How big is the split?

2008-10-30 00:00

Mosioua Lekota and Mbhazima Shilowa will be convening what they are calling a national convention this weekend. How many people will attend it? How broadly representative will they be? And how many people will join and support the new party which is due to be launched on December 16? At this stage it seems impossible to know. The media, which are sometimes apt to magnify events of this kind, suggest that fair numbers of people will flock to the new party, but at the moment that seems to me to be rather unlikely.

Perhaps I might state my own position in relation to the projected split. I am a long-standing supporter of the ANC, although now a critical and not very happy one, but I don’t regard the arguments for the formation of a new party put forward by Lekota and Shilowa to be sufficiently compelling. It seems very likely that at some time in the future the ANC will undergo a large division, probably into a left-leaning party and a centrist party, as in most mature democracies; but the current conflict doesn’t appear to involve many clear-cut policy divergences. I tend to agree with the quiet and wise words spoken by Pallo Jordan and Cyril Ramaphosa: disappointment and a few disagreements over tactics and personalities should not be a reason for starting up a new breakaway party.

Nevertheless, a break of the sort that we are seeing is, as they say, good for democracy. It has the effect of shaking things up and, perhaps more important, of putting the ruling party on its toes. And some of the issues being raised by the dissidents are important.

As far as the dismissal or “recalling” of Thabo Mbeki is concerned, it was certainly sudden and unusual, but Mbeki had been an ambiguous and disturbing figure for some time. There is a sad irony in the fact that he complains that he was dismissed partly because of statements made by a judge in a case in which he was not himself on trial: that was precisely what happened to Jacob Zuma. One wonders what Lekota and Shilowa feel about Manto Tshabalala-

Msimang: given the chance, would they really reinstate her as Minister of Health in the place of Barbara Hogan?

But the proposals that seem likely to be put forward at the convention in relation to the electoral system need to be taken seriously. Some years ago an official commission chaired by Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert proposed that our national system should resemble that which operates effectively at local government level: an equal mixture of proportional representation and constituency voting. The ANC government rejected that proposal, but a fair number of ANC people seem to favour it and this new challenge will at least put the notion back on the agenda for discussion.

Then one has to sympathise fully with the dissidents’ criticism of Julius Malema and his followers. I think and hope that it is a mistake to take Malema too seriously, to take him at his (often horrifying) word; but there can be no doubt that he represents a dangerous element within the current ANC, and it is alarming that senior

ANC people are unwilling or unable to check him. He seems incapable of recognising the web of ironies in which he constantly entangles himself. He denounces those who wish to break away from the ANC, but in such ugly and aggressive terms that the idea of breaking away becomes more attractive. He accuses Mbeki of tribalism, of favouring Xhosas, but in doing so, inaccurately, he lays himself open to the same charge of tribalism. (Lekota has objected to the “100% Zulu boy” slogan which appeared on some Zuma T-shirts.) And Malema’s tendency to use the word “kill” to threaten anyone who disagrees with him is certainly encouraging intolerance. The ANC must prevent its followers from behaving in a violent way.

And it must recognise the real nature of the challenge that faces it. It is not simply or mainly to respond to the arguments made by the dissidents. It is to show them, and itself and the country as a whole, that it is capable of governing successfully. It must try to brush aside wrangling and politicking and focus on the needs of the country. The emergence of the breakaway group should make it work harder.

Some of its leaders are hoping to maintain most policies while placing more stress on the needs of the poor. If they succeed in doing that they will have taken the whole country forward. But all this good work could be wrecked by intolerance. They need to keep an eye, too, on the country’s international image. At a moment when investors are running away from “risky” developing markets, and when many emerging countries are marketing themselves with wily skill, it would hardly be helpful for South Africa to present itself to the television viewers of the world as a place where supporters of the governing party (seemingly in an attempt to imitate the thugs of Zanu-PF) attack their opponents, shouting “kill them”.

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