Membership gets its voice back

2007-12-20 00:00

If some ANC leaders still doubted it, it was clear for all to see this week that the divisions within the ANC are now so deep and entrenched between the rival camps of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma that it is not very likely that either man could restore the confidence of the other camp and unite the ANC, let alone the country, after the ANC’s national conference. In Polokwane, it may as well have been two different parties meeting — the party of Zuma and the party of Mbeki.

Mluleki George, the deputy defence minister, and one of Mbeki’s campaign leaders, vividly reflected the chasm when he suggested Mbeki-ites should snatch the ANC from the Zuma camp to prevent “anarchy”. “We must stop the anarchy. We can’t allow anarchy in the country,” he said.

The irony is that the magnitude of the internal conflict made it impossible for any compromise third candidate to come through, as each side was set to battle to the end. Those with ambitions of offering themselves as a way out of this morass were forced to join one of the camps or stay out of the race altogether. This was the case for an individual such as Mosouia Lekota who joined the Mbeki camp.

ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe’s strategy, of attempting to straddle both camps, but edging towards the camp that looked is if it was going to be victorious — that of Zuma — appears to have been highly successful. Motlanthe now stands to be voted in as deputy president of the ANC, with a good chance to become president if Zuma falters over his coming legal hurdles.

Cyril Ramaphosa refused to join either of the camps, and may have to work harder to come into contention for the ANC and the country’s presidency, which may actually be contested again before 2009, if Zuma trips over the pending corruption charges that he will have to fight immediately after the conference.

The National Prosecuting Authority, in an answering affidavit after Zuma asked the Constitutional Court for leave to appeal, indicated days before the start of the ANC conference on Sunday that they have more compelling evidence against Zuma alleging corruption in South Africa’s controversial multi-billion rand arms deal.

It is clear that the ANC conference has, instead of healing internal divisions, widened the fissures even further. This cannot be good for the country. The gulf between ordinary ANC members and Mbeki and his faction was brutally exposed. Mbeki was even heckled during his opening address at the ANC’s 52th national conference.

One conference delegate summed up the dissatisfaction when she told the Mail & Guardian newspaper why she wanted Mbeki and his leadership group out: “The ANC today is not the ANC that we read about in history textbooks; the ANC that believed in democracy for all. Today the ANC preaches democracy, but its democracy is for certain individuals.”

Nevertheless, the conference broke new ground in that it will likely be the start of a new tradition of competitive elections (it was the first time since 1958 that ANC members have voted for the party presidency, instead of the individual being chosen beforehand by party leaders). It is now likely that if, for example, Zuma is forced to leave the ANC presidency because of his pending court troubles, it will be difficult for him to appoint his successor, in the same way that Mbeki struggled to stage-manage his leadership succession. The ANC members are now so primed to exercise their democratic right to vote that they are not likely to give that right back to the leadership again. Because of the cloud of corruption allegations around Zuma, it is likely that there may yet be another ANC leadership election, and opportunities for younger leaders to have a go at the presidency, before the 2009 conference.

So, although the main focus has been on the battle between Zuma and Mbeki, there has also been a second battle for positioning, in anticipation of there being another chance for outsiders to have a go at the ANC and country presidency. The Achilles heel of most African liberation movements has been their failure to have competitive elections, either out of fear of division or because of deference to the sitting leader. Importantly, both these stifling taboos have now been broken in the ANC.

The ANC grassroots membership has finally got its voice back and it is unlikely that any leader will be able to walk roughshod over the membership again, in the same way that Mbeki did.

Worryingly, such was the focus on the leadership election that the detail of policies was hardly on the minds of the conference delegates, except in the most rough of outlines. This means that in terms of policy-making, especially economic policies, the conference has left unfinished business that is likely to be the focus of divisive post-conference debates. Zuma will soon discover that victory is a poisoned chalice. The disparate coalition of groups, ranging from socialists and trade unionists to supporters of virginity testing, the death penalty and those opposed to gender and sexual equality, will all demand a slice of what they were promised by the Zuma camp, as rewards for their support.

It will be impossible to satisfy such diverse demands.

With Zuma’s victory, populism, as a political creed of promising everybody what they want in order to rise to the top of the leadership ranks, has now gained respectability within the ANC. In the past this was frowned upon. Those who were accused of practising it, such as Bantu Holomisa, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and Tony Yengeni, were quickly censored. But Zuma’s populist victory is also part of a trend in African liberation movements.

Often, when the first leadership post-independence generation exits the movement, dies in office or becomes unpopular because they betrayed the ideals of the struggle, the successors are populist leaders who promised everyone something. They usually successfully ride the wave of popular grassroots revolt against the leaders of the party of liberation.

And yet the record of such populist leaders has also been abysmal. Most often the coalitions of these leaders fall apart soon after they take over government. And even sooner, disaffected members hive off and form their own parties.

Mbeki has predicted that the ANC tripartite alliance will break sooner rather than later. Mbeki apparently had hoped that if such a split occurred under his presidential watch, he would, as ANC president, have been able to manage it in such a way that the rump of the ANC remained intact and focused as a party with centrist political and economic instincts. However, Mbeki’s attempt at stage-managing the ANC’s leadership succession, by trying to lift somebody in his own image into the ANC’s leadership seat, has backfired.

The power to manage the direction of the ANC or a split in the alliance over his political lifetime and to protect his political and economic legacy has now slipped out of his hands. It could have been so different if he had opened the way earlier on for such formidable ANC talents as those of Ramaphosa, Sexwale, Mathews Phosa, and Lekota — individuals who all have their own minds and who have clashed with him in the past — to take over from him, even if he feared that they may not be loyal to his person.

• William Gumede is a Research Fellow at the School of Public and Development Management at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is the author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC. The second edition of the book is now out.

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