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Prayer and perspective on ANC conference

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It seemed fitting that it was on the Day of Reconciliation, 16 December 2022, that I attended the 55th African National Congress (ANC) National Conference at Nasrec. It’s here that the senior leadership of the ANC is elected, including the “Top 6” (extended to the Top 7 this year) and the president of the ANC (who, while the ANC remains in power, is also the president of South Africa).

It’s here that ANC policy on issues ranging from education, health, technology, and economic transformation to international relations (including the ANC’s stance on Israel-Palestine) is also set, which makes this conference a pivotal event in South Africa.

Although the ANC is the ruling party, its policy isn’t government policy, however policy endorsed by the ANC has a huge impact on that of the South African government.

I was invited to represent the Jewish community by delivering a prayer at the opening. This invitation is an honour and a responsibility. It was an honour because, for all its myriad faults, the ANC is still the democratically elected government of South Africa, the party that liberated this country from apartheid and was brave and mature enough to negotiate a peaceful transition to democracy.

It was a responsibility because I had been invited to represent the Jewish community in spite of some of the harsh criticism it has levelled at the ANC-led government regarding its stance on Israel-Palestine over the past few years. On several occasions, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies (SAJBD) has called out ANC members and even cabinet ministers for their one-sided, misleading statements on Israel. It’s a small but important touchstone of democracy, however, that we engage with both those we agree with and those we disagree with, and so it was both my honour and responsibility to accept the invitation.

The theme of the conference was, “Defend and advance the gains of freedom: unity through renewal”. The Jewish prayer at the conference, written by SAJBD Deputy Director David Saks, referenced this theme and continued with the words, “May you in your great mercy imbue those here today with the moral strength, sagacity, and insight to make this theme a reality in the challenging years that lie ahead. Just as you guided our country into a new era of freedom, peace, and equality, so may we continue to be led in the ways of peace and justice.” The full prayer, which I recited with truly heartfelt kavannah (intent) to the leadership of our country and the 3 000 delegates at the conference, was greeted with cries of “Amen!” from across the hall.

The stirring theme and success of the Jewish prayer notwithstanding, the conference started shambolically. Delays in obtaining credentials for delegates resulted in the conference, scheduled to begin at 08:30, starting only after lunch. Sitting in the allocated seats with other faith leaders and waiting for six hours for the conference to start did give me the opportunity to engage with faith leaders, various diplomats, and ANC members, and absorb the conference atmosphere. I was also gratified, on behalf of our community, by the courtesy and respect I was shown wherever I went.

As the day progressed, the atmosphere in the hall became more electric, culminating with the entry of President Cyril Ramaphosa. Given the factionalism and divisiveness within the ANC before the conference, it was fascinating to try and gauge the mood of the delegates from the atmosphere on the floor. President Ramaphosa was greeted with rousing singing and dancing, only to be disrupted as he took his place at the podium by the late entry of former President Jacob Zuma. Disruptions by different factions now seem par for the course at ANC conferences, but eventually, ANC Secretary General Gwede Mantashe brought the crowd under control, and the conference was able to start.

Due to the exceptionally late conference start, much of the business of the conference was left unfinished. But the country, waiting on tenterhooks to see who the next leader of the ANC and its top team would be, didn’t have to wait too long, and the Top 7 election results were released at Nasrec. In spite of numerous predictions during the conference that Ramaphosa’s chief opponent, former Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize, would take over the leadership of the party, Ramaphosa won the leadership election with a comfortable majority. The rest of the Top 7 are largely Ramaphosa supporters, leaving him, according to political pundits, in a stronger position than ever to govern the country as he sees fit – at least until the next national election.

The remainder of the conference’s work was finalised only last weekend in a continuation hybrid conference in Mangaung. The policies adopted at the conference will be mulled over in the next few weeks as their implications for the country’s ailing economy, infrastructure, and moral fibre are debated.

From the perspective of the Jewish community, the ANC’s stance on Israel remains concerning. This isn’t because of the party’s friendship with the Palestinians nor because of any desire to shut down reasonable criticism of Israel. It’s due to the party’s flawed understanding of the complexities of the conflict in Israel partly due to its refusal to engage with both sides on the ground.

This stance flies in the face of the ANC’s position on every other global conflict, including Russia and Ukraine, where the party claims even-handedness is its core guiding principle. The fact that the ANC flouts this principle when it comes to the world’s only Jewish state remains a point of contention and disappointment for the Jewish community and all peace-loving people in South Africa.

  • Professor Karen Milner is the national chairperson of the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.

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1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. Colin

    Jan 12, 2023 at 7:12 pm

    The ANC has always claimed to hold the moral high ground.

    I have searched both the internet and the ANC online archives and cannot find any contemporary statement from that organisation condemning Hitler or the Holocaust. Perhaps they were influenced by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact [an agreement between Stalin and Germany] and did not want to upset their Moscow paymasters? This would make an interesting future article, especially if I am proved wrong.

    The ANC has lost any pretence to morality or ethics over its perjury to save genocidist and kiddie-rapist Omar al Bashir and support for Putin’s genocidal invasion of Ukraine; an existential venture very similar to that of Hamas/Hisbullah.

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