The futile politics of self-sabotage

There are days when as a black person (umAfrika omnyama), I just sit and wonder what it is about the post-liberation context that enables so much political self-sabotage by Africans of their own struggles.


Why, after so much blood, sweat and sacrifice for freedom, is it possible for top political leaders and also for less powerful people within society to engage in political acts that are just completely unnecessary, and have the effect of deliberately holding back the progress we need to overcome the legacy of our oppression.

Broadly speaking, it is true that historically entrenched property relations are the underlying basis of systemic inequality in South Africa; there are high barriers of entry for black people into major economic sectors and markets – both as entrepreneurs and as professionals.

However, I do not think this structural context necessarily accounts for the many astounding acts of self-defeating behaviour that one observes in current black political life.

In addition to historical barriers, there are barriers put up by new black political agents themselves.

I learnt this lesson of black self-sabotage quite harshly in the world of community radio.

Several years ago, I (reluctantly) agreed to serve on the board of a community radio station that had a reputation for being extremely unstable.

It had seen many boards come and go, but still managed to hobble along in operations because of a bit of intermittent support from local government and other public institutions.

The new board I joined was well aware of the station’s problems, but we volunteered our time and efforts in order to ensure that such a public asset did not suffer complete neglect.

One of the new board members was very well connected in the funding world; the prospects of connecting the station with funders was very high, so long as it committed to sorting out its ongoing mess.

No sooner had I joined the board, and been elected as its chair, than I began to get phone calls from very aggressive and hostile volunteer presenters at the station who began to insult and harass me about ongoing issues.

That was just the beginning.

Every meeting the board tried to hold with station members, devolved into name calling.

One of the board members, a highly respected advocate, was even accosted while he was on his personal business in town by a disgruntled pastor who had a show on the station.

Through all the conflict and madness, the board and management partly managed to restore systems and some income was being generated.

However, as things began to look promising, a faction of station members began questioning our legitimacy as a board.

We realised what the game was. The station went through cycles of dysfunction because each time a board was appointed, some income would come in, the board would then be pushed out so whichever faction held power, could get to the resources.

These factions preferred disorder because it enabled looting.

The whole thing was really tragic because the money being fought over was never more than a couple of thousand rands at a time.

No matter how much we explained to station members that a functional station could bring in hundreds of thousands of rands, they resorted to toxic conflicts because these guaranteed powerful members access to the bank accounts.

Within a year our board had quit.

The members’ actions were self-defeating.

Had our board stayed on, we could have systematically supported the station to create multiple funding streams that would have enabled regular stipends to be paid to members.

However, good governance was a precondition for this to happen.

The enemy of progress was not white capital or some other external agent, it was the toxic culture of the station members themselves.

In this local-level scenario you can discern the kind of self-sabotaging cycle that the ANC finds itself in.

Getting out of it is near impossible without a crash.