Saturday, 11 October 2008

ANC: There is no crisis as far as we are concerned

South Africa's ANC really dislikes the word "crisis". Whether it is the new team in power at party HQ or the old and recently sidelined group, they cannot abide the word.

The party's spokespersons get extremely wound up (and many of the 'troops' too) if there is any reference to crisis, either in relation to internal party issues or with respect to the national political situation.

Of course, while a part of this is excusable as the instinctive reaction of a (or any) political party, one must ask whether the phobia for the word 'crisis' as of way of describing events can be taken to extremes. And when it is taken to such lengths, I must add, it becomes highly humorous. Cartoonists and radio hosts who imagine themselves to be satirists really have a good time.

And so, in the last year, party hacks have expended tremendous energy in hitting back at any suggestion of a 'crisis', in attacking the use of the word and lashing out at those who dare use the term. In hotly disputing the idea of a crisis, party spokespersons often insist that:

  • there are 'no divisions'
  • the country's constitution has not been violated and is not under any threat
    all actions taken were permissible and within the legal remit of the particular authority figure taking it
  • vicious conflict is alternately denied, natural, minor or 'blown out of all proportion'
  • all pertinent raised issues are internal matters that should never have been publicly aired in the first place

The most popular line these days is that unless there is a major constitutional issue at stake, there can be no crisis. Put another way: the official definition of a crisis is that the country's highly regarded constitution was being violated or is under threat. Narrowing the definition in this way may start off as 'spin doctoring', but it soon becomes an entrenched way of seeing and analysing developments.

For me, of course, the reality is that there is a leadership crisis in the country. We have not been properly or adequately led for the past year. There is a lack of focus, little sense of direction and "at the top," no one is seizing the initiative on key issues. Seizing the initiative would mean zooming in in a proactive way on an area of major concern to the public, demonstrating listening and engagement, framing the issue from the leadership point of view, giving clear pointers of action (and expected roles in action) and clear motivational calls for sustained unity in responding.

In this regard, the political hubbub post Polokwane, the sharpening of battle axes, the numerous leaks about infighting, the actual internal conflicts, the rumour mill, the provocative noises of certain youth leaders have all taken their toll. Mental bandwidth (at the political level) for critical socio-economic issues appears to severely limited.

Instead, as everyone knows, much attention is on the jostling over (or an intensive process of clarifying) which sub-group or leadership configuration will have dominant influence over the course of events in the country. But the official line has always been that there is no crisis.

Some definitions of crisis emphasise danger and possible catastrophe: they refer to "situations of extreme danger" or an incident that might involve death or injury to people or a tipping point that – if not managed well – leads to catastrophe. There are also less dramatic definitions: those that refer to "a crucial stage" or "turning point" or "an unstable or crucial time or state of affairs in which a decisive change is impending" and a "threat to the ability to carry out mission". JF Kennedy said that "(w)hen written in Chinese, the word 'crisis' is composed of two characters. One represents danger and the other represents opportunity".

For my purpose, the real (and only) question is whether there are major problems, issues and dynamics at the national level that require urgent, focused and highest-level attention. Although the word crisis is ordinarily used as a signifier of such, the recognition of such issues and challenges is more important than the semantic games as such.

What we are witnessing is a tussle over language and the use of words. The battle is about who can control the discourse – the media, the opposition party, the commentators, the leaders and/or strategists of key social movements. Whether explicitly or subliminally, these protagonists are keenly aware that she or he who controls the discourse controls the direction of events.

But denial of a crisis or of crises (like the crises that many say we have in the education and health arena) also means denying ourselves the opportunity of galvanising people and building unity. Such unity and popular mobilisation can lead to an effective response that exploits new possibilities or, at the least, to deft management of the crisis.

Those who flatly and automatically deny the existence of crises do not realise that there is no shame in conceding a crisis, just as there is no humiliation in admitting conflict. Crises and conflict represent contestation and contradictions that are necessary to propel a project or process to a new level of thinking. Looked at positively, crisis and conflict can lead to growth as well as to new capacities and knowledge. In South Africa's context, crises and conflict potentially lead to renewed national solidarity, focus, determination and joint resolve among key interest groups to work together to protect our fledgling democracy.

Crisis is a catalyst. Even though it's not advisable to wait to change, a crisis can jolt us into making changes and can prompt us into new ways of functioning in the world.

What is your view? Please add your comment …

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