Non-conformists versus Conformists

President Cyril Ramaphosa could consider a diplomatic approach, says the writer.

Two approaches seem to be vying for popularity at this stage. It seems that both agree on one thing – they don’t want the regime of corruption and graft back, who can just turn on the taps of patronage again, with impunity. There are radicals who want to change the Constitution and there are Moderates who think that enough change can be squeezed out of the Constitution in its existing form.

While these non-conformists and conformists debate the Change Project, it also seems sure that the old guard is planning a comeback. So while the Reformers are divided over the extent of change, a third prospect is rearing its head – a Counter-reformation.

This is not unlike what happened in Europe as it tried to shake off the hegemony of Emperors, and devolve power to the local level. In England, the pendulum swung back and forth between Protestants who pressed for Reform and Catholics who liked the status quo of Roman imperialism. 

The word “non-conformist” was different, however.  It was used to describe the Reformers who didn’t just want to replace the foreign Emperor with a local Monarch, but who wanted to democratize the whole system.  For example, Lutherans still baptized infants, but into the Protestant church. Just as Catholics had baptized them into the church of Rome. But the non-conformists said – scrap infant baptism…only baptize adults after they choose it for themselves.  At first they were called Ana-Baptists.

This is a bit like those who say, let’s change the Constitution (i.e. expropriation without compensation) instead of just speeding up Land Reform (e.g. willing buyer/willing seller; self-re-distribution, etc.).

Voices like Mlangeni and Lekota are warning that the extreme “non-conformist” approach could open a Pandora’s box, leading to conflict and bloodshed. Particularly when the rhetoric of the Great Debate about land is couched in hostile racist language. These are the “conformists” whose premiere voice at this stage is the new President, Cyril Ramaphosa. However, his party had already opened that Pandora’s box before electing him – it was his predecessor Zuma who bequeathed to us the possibility of amending the Constitution.

Ramaphosa reminds me of King James in England.  At first, he was the Scottish king, son of Mary Queen of Scots.  His mother was an ardent Catholic who took steps to overthrow Queen Elizabeth I of England.  For this she was taken prisoner by the English, when her son James was just a baby in Scotland.  She was held in the Tower of London until her execution.  Meanwhile, her son was raised in Scotland by regents – as a stanch “non-conformist”. 

What confusion!  Elizabeth I the quintessential moderate Protestant; Mary the ardent Catholic trying to launch a counter-Reformation; James being raised as a “non-conformist” in Scotland.

But on her death-bed, with Mary out of the way, Elizabeth insisted on keeping the monarchy intact.  She named James as her successor, bringing England and Scotland into the “United Kingdom”. This is the same King James who authorized and standardized one English translation of the Bible. Up to his time there had been many versions – by Wycliffe, Tyndale, Coverdale, then the Great Bible, then the Geneva Bible – just to mention a few!

James saw the need for conformity. Not just to fend off the threat of a Catholic Counter-reformation, but to hold in check the radical Reformers who might end up even replacing the Monarchy with Democracy!

This is what Ramaphosa needs to do.  It is not a time to be timid, it is a time to keep both the Zuma revisionists and the radical reformers at bay. Changing the Constitution seems one bridge too far for the kind of Conformity that the new President must champion. Victory belongs to the bold.

It seems to me that the 2019 elections will not be fought over just the land issue.  But over a “package deal”. The conformists will hang tough on two fundamentals – the Rule of Law and Non-racialism. They will campaign on a platform that says, these two elements are non-negotiables. They will not resist Land Reform, but they will say that we cannot throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Thus I sense that an alliance of Conformists is forming with the Ramaphosa faction of the ANC, together with COPE and probably the UDM, IFP and Agang – and even the DA. It is conceivable that COSATU could remain in this fold.

On the Left, another alliance of “Non-conformists” is emerging – with the Dlamini-Zuma faction of the ANC, together with the EFF, BLF and the new labour movement called SAFTU.

The SACP could go either way. Ideologically it would choose the Left, but it tends to despise the bad habits of those leaders who are now behind the reactionary Counter-reformation, so to speak.

This red alliance will talk the language of revolution, not of reformation. The EFF is already using heavy doses of racist rhetoric that make some worry that it is fascist.  If so, the Rule of Law will not last for long, for fascists become a law unto themselves.  If these “non-conformists” resonate with the revenging tendencies of any Counter-reformation, then South Africa could be in for an era like England experienced under Bloody Mary, who preceded Elizabeth I.  Both were daughters of Henry VIII, by different mothers.  Mary’s efforts to restore Catholicism were messy. The later Mary – Queen of Scots – tried to breathe the same fire against Elizabeth I, but she was kept in the Tower of London as a result.  Conformists cannot be timid if they want citizens to conform and toe the line.

One thing seems certain – that the centre cannot hold. The ANC looks like it is going to split, and the fault-line will be a case of history repeating itself – there will be radical “non-conformists” ready to put the Constitution on the altar, against the “conformists” who could even take up arms to prevent this from happening. One thing is positive about this trending – it is moving past the racial divide. It is moving South Africa towards voting on issues not on allegiances. 

Coalitions are likely to replace the ruling alliance that has held sway since the first free and democratic elections in 1994.  I am not a prophet, I cannot foresee which alliance will win.  I do not predict the Future.  I only interpret the Present, and what I see is history repeating itself.

Chuck Stephens Chuck Stephens is the Executive Director for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership and writes in his personal capacity.