdom of the elders from which a flailing ANC might well benefit.

Maharaj warned against romanticising the past-era ANC, but said it was worth considering how they dealt with the inclement political weather. He said that in difficult times, Tambo would gather the forces while Sisulu would grow the team. He learned that collective responsibility (an ANC tradition) did not absolve an individual's poor decisions; "A leader says 'I take responsibility'," said Maharaj. Tambo made consensus-building a hallmark of his leadership. And, he added, a key lesson from Mandela and Tambo was that you had to display your integrity.

Mabuza said that working with Tambo, she had learned the value of servant leadership. "I never called him President. I called him Bhuti."

Callinicos lauded Tambo's ability to listen and his absolute commitment to democratic centralism – the idea that decisions are reached either by consensus or majority, but once decided, you supported the chosen path. And Tambo was prescient. Callinicos recounted how he told his gathered comrades: "If you think the struggle is difficult, wait until we get into power."

Freedom Years

Watching the ANC this week, it was clear that while the movement had been vital for freedom in South Africa, the freedom years have not worn the ANC well. In such times, the wisdom of the elders is to be welcomed, not eschewed.