As the ANC's 52nd conference approaches and especially after the nominations in which Jacob Zuma emerged as the preferred candidate, there has been a lot of exchange of letters and opinions. Some of them are well informed, but unfortunately some are based on malice and a desire to sow "imagined" divisions between so-called Mbeki-Zuma factions.
In any organisation made up of thinking, intelligent and independently-thinking individuals rather than automatons, there are bound to be differences about how to deal with problems in the immediate, medium and long term. In the ANC's 95-year history, it has not only faced many such contradictions, but it has also accumulated much wisdom on how to handle these contradictions. At times, these problems threatened the very existence of the ANC.
In exile, the ANC twice faced what seemed to be irresolvable contradictions. In 1969 in Morogoro in Tanzania, some of us delegates were not sure if the ANC as "we knew it" would resolve what seemed to be a major contradiction between the so-called nationalists and those who stuck to the ideals of the Freedom Charter.
During the conference, Oliver Tambo, then acting president, offered to resign. JB Marks, who chaired the proceedings, told delegates to "take a deep breath", go to sleep and think about what had happened.
There was shocked silence as we drifted to our quarters. Mazisi Kunene, with whom I shared a room, said something profound: "Ben, members of the ANC have been out of the country for too long and as long as there is no visible action inside, we are going to cannibalise and destroy each other. Only action will ease the tensions in the organisation."
The other major contradiction was whether it made sense for the South African Indian Congress and the Coloured People's Congress to remain autonomous organisations. At the Wankie and Sipolilo campaigns in the then Rhodesia, members of these organisations had fought together as comrades.
What was the rationale of keeping the ANC an exclusive African organisation? Proposals were made to open the ANC to all and the result was the opening of the membership to all, except the three top positions.
The Morogoro conference adopted one of the most profound documents: Strategy and Tactics of the ANC. This document is worth reading as we grapple with the issues delegates will face in Polokwane.
In 1985, the second ANC consultative conference was held in Kabwe, Zambia. This was a period of major developments in the struggle both inside and outside the country. Again, the ANC had to resolve major contradictions if it was not going to implode.
This brings me to my final point. After discussing the way forward in light of the emergence in 1983 of the United Democratic Front, the labour movement and the issue of factionalism, especially by the ultra-left, the final communique issued this clarion call: "We feel sure that all delegates will go there with one central issue uppermost in their minds: that out of this congress the ANC will emerge far stronger than ever before. Unity is the rock on which the ANC was founded; it is the principle which has guided us down the years as we feel our way forward."
In the course of its history, the ANC has survived storms and risen to eminence partly because of the sterling qualities of its membership, and partly because each member has regarded himself or herself as the principal guardian of that unity. All discussions and criticism have generally been balanced, constructive and, above all, they have been invariably subjected to the overriding principle of maximum unity. To lose sight of this basic principle is to sell our birthright, to betray those who paid the highest price so that the ANC would flourish and triumph.
In this connection, the positions taken by Tambo on various issues, and also stressed by Joe Slovo, inspired us tremendously. Both drew attention to the vital issues which, in our opinion, are very timely. They must be highlighted and kept consciously in mind as we try to sort out the complicated problems which face the ANC, and as we try to hammer out the guidelines for the future progress.
These remarks are the clearest expression of that enduring identity of approach of members wherever they may be, and a summary of achievements of which we are justly proud. In particular, we fully share the view that the ANC has raised mass political consciousness to a scale unknown in our experience. It is in this spirit we send you our greetings and best wishes. We hold your hands firmly across the miles. These sentiments should remind our people what they stand for and how it has resolved its problems in the past.
l Professor Bernard Magubane heads the South Africa Democracy Education Trust.