Eusebius McKaiser

Why I have Mangaung fatigue

2012-12-14 10:33

I don’t know about you but I already have Mangaung fatigue. The reasons for my fatigue are twofold. I do not think that the African National Congress’ elective conference, starting this forthcoming weekend, will make a fundamental difference to the real material challenges our society faces. And, in addition, the ANC is more likely than not going to miss an opportunity for organisational reform. Let me explain.

An elective conference for any outfit is only exciting if the choices presented to those who are voting include men and women who are worth getting excited about. This is not the case with the ANC’s elective conference. Frankly, the fact that Kgalema Motlanthe is now reportedly challenging Jacob Zuma for the position of president of the ANC, changes nothing. Both are addicted to pseudo-dignified, prolonged spells of public silence as a substitute for demonstrable public leadership.

Can a real leader please stand up?

The differences between them are merely aesthetic: one is polygamous, one is not; one has a few more public scandals behind his name than the other; one dances better than the other. Where are the deep, and interesting, intellectual differences? Where are the competing records of amazing public and organisational service within the government and the party respectively after democracy’s birth? Where are the clearly articulated visions and plans for what each would do should they be elected as president in the next week? Perhaps these were put on the debating table while I was sneezing. If not, do pardon my lack of enthusiasm about the question of the day, “Zuma or Motlanthe?”

It is also important to realise that the key challenges we face as a country remain structural. Unless and until we have a more effective and caring bureaucracy, we can forget about the successful, state-led implementation of the ANC’s main policies within the state. A much more boring but more important debate that we should keep alive is to ask ourselves what we will do to improve the state of the state. Obviously, with brilliant political principals in charge, we could have a fighting chance of improving the state’s effectiveness. But in the absence of exciting top leadership options on the ballots at Mangaung, there is little hope that an early Christmas present for the country might be a new crop of inspiring and capable leaders ready to be deployed to the state.

So don’t hold your breath: politicians playing musical chairs on the deck won’t help steady a ship with critical structural weaknesses.

Economical with the truth

Besides the fact that Manguang will not make a difference to improving the state, and therefore will not have real impact on the material conditions in society, there are also lost opportunities for the ANC to reform as a political organisation. ANC veteran Frene Ginwala yesterday described the ANC as an organisation that enjoys “deep inner party democracy.” This is a classic case of being, as they say, economical with the truth. It is precisely the lack of “deep inner party democracy” that forces journalists and analysts to guess what contenders for top positions think. The ANC is far from being internally reformed; that is surely trite?

It is a couple of days before the elective conference and no one in the country can tell you, for example, whether or not businessman Cyril Ramaphosa will accept his nomination to be deputy president of the ANC, or what his thoughts are on the ANC’s key challenges, or how he might make a difference should he return more fully to the political arena. The same applies to others with political ambition. Why does Mathews Phosa want to be deputy president? The ANC’s archaic culture of running internal elections with a pre-democratic ethos cannot be described as the hallmark of “deep inner party democracy”.  They could have entrenched that sort of culture this time round but the moment has passed.

One more opportunity, however, will present itself for practising organisational renewal. Will the losers of Mangaung be purged? There is already speculation that maybe Motlanthe will resign from his position within the state in the event that he loses to Zuma in Mangaung. That, if it is true, would probably be motivated by a fear that he might be recalled. This entire speculation is a symptom of an ANC not yet used to competitive internal elections. The stakes should not be that high. A new party should not be formed after every elective conference. One should be able to challenge your colleague but remain co-operative in the interest of the party’s overall aims the morning after. But purges are likely to follow in early January. The ANC has a long way to go still before it is truly accustomed to the business of internal democracy.

In the meantime, poverty, inequality and unemployment will remain a reality for the millions of South Africans who will never in their life afford even a donkey-cart ride to Mangaung.

McKaiser is the author of bestselling ‘A Bantu in My Bathroom’, a collection of essays about race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics. It is available at bookstores nationwide.

Follow @eusebius on Twitter.

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