(Written 15 Jan 2012)

Dear All,

In the last episode of the BBC series A History of Britain (2002), Simon Schama remarked that, “History has a cruel way with optimism,” and I suppose that is why I was ‘so totally over’ the recent 100 years celebration of the founding of the African National Congress. My disappointment with the cruel way in which the ANC has squandered the optimism of South Africans over the last 18 years prevented me from celebrating the truly fine contribution that that organisation had made prior to 1994. So I didn’t follow the celebratory proceedings and didn’t read anything about it. However, a by-line in a weekend newspaper could not be avoided. It was reported that at the main ceremony, in a stadium, Kgalema Motlanthe proposed a toast to the unity, the solidarity, and the ‘progressive vision’ of the ANC. It was reported that the deputy president then told the people in the stands that if they did not have champagne, they could take photographs of their leaders drinking (on the podium), or raise clenched fists. He apparently went on to say, “The leaders will now enjoy the champagne – you will do so through their lips.”

As the paper pointed out, this ANC champagne centenary moment is a sentiment straight out of George Orwell’s Animal Farm.

Eric Arthur Blair (1903-1950) used the pen-name of George Orwell and was an interesting character, one I admire enormously; you only have to read his essay, Shooting an elephant (1936), to get a sense the man. And even if you don’t think much of the strange choices he made in the way in which he lived, you cannot avoid the two essential books he wrote towards the end of his life, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). In these works he expressed his fear for the fate of the freedoms so hard-won by the common people. The communist party under Stalin was top-of-mind when he wrote those allegorical works, but from his experiences in Burma and Spain it is clear that the warnings given are not just about the abuse of power by the inner ring of the party faithful, but Orwell gives a clear warning about the way in which leaders who were once part of the struggle will use newspeak and slogan manipulation to short-change their followers by getting them to accept that while they, the people, have to forego the promises of the revolution, comfort can be taken in their being able to live through the wellbeing of their glorious leaders.

As it turned out, ‘old Major’ did not attend the centenary celebrations, which is probably just as well as the party did not celebrate what he fought for. I don’t think he would have approved of the way in which cadres simultaneously play the ace of spades to get mineral rights and government contracts. I am sure he would not have sanctioned the introduction of the Secrecy Bill, with its accompanying chorus of parliamentary sheep. And I could not see him agreeing with Motlanthe on the virtues of the people drinking champagne “through the lips of the leaders”. My sense is that he would have tried to remind them, “That in fighting against Man, we must not come to resemble him.”