ANC's blooding as a political party

2007-12-15 00:00

Nothing since 1994’s first democratic elections has excited as much speculation, analysis and trepidation as the imminent showdown between President Thabo Mbeki and his former deputy, Jacob Zuma, for control of the party and ultimately the country. The African National Congress’s national congress at Polokwane could be as much of a defining moment as was, against many pessimistic expectations, the long, winding lines of good-natured voters that stretched across the sun-baked veld.

It is almost unthinkable that the South African leader who has been the most successful in history in growing the economy and rolling out welfare support to the poor, is probably about to the deposed by those who have benefited most. It is bizarre that his place will most likely be taken by a man who has yet to articulate a coherent policy position, except for the vague promise that he will be guided by the pro-poor policies of his allies in the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions.

The battle, of course, is not about economics or social policy. Zuma’s policies may yet end up looking not too dissimilar from Mbeki’s. A faltering, vulnerable economy cannot long sustain expanded social spending without imploding and, in any case, history is full of examples of worker movements that have been betrayed by the politicians whom they have supported.

Nor is the battle, as the Mbeki camp often claims, about the stench of corruption around the fired deputy president and his suitability to govern. Zuma remains uncharged and unconvicted, however reprehensible his financial and personal behaviour might be, or how crass his views on homosexuality and on gender issues.

Mbeki can hardly point fingers. He has tolerated corruption among his favourite courtiers and has protected unwaveringly the wrongdoers. If there is indeed a prima facie case against Zuma for corruption, as the national prosecutor claimed, what about Mbeki’s chosen ones also?

Like National Police Commissioner Jackie Selebi, who has been protected for two years and on whose apparent behalf Mbeki suspended the national prosecutor. Like deceased former defence minister Joe Modise, who gorged himself at the arms deal trough, but we are asked to believe — since Mbeki won’t countenance a judicial inquiry — was the only greedy piggy on the ANC farm.

It is grievance that fires the hearts of Mbeki’s large and disparate legions of opponents. Not only to the aggrieved Zuma acolytes — to whom it matters less whether Zuma is corrupt than that he has been “unfairly” targeted ahead of other known corrupt ANC members — but among the wider tripartite alliance among disaffected intellectuals, among a myriad other groupings that Mbeki has offended with his remoteness, arrogance and dismissiveness.

There have been calls from both camps in the past week, as well as from the party grandees, to ensure that the when the conference ends, the ANC once more unites. This is a pretty much futile hope.

Whoever wins and whatever post-victory gloss of reconciliation is put on it, the succession battle has been an acrimonious broedertwis and the fallout will change the ANC forever. Polokwane is a historical watershed. It will mark the moment at which the ANC moved from being a relatively disciplined post-liberation national movement — with its attendant mythology of the “deployment of cadres”, disapproval of “careerism” and overt personal ambition — to becoming a real, fractious political party, where hundreds of rampant, ambitious egos are sublimated (just) to the common goal of attaining and keeping power.

It took Afrikaner nationalism, in the form of the National Party, almost 30 years in power to reach this inevitable stage of disaggregation. It has taken the ANC only 14 years. Unless the Second Coming is looming on the horizon, that is bad news for Zuma’s boast that the ANC will rule until Jesus Christ returns.

But it is good news for the country’s democracy, if it can survive the looming Zuma years, which are likely to be lean.

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