It’s the wrong race

2007-12-15 00:00

Former ANC general secretary Cyril Ramaphosa perhaps best summed up the current race between the current incumbent Thabo Mbeki and his rival Jacob Zuma, the ANC’s deputy president, for the presidency of the ANC, when he described it as the “wrong race”. Unless a last-minute compromise can be cobbled together by disparate and desperate neutral senior ANC figures do come up with a “compromise” ANC presidential candidate, it will remain the “wrong” leadership battle between Mbeki and Zuma. Yet, what South Africa now needs are leaders for a new era, fresh ideas and more inclusivity.

The different factions in South Africa’s ruling ANC are waging an all out struggle to persuade, intimidate and allegedly even buy votes to secure the over 4 000 delegates to ANC’s December 16-20, 2007 national conference that will elect new policies and leaders, including a new party’s president, to ensure that their candidate triumph.

The ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe is now busy with auditing the presidential nominations from ANC branches, which have given Zuma 61% of the vote. It appears that as many as 500 branch nominations, including those of the Women’s and Youth Leagues may have been tainted by irregularities including failing to quorate, illegible voters, illegal voting procedures and fraud and intimidation.

Both Zuma and Mbeki camps accuse the other of underhand tactics. The stakes are very high. Although Mbeki’s supporters appear confident — he may yet grasp victory from the jaws of teeth — the balance is tilted towards Zuma. In the crucial days ahead of the conference, Zuma has adopted a statesman’s style demeanour, as if he is already ANC president.

On instructions from his political advisors, Zuma has criticised Mbeki in sober tones, focusing on “issues”, instead of personal attack. On Monday, for example, in an International Human Rights Day lecture at the University of Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, Zuma turned his address into a state of the nation report, surveying the government’s record on crime, education, poverty, the abuse of women and children, and abuse of state power. A central element of his message is the defence of the constitution (it is ironic since Zuma has in the past appallingly said the ANC is “above” the constitution) and encouraging citizens to make government accountable.

Mbeki allies such as ANC national chairman Mosioua “Terror” Lekota sketch a doomsday scenario of a Zuma presidency, hoping it would scare delegates into voting for Mbeki. Mbeki has targeted the consciousness of individual ANC members warning them that they will have to “live with the consequences” of a Zuma presidency. Noticeably, Mbeki has even quoted church leaders, such as Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, to appeal to ANC voting delegations to make a “morally correct” decision.

A major part of Mbeki’s campaign strategy has been to defend his record in power. Furthermore, Mbeki is also concentrating on the ANC’s women voters who for the first time will make up 50% of the voters, contrasting his pushed for gender equality against Zuma’s sexist past statements and treatment of women.

However, up to now, Mbeki has yet to publicly accept his and the government failings. A centre-piece of Mbeki’s campaign has been to blame his current setbacks on ANC “mercenaries” who have led members “astray”. The irony is that if Mbeki looses the ANC’s presidency, it will be because of a major flaw that has run throughout his presidency: his inability to accept reality.

Like his denial of the devastating consequences of HIV/Aids, explosion of crime and the continuing poverty, unemployment and inequality in spite of an economic boom, Mbeki is denying that his presidential style, his arrogance, vindictiveness and oversensitivity to criticisms have mostly brought his current difficulties.

In addition, Mbeki has yet to acknowledge, beyond the occasional rhetoric that in spite of the economic boom has past the majority by. All we are getting from the president, and the likes of Finance Minister Trevor Manuel is the arrogant response that a basic income grant to the poor is “entitlement” (nothing about the R280 billion given to black tycoons in black economic empowerment “handouts” since 1994). Reserve Bank Governor Tito Mboweni still persists with punishingly high interest rates to bludgeon down inflation, with apparently no iota of concern to the policy’s devastating impact on the poorest.

Sadly, with hours to go to the ANC’s crucial poll, Mbeki has yet to accept the consequences of his own action, policies and insular leadership style. Mbeki is still blaming his difficulties to those “who know nothing of the ANC”.

Two important political shifts have happened in the past few years, which Mbeki appears not to have grasped.

One, ANC members now want both the economic dividend and democratic dividend of South Africa’s political miracle. They want not only the booming economy to deliver to them; they also want the democracy to deliver: democratic watchdogs such as Parliament and the Human Rights Commission should become more accountable, responsive and protective of the vulnerable, rather than lapdogs of the president and the executive. This also includes the ANC and its leaders: they must become more responsive, the ANC itself more internally democratic and accountable to its members.

Because of the ANC’s untransformed archaic internal election rules, whereby open contests are not encouraged, ANC members have been given the limited choice of either Mbeki or Zuma. Off course, since members desperately want change, the only alternative, as set by the ANC’s rules, is Zuma. A far better solution would have been to open up the election to younger, more dynamic candidates, of which the ANC has no shortage.

There is a long-list of capable people: Ramaphosa, Tokyo Sexwale, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Mosioua Lekota, Trevor Manuel, Tito Mboweni, and so on. Off course they can still be elected. New nominations can still be made from the floor of the conference. This is increasingly likely to happen especially now that the leadership campaign has become so vicious.

The voting for the president of the ANC is by secret ballot, voting delegates do not have to explain or declare their voting decision to their branches.

Because most of the actual branch nominations were by show of hands, self-censored and intimidation by swing votes in a particular way. Of the voters at the conference, 50 % must be women. At a branch nomination level, the 50% women in voting were not enforced during the presidential nominations process that ended on 26 November.

So, in essence, the branch nominations, although a good guide, actually may count for nothing when the presidential election takes place at the ANC’s conference.

In spite of the reassurances by both Mbeki and Zuma that they will accept whatever outcome, they are fooling themselves if they think, if either win, they will be able to unite the ANC after the conference. It is too late for that the divisions are just too deep.

With either of the two men in the saddle, the ANC may yet experience a very long period of instability, until the question of leadership is resolved before the 2009 elections.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s last-gasp proposal to mediate is an indication of just how close the ANC is to implosion. Yet, her solution to cancel the ANC presidential election for now, and keep Mbeki and Zuma in their posts, but to give Zuma the ANC presidency in 2009 is most probably also flawed, since it does not directly deal with the fact that both Zuma and Mbeki – and their egoistic refusal to step aside immediately for the sake of the ANC and the country are the cause of all the problems.

However, there is perhaps still a silver lining in all of this. This is the ANC’s first democratic election for a party leader since the 1950s. That in itself is better than an anointment.

Secondly, even if Zuma wins, it will mean that a new group of people may get a change. The problem with one-party dominated countries is that the same people remain in power for decades. They don’t need to be responsive to citizens’ problems, they don’t need to listen to those outside their circle, and they can bully those outside their circle without having to face censor, since they control all power in society.

If a ruling party does not have to worry about being voted out, because the opposition parties are so useless, at least the next alternative, is to have a rotation of leaders and elites within that ruling party, with the prospect of the leading group who have failed, be outvoted within the party. If anything, perhaps the fact that the leading group within the ANC centred on Mbeki faces the prospect of being outvoted because of arrogance is a good thing in itself.

•The second edition of William M. Gumede’s Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC is now out.

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