The ANC is unclear about whether it wants revolution or reconciliation

President Mandela's speech at Mafikeng was regarded as both paranoid and menacing to the cause of democracy.

President Mandela’s speech at the ANC conference in Mafikeng met a predictably shocked response from both the local and international media. The section attacking the opposition parties, NGOs and the media for being part of some gigantic counter-revolutionary conspiracy was justifiably regarded both as paranoid and menacing to the cause of democracy. (The Helen Suzman Foundation, together with the South African Institute of Race Relations and Professor Hermann Giliomee, have been named by the SACP’s Blade Nzimande as key counter-revolutionary conspirators. This makes it clear that liberals rather than racists or real reactionaries are the target.) That said, the significance of the speech was not widely understood.

For a start the speech was a collective ANC effort and the paranoia it revealed is typical of the entire political sub-culture inhabited by ANC activists. In the past this fixation with covert forces has had real roots, as our articles in this issue about the PAC and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s past both testify.

If the media and the Opposition are counter-revolutionary this implies that there has been a revolution. If so, what sort of revolution is it? Visibly, it is not a socialist one, so presumably it has to be a nationalist revolution, the wholesale replacement of one racial elite by another. But if that is the case, we cannot possibly have national reconciliation as well: the two are antithetical. When pressed on this the ANC leadership retreats and talks not about revolution but about “transformation”. As David Christianson points out in his article on the conference, this is an empty catch-all phrase. Such playing with words tells us mainly about the difficulty that the ANC leadership has in addressing different audiences.

While addressing party activists the leadership wishes to pretend that South Africa has had a revolution, even if it is yet unfinished. This is a make-believe world in which we are also told about the “wonderful achievements” of the Reconstruction and Development Programme (in housing? health? education? job creation?) and in which it is seriously suggested that the crime wave is something got up by critics of the government for political purposes.

This is all curiously reminiscent of the make-believe world in which the National Party lived for so long. In this world apartheid was not only moral but workable, black opinion was becoming increasingly reconciled to it, and even hostile world opinion would see the error of its ways in the end. For a long time the NP even believed it could legislate itself out of the television age.

Living in a make-believe world is obviously dangerous; so why do it? Partly because it would be nicer if things were the way you pretended, but far more because the ruling elite is reluctant to tell its followers the truth. If ANC activists at Mafikeng had been told the truth — that not only had the party reneged on its old programme but that most of its current policies had failed too — they would not have been pleased. Ask Thabo Mbeki: at the 1991 conference he bravely tried to persuade activists of the folly of continuing with economic sanctions and was howled down for his efforts.

All politicians fudge when they can. But when a party tries to sell a make-believe vision of the future , it is much more dangerous. The ANC is now selling such a vision. In it a revolution is underway in which the overwhelming weight of non-African capital and non-African professional, business and managerial expertise can somehow be side-stepped and discounted. Unlike the NP’s vision, this is realisable in the long-term, but at a far greater distance than ANC activists would want to contemplate.

President Robert Mugabe held out much the same vision for Zimbabwe. As the years went by and the promised future failed to take shape, he was driven to blame all manner of hidden forces; even Aids, vice-president Nkomo claims, is a white conspiracy. In the end, as Tony Hawkins demonstrates in his article, such fantasising has led Mugabe to a remedy that could ruin the economy.

This journey down a populist blind alley is bound to end in disappointment and, eventually, unpopularity. Politicians do not embark on such a journey lightly, but because they are scared of their voters and because they hope they can get away with it. They cannot. Part of being a leader should mean explaining uncomfortable truths to those who follow you. As Mbeki’s 1991 experience shows, the consequences can be rough.