A time for celebrations and cautious optimism

There are two more sleeps before Christmas and it is time to be festive. Christmas has always been special, especially on the Cape Flats where I grew up and where people would celebrate irrespective of their religious inclination.

While Christmas is rightly seen as a Christian holiday by some, it is also seen as a universal day of peace and celebration by many. It is a day to spend with families and loved ones. It is a time to reflect on the past year, to think about loved ones who may no longer be around and to recommit to the decent human values that are supposed to form part of the fabric of Christmas celebrations.

There are so many people who celebrated their last Christmas last year, with some of them knowing or suspecting that this would be the case. But, even when people pass away in old age, the families who are left behind always struggle to understand what has happened.

People who have impacted on me in some way and who have passed on in the past few months include Eddie Daniels, who was imprisoned on Robben Island and became good friends with Nelson Mandela and others despite being from a different political background, and Laloo Chiba, who also spent time on Robben Island and remained committed to the ANC. Chiba was the best friend of Ahmed Kathrada, the Rivonia Trialist who died in March. All three had reservations about where we are going as a society.

There have been many others who died this year, including Ismail Rasool, the father of former Western Cape Ppremier Ebrahim Rasool; Maggie Marks, whose family played an important role in the UDF and ANC politics; Professor Richard van der Ross, who I respected hugely even though we had differences in our approach to “coloured” identity; Essa Moosa, a judge and people’s lawyer who represented me and many others in the difficult days of the struggle; Ronald Bernickow, a former trade unionist; and Gabriel Naidoo, an educator and committed Christian who gave the world a brood of children who continue to fight for justice.

It is appropriate in this week to reflect on these people as we turn our focus from the 54th national conference of the ANC and start focusing on trips to the beach, mountain walks and reunions with friends and family over the next two weeks.

It was painful watching the proceedings of the ANC conference on television this week. What was most painful was the realisation that the days are over when the ANC was an organisation for people who wanted to uplift the country. While there has been much talked about unity in the ANC, the organisation is deeply divided and will probably become more divided in the next few years.

I sincerely hope I am wrong because the ANC, with all its imperfections, remains the only political organisation with the policies to truly transform our society in one in which the lives of the majority will be improved.

But the ANC will struggle to renew itself when so many members threw their weight behind people who have serious corruption allegations against them; when it has a women’s league which supports men who have been convicted of assaulting women; when it has people glibly talking about radical economic transformation and land restitution without thinking of its implications. We need to view with seriousness the policy decisions it takes, but it is also important to note that the ANC cannot unilaterally change the constitution of the country. To do that, it needs a two-thirds majority in Parliament, which it has not had for quite a while.

While ANC members and branches were the most important people at this week's conference, the organisation now needs to think about how it can appeal to the broadest spectrum of South Africans, as we gear up to the elections in 2019.

The next indication of the “new” ANC will be at the traditional January 8 speech to be delivered by the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, on January 13 in East London. By that time, hopefully all of us will feel renewed after the festive season break.

Merry Christmas and please think about those who might not have reason to celebrate.

(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 23 December 2017)