Cry, the beloved ANC

2012-10-13 13:41

As the 53rd national conference of the ANC approaches, two exaggerated analogies come to mind.

Is it like being trapped on a runaway roller coaster, hurtling up and down at heart-stopping speeds? Or is it like plummeting to the earth on a doomed flight?

The nation is obsessed with the ANC conference and its outcome.

This is inevitable because the governing party materially affects the lives of all South Africans.

Since its founding in 1912, the ANC nurtured a tradition and practice of contesting leadership positions.

After HF Verwoerd’s National Party government banned the ANC in 1960, it was only able to hold three conferences before 1990.

At the secret Lobatsi conference in 1962, the ANC constitution was suspended and many of its practices were put on ice.

As an illegal underground movement the ANC was unable to operate like a conventional political formation – holding public meetings, publicising the names of its leadership and members, and conducting its internal political life transparently.

A number of expedients were adopted to keep the movement alive, and to protect its members and supporters against violent state repression.

Among the procedures put on hold was the election of its leadership in open political contests.

The 1985 Kabwe conference reasserted the tradition of an elected leadership, but still under conditions of illegality, placing constraints on the manner the elections were conducted.

Once unbanned, the ANC returned to its prior traditions of open leadership elections and now mandates an external electoral body to conduct them transparently.

Thirty years of underground activity did, however, have an impact on movement practice.

At its 49th conference in June 1991, the ANC presidency was not contested, though other senior positions were.

Contestation of positions had been the ANC norm for decades prior to 1960.

For example, at the 1952 annual conference, where Chief Albert Luthuli was elected president, 50 different candidates were nominated to that position from the floor of the conference.

In the end the contest boiled down to about five candidates, including Dr James Njongwe and Nelson Mandela.

The wide open field of prospective candidates for the ANC presidency and other top positions is nothing remarkable to those conversant with pre-1960 ANC traditions.

Unfortunately, at the first three elective conferences held after 1990, the president was elected unopposed, so now many observers and ANC members have come to believe this is the customary practice.

What happened at Polokwane in 2007 had in the past been the norm.

Its reappearance as standard ANC practice is a welcome sign of political normalisation and maturity.

The ANC is a broad church and therefore any political contest entails like-minded members of an organisation clustering around a platform, usually represented by a candidate or slate of candidates.

It therefore comes as no surprise that as the national conference draws closer, one will find groups within the ANC differing in size and style, punting their preferred candidates.

Returning to my earlier analogies, a regrettable feature of this otherwise healthy procedure is the practice in the current contests for these lobbying groups to crystallise and congeal into political factions prepared to conduct undignified and potentially destructive campaigns.

The prospect of the highest decision-making body in the ANC, its national conference, being reduced to a deadly combat zone for positions, with complete disregard for the consequences not only for the integrity and dignity of the movement, but its very survival, is indeed highly disturbing.

It has now become the norm that, on the eve of ANC elective conferences at all levels, tensions build up as different groupings enter into highly polarised and fractious battles to win certain key positions for their candidates.

This competition affects all levels of the movement.

What is baffling is that while there is absolutely nothing wrong with contestation for any position, why does destructiveness and acrimony accompany such lobbying?

Why can’t we engage one another in a robust and constructive manner as many other political parties around the globe do?

Why do we find it necessary to visit this indignity upon ourselves and the country every time we hold elective conferences?

One has watched with dismay as inflamed passions have closed the ears and minds of competing groups to opposing arguments and ideas.

Each grouping fervently believes it is right and all the others are wrong.

In such an environment, the temptation for the group whose candidates come out on top to behave in a factional manner and for it to be regarded as such by those who have lost out is greatly increased.

Unfortunately, since the contest is among senior leaders, they too might yield to such temptations, to the detriment of the movement.

That holds the threat of factions within the movement becoming formalised and legitimated by new and strange practices that depart from the movement’s established culture and traditions.

When matters reach such a point, it becomes difficult to distinguish between factional decisions and statements, and those representing the actual voice of the ANC.

That internal democracy and the tradition of healthy debate has been the lifeblood of the ANC over the decades cannot be overstated.

Factionalism stimulates an environment of intolerance for differing viewpoints.

One outcome is that those who state their views frankly and fearlessly can immediately be labelled and derided as “right-wing opportunists”, “ultraleftists”, “populists”, or even “enemy agents”!

Once this becomes regular practice, anarchy, indiscipline and rumourmongering will be elevated from a deviant subculture to the norm.

Public spats and leaks to the press become the order of the day.

In no time, procedures that had in the past been unacceptable will infect even the top leadership.

It is my observation that factions anywhere in the world and in all political parties are the same.

Perhaps the only difference is the degree of support each enjoys on the ground.

Some may even profess a different ideology from the other, but in the final analysis they all behave in the same manner.

All factions, irrespective of political affiliation, have the same destructive effect.

The greatest tragedy about this is that the new generation of ANC members who joined the ANC after its unbanning come to regard the behaviour of their leaders as the example to follow.

What one sees in ANC conferences today can be viewed as the germination of the seeds planted by us, the leaders.

The danger with factionalism is that the vicious cycle continues because almost immediately after a conference, the “losers” will take up the cudgels and begin the fight from scratch, or the “winners” will fracture into splinter groups and immediately go for one another’s throats.

The movement is then reduced to something akin to a permanent political war zone. It never stops.

It affects everything and everyone.

Even songs in ANC conferences today are no longer about the struggle, the people or freedom, but about candidates. It’s ugly, annoying and boring.

Will we again and again wake up before the next local government elections to discover that the open toilets the people complained about are still not covered? Is this all because we are inward looking and care less about solving people’s problems?

Is it all about us and less about them?

In the meantime, the masses that gave birth to and have sustained the ANC with their support over the decades watch such an ugly spectacle unfold and are in many instances baffled and disgusted by the actions of those

they regard as leaders.

This beloved ANC does not deserve to be reduced to a battlefield for factional interests.

This glorious movement was forged and built over a long, difficult period by the poor fighting masses of this country.

It is their creation and it belongs to them.

No single individual or faction, no matter how powerful or ruthless, should be allowed to hijack and impose their will on it.

Returning the ANC to its roots and its time-tested democratic practices will not be done behind closed doors.

Neither must this be a call by some to purge others.

It must be a genuine effort to renew the ANC and make it relevant to the needs and demands of the times.

Light must shine on everything and the masses of our people must be a part of this because without them the ANC will be left at the mercy of ruthless political amateurs masquerading as revolutionaries.

The time has come for the masses to reclaim the ANC and recreate it in their own image so that it continues to be the party that champions their noble and just cause, their dreams and aspirations.

I often ask why we appear not to have learnt from the experience of our brothers and sisters to the north, since we were the last to be liberated in Africa.

If leadership places self-advancement, the contest for positions and the interests of factions ahead of those of the ordinary people, the movement will wither and die in our hands.

As our national conference draws nearer and temperatures rise, the pursuit of political office might close many minds to reason.

Speaking the truth is revolutionary and liberating.

»Yengeni is the ANC’s head of political education

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