Business Day: New ANC leaders need to look down

Opinion & Analysis
Posted to the web on: 21 May 2008
New ANC leaders need to look down

DO POLITICIANS have rights that others do not have? Or do they only notice when their rights are threatened? These questions are raised by the new African National Congress (ANC) leadership’s assault on the Scorpions.

The new leaders’ hurry to get rid of the Scorpions is usually seen as a sign that they are protecting themselves. But, since only a few are under investigation, many ANC leaders seem to want the investigative unit to go because they see it as a bully and a rights abuser.

While there is much self-serving rhetoric behind the desire to shut down the Scorpions, there is also genuine anger at its treatment of ANC politicians, who believe their rights were violated by the investigators’ tactics. And, while some feel that any attempt to hold a high-ranking politician to account is a rights abuse that shows that the investigator is an old-order agent, it is fair to acknowledge that the Scorpions may have been heavy-handed at times in their pursuit of some in the new ANC national executive.

That is no reason to close them down — police are often accused of violating people’s rights but no one wants to shut down the police service. And we need to ask why the politicians who say the Scorpions must go because they do not respect human rights are not concerned about allegations that people are victims of greater rights abuses by the police service into which they want to dissolve the Scorpions.

This column has noted more than once serious allegations, backed by independent witnesses, that Durban shack-dwellers belonging to the Abahlali base Mjondolo movement have been attacked by police while exercising their right to peaceful protest. Nor are they alone in alleging that, while the middle classes enjoy the freedoms we won in 1994, grassroots activists are subject to police abuses when they exercise their rights. This month, police in Sebokeng were accused of beating Coalition against Water Privatisation activists. Allegations that police use violence against dissent date back at least to the 2004 election, when Landless People’s Movement activists campaigning for an election boycott alleged that police tortured them.

NONE of this seems to worry the new ANC leadership, despite claims that Polokwane elected “champions of the poor”: the poor’s champions, it seems, consider claims of rights abuses important only when the person who claims they are being abused is a top politician.

The problem is not that the new leadership is failing the poor who elected them, it is, rather, that the claim that they represent the poor is a myth. The ANC leadership was elected by a relatively small section of our society — the political activists who participate in formal politics. They were not elected by, and do not seem in touch with, the grassroots poor who do not, in the main, join parties or choose party leaders.

This is not unusual — in all democracies, most people do not join parties and so party leaderships are usually elected by a very small section of society. But this becomes a problem when people elected by an elite convince themselves that they have a mandate from, and are in touch with, the grassroots. They then fail to do what they need to do — to take the trouble to find out about the concerns of grassroots citizens so that they can do something to serve them.

The new leaders’ lack of interest in claims of police abuse by township activists confirms they have much to do to connect with life at the bottom of our society. If they believe getting elected by party delegates means they are in touch with the poor, they will end up as out of touch with people at the grassroots as the leaders they replaced.

But, if they accept that they need to listen to grassroots people and act on their concerns, they could help ensure that democracy includes everyone, not simply the well-connected. Taking seriously claims that the rights of township activists are being abused would be a good start.

* Dr Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University.