Nothing to fear from debate

Fikile Mbalula at the presser regarding Madiba's participation in the weekends election rally.
Pic Martin Rhodes
© Business day
Fikile Mbalula at the presser regarding Madiba's participation in the weekends election rally. Pic Martin Rhodes 2009/02/23 © Business day

IN RECENT days and weeks our newspapers and airwaves were filled with all manner of divergent views on a whole range of subjects.

In some instances the exchanges became very heated, whether about racism at the University of the Free State or the amount of force police officers may legally use.

This is not abnormal. South Africans should not fear debate. Nor should they be concerned about the expression of different views within the ruling party, alliance or broader society.

Debate is a fundamental feature of a democratic society, and is necessary for the development of ideas and social progress. No person or organisation can claim a monopoly of wisdom, nor can any idea be immune from scrutiny.


Indeed, the resilience of the ANC during even the most trying times is due in large part to its ability to accommodate a diversity of views and interests.

What distinguishes the ANC from a debating society, however, is that each discussion leads to a decision, and each decision forms the basis of united action.

The principle of democratic centralism, which is widely misunderstood by those outside our ranks, requires that once a decision is democratically taken all members of the collective are bound to respect, defend and implement that decision.

This means that while all ANC members are encouraged to vigorously debate any matter they should undertake that debate in a disciplined matter and respect the majority decision. That doesn't mean the matter cannot be opened for review at a later stage.

Debate is not restricted to the ANC. Within and among its alliance partners there has long been a culture of debate.

For many decades the alliance partners have sought to influence each other's thinking. This has been done on the understanding that the correctness of any decision can only be enhanced by exposure to various perspectives.

Thus, over the years, the South African Communist Party has had an impact on the thinking of the ANC and vice versa. The ANC and SACP have had a profound impact on the political direction of the progressive trade union movement.

This led to a unique relationship between the ANC and organised trade unions, aptly captured by Chief Albert Luthuli in his famous assertion that the African National Congress is the shield and the progressive trade union movement the spear.

Those outside the alliance (and even some within) have struggled to understand this cross pollination of ideas. Indeed, many people fear it.

And so arises this feverish preoccupation with a "Left takeover" of the ANC. This is not new. For years the ANC has been advised to break with the SACP..

The point that many people fail to grasp is that the ANC is in fact an organisation of the Left. It is a multi-class national liberation movement with a bias towards the working class and poor.

This is evident in its policy positions and in the programmes it has pursued over the last 15 years.


These policies have been, and continue to be, the subject of ongoing debate, within the ANC and Alliance. Not everyone agrees with every policy position, but all are bound to respect the collective decision.

The policies this administration is pursuing do not belong to one person or any group of people. They are the policies of the organisation, adopted in Polokwane in December 2007, captured in our 2009 election manifesto and detailed in government's Medium Term Strategic Framework.

As the government proceeds to implement its programmes it is guided by these policies and follows the strategic direction provided by the constitutional structures of the movement.

This is borne out, for example, by government's economic policy. There has been much talk in recent weeks about who exactly determines the country's economic orientation.

There are some who promote the idea that economic policy will be determined by one or other minister, and that a great struggle is on to determine who that minister should be. We should be cautious about accepting this idea. As soon as we start associating government policy with one individual, we risk forgetting that these policies are developed collectively.

Though there are ministers responsible for coordinating economic policy, they do not determine policy. That is the function of the cabinet.

Policy arises from debates in the ANC, through a very intensive process leading up to national conferences, where resolutions are taken.

So there is nothing in the argument that the alliance partners determine the policy of the ANC. It appears that people get mistaken when alliance partners raise their views in an open debate, commenting on policy.

What is surprising is that people always forget this, and yet ANC processes are so open and so transparent. To demonstrate that people quickly forget this, when an ANC member expresses his view on any issue, people immediately ask: "Is this new policy?"

They forget this elaborate and close to scientific policy making process in the ANC. We should not be afraid to debate policy, but we should be cautious not to associate certain policy positions with individuals. There is an unhealthy tendency to label comrades, sometimes even to call them derogatory names.

This detracts from the purpose of debate, which is to critically examine differing perspectives. Rather than impugn the motives of comrades, we should concentrate instead on exposing every view to scrutiny, regardless of who expresses it.

nThis is an edited version of a letter by President Jacob Zuma