Memories and wisdom from an esteemed ANC elder
Essop Pahad’s memoir shines a spotlight on how and why the ruling party has lost its way since the 2007 Polokwane conference, write David Monyae and Emmanuel Matambo
Monyae is director and Matambo research director at the Centre for Africa-China Studies, University of Johannesburg
On December 7, South Africans woke up to the shocking news that Mavuso Msimang, deputy president of the ANC Veterans’ League, had resigned from the party after more than 60 years of being a member.
In his resignation letter, Msimang lamented the “endemic corruption” in the ANC. He said: “The corruption we once decried is now part of our movement’s DNA.”
On the day of Msimang’s resignation, the Centre for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg launched A Life Committed: A Memoir by Essop Pahad (Real African Publishers). The book lifts the lid on some of the issues that led Msimang to quit the ANC.
Until his death on July 6, Pahad had been a member of the ANC. Over the decades, he forged friendships that served him well during exile and in former president Thabo Mbeki’s government. Pahad’s connection with Mbeki was especially deep, and their lives were intertwined for decades.
The authors of this piece — who, Pahad writes, “persuaded [him] to finish the manuscript and prepare it for publication ”— tried to convince him to approach Mbeki and ask him to write the foreword to his book.
“He is probably busy,” Pahad would say whenever the topic came up.
When Pahad finally budged, his agreement was subject to a condition. He did not want to approach Mbeki alone and asked that a meeting be set up with the Thabo Mbeki Foundation, where the matter could be discussed.
The meeting was duly set for February 2. In attendance were Mbeki, Pahad, Siyabulela Gebe from the foundation, and the authors.
After formal introductions, the members of the meeting addressed the main item on the agenda — whether Mbeki would be prepared to write a foreword for Pahad’s memoir.
“When you say foreword,” Mbeki said, “what exactly do you mean?”
The authors gave a rough outline of what was required. Throughout the meeting, Pahad was conspicuously quiet. However, after Mbeki had generously agreed to read the manuscript and pen the foreword to it, Pahad found his voice and asked Mbeki when he would write or finish his own book.
The conversation then moved on to other topics, but the meeting’s mission had been accomplished.
When the foreword arrived, it was vintage Mbeki. More than 2,000 words long, it placed Pahad within the context of the history of the ANC and discussed the role of different generations in the struggle, specifically the youth movement of the 1940s and succeeding generations of youth league members.
This was a theme Mbeki returned to when he gave the keynote eulogy at Pahad’s memorial service two months after he wrote the foreword. Mbeki painted what today looks like an idyllic picture of the ANC’s past, and Pahad was honoured for his bravery and patriotism.
A Life Committed is as eloquent as its author —a firebrand as a militant opponent of apartheid and an abrasive minister in Mbeki’s cabinet. While revealing
Pahad’s robust personality, which served him well as a staunch opponent of apartheid, the book also humanises him. His love and admiration for his mother is clearly evident throughout the book. One of the saddest portions is where Pahad recounts her tragic death in 1973, when she was run over by a dangerous driver and then dragged by the car along the road.
Unfortunately, his mother’s death occurred when Pahad and his wife Meg were beginning to enjoy life. At last Pahad “was working for money” and no longer merely a penniless revolutionary.
He also writes extensively about his personal and political family, which were enmeshed. For example, his younger brother Aziz, who also died this year, was his comrade-in-arms, blood brother and best friend.
Sadly, the book is also a wistful reflection of what has become of his political family, the ANC, after the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference, at which Mbeki lost the presidency of the ANC, and then in 2008 his position as head of state, to Jacob Zuma. Polokwane,
Pahad writes, “marked a turning point for the worse in the history of the ANC and for our democratic government”. He says: “That conference paved the way for charlatans, opportunists, factionalists and sectarians to insert themselves into the heart of the movement and all spheres of government.” When one considers the impact the ANC has had on South
Africa, one could easily substitute “South Africa” for “government”.
“I am deeply pained and disappointed,” Pahad writes towards the end of the book, “that my beloved ANC is consumed by debilitating factionalism and sectarianism.” Nevertheless, he “remained a loyal, committed and disciplined member and leader” of the ANC to his death.
Readers of this candid memoir will get to hear from an ANC leader who was active on the political stage during the dark days of apartheid, the interregnum between the unbanning of the ANC in 1990 and its ascent to power in 1994, the honeymoon years of the Mandela administration, and Mbeki’s presidency from 1999 to 2008. The memoir also offers hope that there remain within the ANC’s ranks some patriotic individuals with a deep antipathy to corruption and factionalism. The question is whether the movement is still capable of producing such cadres.
Sadly, Pahad died before his memoir was published. However, it is gratifying that he managed to finish the manuscript. It is said that when an elder dies it is like a library burning down. Pahad was indeed an elder, but with this memoir he has left us with a library from which we can learn about South Africa’s past and guard against the threats to the future of its democratic revolution.
That conference paved the way for charlatans, opportunists, factionalists and sectarians to insert themselves into the heart of the movement and all spheres of government
Insight | Books
Arena Holdings PTY