More yo-yo politics

2011-03-29 00:00

ON Monday last week Sanelisiwe Mncwango, a member of one of the prominent families in the Inkatha Freedom Party, announced her membership of the New Freedom Party (NFP) in what was billed as a surprise coup by the new party, formed by former leaders of the IFP.

It was significant for two reasons: one is that she is the wife of the IFP's national organiser, Innocent Mncwango. In his position, Mr Mncwango is responsible for maintaining and growing IFP support. He leads the galvanisation of IFP members and supporters on the ground to ensure that they participate in party business. During his tenure, the IFP has either lost members in droves or had to contend with dilapidated divisions with the growing support for the then chairperson of the party, Zanele ka Magwaza-Msibi.

Naturally, Mr Mngcwango has been kept very busy trying to keep members and to avoid a split within the party. At times, he has been brutal against the new party, IFP critics and defectors, but not his wife. That is how he interpreted his responsibility. If he has at times come across as arrogant, it is partly to do to the simple fact that his job is to grow the IFP, but the turn of events have pointed towards the decline of the party.

In this context, the unexpected defection of a member of his family created an impression that Mr Mncwango was even failing to keep his family united behind his job. It has also made his job untenable as some in the IFP will no doubt wonder if his loyalty is fully with the party, in spite of the fact that in all his public conduct he has shown loyalty to Mangosuthu Buthelezi and his leadership. But often politicians make personal decisions on the basis of interests rather than out of a commitment to values.

The second reason the defection is significant is that it suggests that senior women leaders in the IFP may have quietly identified with the issues that caused ka Magwaza-Msibi to leave. This followed the defection of two other prominent women leaders in Thembi Nzuza and Mary Bawden.

Of course, the concern with defections, especially when they happen during the run-up to elections, is that they raise suspicions that defectors are motivated by opportunities for career growth in new political homes rather than serious matters of vision and mission. But in the case of Mrs Mncwango, it did not seem like her job prospects had been closed. In fact, it seemed quite the opposite was true, that with the defection of women leaders, those who remained behind could hope to fill their shoes.

Of course, she did point out that she was being harassed by IFP leaders in the Nongoma area where she is a senior municipal official and she felt that her husband had not protected her.

The surprise defection also suggested that the NFP is succeeding in attracting members of the IFP who should generally be happy. Until then, the new party seemed to attract the disgruntled, suppressed and expelled members of the IFP, itself a risky phenomenon as this too often leads to factionalism spreading to the new party.

Coming against the background of a gradual decline in IFP support in KwaZulu-Natal and other areas, these defections are a further blow. The loss of 35% of voters in the 2009 national elections was a big blow for the party, the strongest signal that something had gone wrong and that it needed to undertake drastic changes to stem the decline. Of course, the euphoria around the birth of a new party out of the African National Congress and the Jacob Zuma factor played a role. For precisely the same reason now with the euphoria over the NFP, the IFP is facing dim prospects come local government elections in May.

Of course, two days later, Mrs Mncwango, flanked by her smiling husband, announced her return to the IFP in an emotional statement punctuated with self-pity and apologies for an error in judgment. The NFP wisely respected her right to choose to go back.

Although, the IFP would hope that this marks a change in trends, the change of mind is no reason for the IFP to rejoice, as in her statement Mrs Mncwango confirmed the difficulties that led to the defections. The fact that there is decline in support in the IFP generally is itself a major cause for defections, while the bright prospects for upward mobility in the new party are a pull factor. The NFP should not be overly excited by this as it may have attracted opportunists whose appetite for privileges may not be satisfied by the young party, leading to factionalism.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the executive director of the Institute for Global Dialogue, but writes in his personal capacity.

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