Old habits return

2009-08-25 00:00

IF the emergence of the Congress of the People (Cope) late last year was good for democracy, then indications that it is slowly falling apart are bad for South Africa. The fact that Cope woke the Afri­can National Congress to its duty as the ruling party, to serve the people rather than just its cadres, was good. Signs that, in some areas, the ANC is returning to the bad old ways of hiring cadres even if they lack skills in the areas they are hired in; that tenders are given to comrades even if their companies short-change the people; and that some new political heads are seeking to undo all of the Thabo Mbeki legacy, as if Mbeki was an New National Party president, are worrying.

The birth of Cope from within the belly of the 97-year-old ANC, taking with it some of the senior leaders of the ruling party, raised prospects for a serious change in the balance of power. While some might have been too optimistic, hoping that Cope would unseat the ANC, the real prospect was that the party would weaken the ANC’s power. This was good bec­ause it was an antidote to the ANC’s complacency and arrogance, causing it to work hard to earn its authority rather than taking the people for granted.

This was good for the ANC itself because arrogance and acrimony over power and tenders was already killing the party from inside. Signs are that the failure of Cope to make significant inroads into the ANC powerbase has caused some in the ANC to ret­urn to old habits: nepotism, corruption and infighting. So, again the party’s large constituency is slowly being forgotten as leaders immerse themselves in the opium of power.

With the rise of Cope, even ANC die-hards recognised a party through which they could lodge objections about all levels of the ANC leadership. As the ANC could not be sure who it would lose to the new party, its leaders started working to build internal unity and reaching out to those considered to be Mbekites.

Even portions of the electorate that did not belong to any political party saw Cope as a suitable alternative to the ANC. The black middle-class, progressive people among minority groups and the post-1990 generation could not always identify with the ANC’s liberationist ideology. They saw Cope as a neoliberal alternative likely to embrace constitutionalism, entrepreneurship, competence and modernisation a lot more than the ANC.

The ANC’s political opponents also hoped that Cope would help weaken the ANC’s power or even dislodge it from power. So they embraced Cope from the outset, even attending its exploratory rall­y in November 2008. They planned to form post-election allian­ces with Cope to tilt the balance of power against the ruling party.

There is no reason to believe that these constituencies have stopped wishing to see a strong and progressive counterforce to keep the ANC in check. This is prevalent among public servants who see in some of the new leadership in government a return to old disruptive tendencies. Of course, we know there are many among the new leaders in both provincial and national government who simply lack magnanimity and wisdom, and find destroying easier than building.

They see the civil servants who they found in government as Mbekites who should be ostracised or be beaten into submission. These arrogant leaders want public servants to prove that they are not Mbekites by hero-worshipping them instead of providing services to the people. These public servants are the backbone of the government and its delivery on its electoral mandate. This is not right, but indications are that no one with authority is doing anything about it.

So, the haemorrhaging of Cope spells doom in some ways. Not because Cope was ever good at anything (lacked policy and content), but because it was an antidote for power drunkenness in the ANC, especially at lower levels. Cope is so entangled in power struggles that it is facing death. There are so many camps that healing divisions will be complex and long. The choice of the good reverend as an alternative to the abrasive Terror Lekota was a bad one. The man has failed in every area of his job description.

With the centre of Cope leadership so weak and so tensely contested by camps, the prospects of containing this slow, internal implosion are very dim. The opportunists who left the ANC to get senior positions in the new party have become so strong in Cope that no one will dare touch them. While some of the current difficulties can be overcome, the deep-seated cancer of factionalism brought in with former ANC anarchists, especially in the Eastern Cape, will be hard to remove.

As the arrogance of power and nepotism resurfaces within the ruling ANC, the people will have no option but to resort to protests such as we saw in Siyabuswa and Diepsloot recently. In the long run, people will lose faith in the power of the vote and resign to the realities of their suffering under power­-hungry leaders. They will see their age-old dreams of a new South Africa, but not attain them. Whichever of these eventualities happens, it is not good for South Africa’s democracy.

• Siphamandla Zondi is the dir­ector of Southern Africa at the Institute for Global Dialogue.

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