JOHANNESBURG — The African National Congress of President Nelson Mandela swept to power two years ago declaring a new era of truth and honesty in post-apartheid South Africa.
But now that it is in charge, the party is finding that truth is a double-edged sword.
Since winning elections in 1994 that brought it to the helm of a coalition government, the ANC has on various occasions imposed sanctions on prominent members for criticizing party policy. A recent attempt by the movement to discipline a member of the government, Bantu Holomisa, for revelations about misdeeds by an ANC cabinet minister disturbs defenders of free speech and has divided the party rank and file.
"The sad thing about the ANC is that it can not tolerate a critical movement within the party," said Raymond Louw, head of the Freedom of Expression Institute, based in Johannesburg.
"There is no doubt that the ANC has begun to introduce a kind of principle that you must be loyal to the party come what may. This is a disturbing retreat from what used to be a commitment to transparency and consultation," says Mr. Louw.
Earlier this month, Mr. Holomisa, the deputy minister of environmental affairs and tourism, addressed the so-called Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up to unearth apartheid-era human rights abuses. Most of the revelations at the commission have until now been about the former white minority government rather than the ANC, when it was a banned liberation movement.
'Too much truth'
Holomisa was informed by the ANC leadership that he would have to appear before a disciplinary committee for saying that the current Public Enterprises Minister Stella Sigcau had accepted part of a bribe paid by a hotel entrepreneur for gambling rights when she was prime minister of the now-abolished homeland of Transkei.
The possibility that the party would try to muzzle members by vetting their statements outraged Desmond Tutu, the head of the commission and the former Anglican archbishop. A leading activist against apartheid, Mr. Tutu has assumed the role of the conscience of the nation and has on various occasions criticized the ANC for what he views as poor governance.
The powerful ANC Women's League also expressed anger, saying in a statement: "We suspect that Holomisa is guilty of telling too much truth."
Deputy President Thabo Mbeki sought to assuage Tutu's concerns, telling him in a recent meeting that the ANC party leaders merely wanted to be informed when members intended to make submissions to the commission. However, Holomisa said he advised Mr. Mandela of his statement to commission.
Holomisa's outspokenness has gotten him into problems before with the ANC leadership and party sources have speculated that some officials may be threatened by his immense popularity with the grassroots. Holomisa won the most votes in elections for the ANC National Executive Committee in Bloemfontein in December 1994 and has a lot of backing in the former Transkei homeland.
Mandela criticized him last year after he slammed the ANC's sacking of Mandela's ex-wife Winnie Madikizela-Mandela as deputy arts and culture minister and later for suggesting that some populist members were being isolated within the party.
Holomisa has asserted that his intention was not to finger Ms. Sigcau but to describe the circumstances of Transkei's destabilization by the then-white minority government. Holomisa came to power in a 1987 coup that ousted the homeland's then-President George Matanzima and other politicians including Sigcau.
ANC integrity on the line
The Holomisa row comes at a time when the ANC government's integrity has come under question. Another minister, Pallo Jordan, was sacked in a cabinet reshuffle earlier this year ostensibly for clashes with ANC leaders over party policy. (He was later re-instated after a public outcry.)
Also damaging the ANC's image has been the ANC's support of Health Minister Nkosazana Zuma, who was found by a public protector to have misled parliament over funding. In addition, an audit revealed serious discrepancies in spending by the ANC Women's League in 1993. The ANC leadership has declined to comment on the matter for the time being.