A party unravels

2008-10-01 00:00

On Monday Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa resigned out of loyalty to ousted president Thabo Mbeki and because he did not want to be "in constant battles" with the ANC leadership. Many will share the regret of Gauteng Democratic Alliance leader Jack Bloom, who described Shilowa as "head and shoulders above everybody else in his cabinet, many of whom let him down with their inefficiency and failure to crack down on corruption". And no obvious successor springs to mind, simply because Shilowa is exceptional — intelligent, strong, forthright and a premier who accomplished a great deal for Gauteng during his term of office. How many other such substantial individuals occupy political and other positions of importance in South Africa? How many have Shilowa’s mixture of authority, dignity, imagination, empathy and wit?

His resignation impoverishes the country’s political scene at a difficult time, and one can’t help regretting that his experience is no longer at the service of the dignified and hard-working caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe: that could well have been a beneficial relationship for the country.

Shilowa’s departure also highlights the growing cracks in the fabric of the ANC — cracks that look set to fracture in earnest as we move towards the elections. Interestingly, the impending split is not just between the pro-Mbeki and pro-Zuma groupings, but also, now, it appears, a third group, in favour of Motlanthe. And this latter faction is growing, because it includes, besides those who support Motlanthe, increasing numbers of the disaffected from the other two groups. This will play itself out during the pre-election months, when South Africa shall discover if ANC unity will hold, or if a break-away party will form, and the unfolding of the drama may be unsettling for us all.

However, what’s happening to the ANC, still trying to find its feet as a political party after decades as a monolithic liberation movement, should be regarded as democracy at work. The tripartite alliance of the ANC, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions has proved to be too broad and unwieldy to provide the strong and purposeful government the country needs. If, from the fragmentation of the ruling party as we know it, one emerges that is leaner, meaner, less complacent and more effective, the present upheavals will have been a vital stage in the healthy maturation of our democracy.

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