The problem with former leaders “finding their voice”

There is a Chinese proverb that “when a person leaves, the tea gets cold”. In the literal sense, this of course does not refer to tea but rather to power. As the proverb goes the “the tea must cool after the guest has left, otherwise it will go bad”, meaning that although one freely drinks tea during their tenure in office, the authority to warm it up once they are gone is diminished. Such is the rising tendency of former leaders who lambast the governments and parties they were once proud to serve. As a result of the luxury imposed by not having the responsibility of elected leadership, they want to warm their tea by seeking celebrity through criticism of those in office and the policies that they themselves once espoused.

This is not a uniquely South African phenomenon. All over the world, countries such as China and so-called mature democracies of the United Kingdom, the United States of America and even some countries on the continent, battle with the challenge of former leaders intent on positioning themselves within society at the expense of the parties and governments they led. It is said with hindsight everyone becomes a brilliant political pundit. Former leaders of parties and government reveal things to the media that at no point they had raised with their erstwhile or even current parties.

Having suddenly ‘found their voice’ after happily playing status quo politics whilst in power – the ‘former insider’ status of these former leaders lends them an extra appeal in the media. Their insights on party and state affairs are held up as ‘brave’, ‘courageous’ and ‘bold’ – speaking truth to power. The insider status of these critics also unfortunately lends them an air of invincibility: the public is led to believe that their views are gospel – as they have been privy to internal, confidential information. Their bona fides are presented as being for ‘the sake of the country’, and not to protect their “tea” in this case being individual or group interests, or to build a power base or fuel personal ambition. In certain instances it is not inconceivable that the intention some of these former leaders turned professional critics is to set up ‘alternative machinery’ – that offers a ‘alternative’ view to the organisation that they would accuse of supposedly being in decline.

According to them, theirs is the opposite of a rose-tinted view of state affairs; namely that the current state is in hopeless and irreversible decline. What must be read from their statements is that current challenges would never have happened when they or their political patrons were in power – theirs was a Golden Age, and ours is “delusional”. This commentary does not unite our people and advance their struggle for socio-economic transformation, it neither consolidates their leadership of society instead it causes rifts within our organisation and undermines its cohesion.

Chairman Mao identified two types of social contradictions – those between ourselves and the enemy and those among the people themselves. The two are totally different in their nature. Because they are different, methods to resolve these contradictions are also different. The story of how Former President Mandela differed with then President Mbeki’s views on the handling of the fight against HIV/AIDS in South Africa is now a matter of record. Holding very strong views on the matter, Mandela attended and addressed the National Executive Committee of the African National Congress where it is reported the NEC vehemently differed with his views to the point of accusing Mandela of interference.

Neither Comrade Mandela nor the NEC of the ANC regarded internal contradictions as an issue for public record, understanding as we still do, that such would border on populism. Around the world, former leaders are quoted as vocal critics of the policies of the current administration in their countries – sometimes conveniently forgetting their own chequered legacies. Society can only be confused by veterans who operate independently and outside structures that they themselves would have sought to defend and protect during their periods of service. The only way, as the Correct Handling of Contradictions Amongst the People dictates, “to settle controversial issues amongst the people is by the democratic method, the method of discussion, of criticism, of persuasion and education” and certainly not by grandstanding and coercion. These are some of the lessons that leaders, who were our mentors and who today would be accused of such behaviour, taught some of us. Taking to the street and shouting at your comrades in any roles, we were told, is bad and opportunistic.

Though political pluralism is to be welcomed – they cannot have it both ways. On the one hand you position yourself as an “insider-turned-outsider” but at the same time you want to leverage former relationships for personal, political or other gain. Policies and programmes of government, the functioning and decisions of the organisation are criticized ad infinitum, this is cause of serious concern particularly if one considers that we have never had the pleasure of them expressing their views when they were still in power.

The ANC has a plurality of forums intended to promote internal democracy. Some of these include the recently held NGC, to which current and former NEC members were invited. The NGC went to great lengths acknowledging and confronting the vexing issues facing the movement. One of the greatest strengths of the ANC has always been the movement’s ability to frankly assess its shortcomings and weaknesses. Self-introspection is a key pillar of the ANC’s political life. It is in internal forums such as these that the ANC, in accordance with our dearly held commitment to criticism and self-criticism, raises issues in order correct the challenges facing the movement and society at large. The bona fides of those who choose to remain silent in many such forums, only to find solace on the pages of newspapers should be brought into question. It is because of deep disappointment in some of our own that it is necessary for these tendencies be highlighted. It is out of frustration that we refuse to insulate unbecoming behavior; even within our ranks.

This article was first published in the Business Day, 5 November 2015

Mandela speaks out on his mission in the ANC
Why China’s “Retired” Generals don’t leave quietly
On the Correct Handling of Contradictions Among The People

Gwede Mantashe is the Secretary General of the ANC

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