IFP will fall on the sword of change

2009-11-20 11:54

THE Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) is on the verge of a democratic breakthrough. The party has been led by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi uncontested since its formation more than 30 years ago.

Some leadership positions were gained through presidential appointments, not elections. In 2005 Ziba Jiyane stood for a leadership position and was elected against the wishes of the party hierarchy.

Jiyane favoured Lionel Mtshali, whom the party wanted to stand unopposed. But the party’s youth-wing insisted on Jiyane and he prevailed.

Jiyane’s candidature was based on bringing democracy into the party. He publicly accused the leadership of being dictatorial, leaving soon after his democratisation project ­encountered resistance.

The youth-wing has renewed the call for a change of leadership. Frankly, there is no logical reason why the chief should remain at the helm while the organisation experiences declining fortunes.

Reforms, however, will place the party in a precarious state, rather than necessarily renew it. The hope is that a reformed IFP will resonate better with the electorate, and even improve its electoral fortunes.

On the contrary, reforms may just accelerate the party’s demise.

Parties are built upon certain core values with the view to appeal to a particular constituency. These values are projected through ceremonies and party rhetoric, which mobilises the membership and continues to have this effect as long as the party remains unchanged.

If the party adopts new values and practices, it then ceases to appeal to its traditional support-base.

From the very onset the IFP never made any claims to being democratic or mass-based. It’s always been a patron-based party, built on personal charisma that derives from traditional values associated with Zulu ethno-nationalism. Buthelezi claimed that the IFP was the vanguard of the Zulu ‘nation’ and culture, and insisted that he was the traditional prime- ­minister to the king.

Zulu-speakers were consistently told that supporting the IFP was a “Zulu” thing, while supporting the ANC – a “Xhosa-party” – was the worst thing a Zulu-speaker could do. It was treachery – ubudlwembe!

Now how does the party survive without the traditional symbolism embodied in Buthelezi? By the way, he hasn’t said anything about stepping down. After all, chiefs reign until death.

But let’s assume that Buthelezi steps down and a new leader is elected. The contest is apparently between Musa Zondi and Zanele Magwaza-Msibi. Though both are Zulu-speaking, neither has the traditional legitimacy of Buthelezi. Both are suave urbanites and one a woman. Conservative beliefs are resistant to female-leadership.

The election of either would certainly dilute the historical, traditionalist image of the party. The reformers may be seeking to rid the IPF of its conservatism, thereby making it modern. But new symbolism and rhetoric would have to be invented to underscore the change of guard. If that happens, it’s unlikely that the old, traditional supporters would follow the new, modern party.

Perhaps the reformers want the party to appeal to a different constituency: multi-class, multi-generational, modern and urban. Wooing this constituency would be a tall-order.

The ANC not only already has this constituency in its fold, but is also contesting the IFP in its own backyard, as evidenced by the sudden surge of support under the Zuma- ­presidency. Zuma’s traditionalism has rid the ANC of the perceptions of the Xhosa-nostra, presenting it with a familiar demeanour among the locals. Zuma is more popular and trusted in KwaZulu-Natal than the ANC itself.

A reformed IFP faces an even quicker demise. This is the fate of parties founded on an ethnic identity. Ethnic consciousness either evaporates or is gradually diluted by other identities. But the IFP wouldn’t be the first party to die an ironic death by reinvention. Anyone remembers what happened to the “New” National Party?

Ndletyana is a Senior Research Specialist at the Human Science Research Council

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