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By Vhahangwele Nemakonde

Digital Deputy News Editor


‘Our people’ is a capitalist language of serfs and lords

This patronising phrase has become central to ANC vocabulary; how its leaders remind themselves they are not rank and file.


US Supreme Court Jurist Antonin Scalia once said: “Words have meaning”. And no political party in South Africa understands that better than the ANC.

This is the party that had to bend over backward to silence its firebrand late ANC Youth League leader Peter Mokaba, when he insisted on chanting “kill the Boer!”, even when white farmers were dying and farmer organisations laid the blame squarely at Luthuli House’s door for the chant’s “inciteful” lyrics.

It took the weight of the party’s leadership to finally extort a compromise from Mokaba. The ANC has also capitalised on reckless use of words by former Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon when, in 2004, his party’s electoral slogan was “Fight back”.

The ANC, facing its most potent opponent since 1994, flipped the slogan and coined a race-infused antonym, “Fight black”. That clever wordplay put the brakes on the DA’s momentum in black townships and nailed a final spike in Tony Leon’s political coffin.

The ANC unashamedly played the race card to good effect. But like any governing party powered by hubris, the ANC doesn’t learn. Prior to 1994, almost every ANC document equates its leadership with its membership.

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The Freedom Charter was apt in its opening clause: “The people shall govern”. “The people” is a loaded term. It is egalitarian in its construct and denotes equality of humans. That’s how even the constitution of the most unequal country in the global north, the United States of America, starts: “We, the people”.

It is from that bundle of compromises that South Africa’s constitution borrowed the phrase. A pre-liberation ANC understood words and did not see itself as a future vanguard for elitist ideology. Come unbanning and suddenly ANC leaders talk about “our people”.

I believe it’s a vocabulary that was invented by the political class that was handpicked to represent the ANC at post-unbanning fora. They were, in discussions with the apartheid regime, claiming ownership of something that didn’t belong to them.

Speaking after the Groote Schuur Minute then ANC foreign affairs secretary Thabo Mbeki said the “ANC has never claimed to be the sole representative of the South African people”. A few years later, at his inauguration, Mbeki’s point of view had changed.

“And because we are one another’s keepers, we surely must be haunted by the humiliating suffering which continues to afflict millions of our people. Our nights cannot but be nights of nightmares while millions of our people live in conditions of degrading poverty.”

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Mbeki can rightfully be accused of being the architect of the personality cult. The formal divorce between “we the people” and the ANC happened under his guard.

Put bluntly, “our people” is a swear word. It’s void of kinship. It’s language you use when you have elevated yourself above the rest; when it has finally dawned on you that you are no longer “we the people”; when you see yourself as not equal to “your people”. It’s a capitalist language of serfs and lords.

This patronising phrase has become central to ANC vocabulary; how its leaders remind themselves they are not rank and file.

Defending Jacob Zuma’s excesses in 2015, the late deputy secretary-general of the ANC Jessie Duarte told the media: “Our people don’t care about Nkandla.” Really? The media should have asked her who her “people” were .

Mashego is an independent political analyst and author

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