I have often pointed out that the ANC’s clever- clever populism allows it to be all things to all people. I have mostly meant that that is a bad thing.

It is a legitimate question to ask: what are Julius Malema and  Barbara Hogan (to name two arbitrary ANC leaders) doing at the same table? When you strip away all the noise and posturing you are left with the question: what, politically, economically, ethically, spiritually, culturally do they have in common? How can one organisation have so broad a policy that both these people can claim to find a home there?

Usually, my conclusion is that the original policies designed to transform us away from Apartheid are disappearing from the ruling alliance and being replaced by the objective of power (and wealth and influence) for its own sake.

This morning I want to temper that negative view.

Our society has a number of real and urgent contradictions or fault-lines where the clashing currents are difficult to manage. Here are some of the most important:

  • White versus black (versus Indians versus Coloureds)
  • poor versus rich;
  • the employed versus the unemployed;
  • Zulu versus Xhosa versus Pedi versus Ndebele versus Sotho, versus Tswana versus Venda;
  • Western versus African;
  • Urban, modern and fast versus rural, traditional and conservative – with a sub-theme of modern city women versus patriarchal men or at least men carrying around chauvinist and patriarchal ideas in their heads.

The fact of the matter is that these divisions are not represented in the clash of politics in our formal political processes of parliament and government. There is no one party on one side of any of these divisions and mostly no one party on the other.

A quick glance through the ANC’s top leadership, structures and relationships shows a very deliberate attempt to represent the full scope of South African society.

I have mentioned elsewhere how Jacob Zuma has played a crucial role in winning Zulu’s back into the ANC. Cyril Ramaphosa is in part there for Venda’s, Hogan for whites and women, Derek Hanekom for whites and farmers, Mac Maharaj for Indians; Trevor Manuel for Coloureds and business …  and global capital markets; Baleka Mbete for women … the list really could go on for ever.

One of the reasons I think Julius Malema is unlikely to face serious punishment from the ANC leadership, is the organisation values the fact that, at one level of abstraction, he  “speaks for” the 2.5 million young black South Africans between the ages of 18 and 25 who are unemployed and not in any kind of education. (I do think Malema is primarily a populist disguising his own greed, but his populism also articulates – or helps weave into the national debate – a real view and an actual constituency.)

Then the alliance relationships with Cosatu, with the SACP and broader relationships with Contralesa (Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa); the Black Management Forum and outwards all the way to polite meetings with the Afrikaaner Weerstandsbeweging are all concentric circles of the ANC attempting to straddle all divides in the Society.

I think there is a very real danger in this context of ANC politics and policy becoming meaningless and allowing people in it for personal riches and power to rise to the top.

But I think it is important to acknowlge the upside.

We are a society in which the formal insitutions of democracy are new and tentative – and the divisions are threatening and profound. As many groups and interests as possible need to find expression in the national political debate and the formal institutions do not yet represent them.

As a second prize, an overwhelmingly dominant ruling party that attempts to play the role of a parliament of all the people, that attempts to speak with the cacophony of the thousand arguing tongues is not all bad.

It’s just loud, noisy, confusing and unsettling.