Long road to victory

2008-10-13 00:00

A breakaway from the ANC is now a reality. The narrow window period in which ANC president Jacob Zuma could extend an olive branch to prevent a split has now passed and the point of no return has been reached.

In fact, the virulent attacks on Mosiuoa Lekota, former national chairperson of the ANC, for saying that the ANC has backslid, have made it impossible for the dissidents to turn back. Yet can a new breakaway party being set up by Lekota succeed when previous splits from it and the current opposition parties failed?

For starters, the success of a breakaway will depend on whether Zuma, who still faces 12 formidable corruption charges, could provide so far unseen political maturity and leadership by abandoning his destructive obsession with becoming the country’s next president. If Zuma stands aside and al-lows caretaker president Kgalema Motlanthe to be nominated at the ANC’s upcoming national conference to become the ANC’s candidate for the South African presidency, and the latter commits himself to tackling poverty and adopts a more reconciliatory and inclusive approach within the party and the country, demoralised party members are more likely to give the ANC another try.

Furthermore, a new party may have less legitimacy among the rank-and-file supporters with

Motlanthe as the ANC’s permanent leader, unless disaffected members have now concluded that even if Motlanthe is in charge, the Zuma-dominated ANC is now so morally bankrupt that honest efforts on the part of Motlanthe, or any other candidates, are doomed to fail.

Importantly, whether the Zuma-dominated ANC understands that the grass-roots disaffection is not only about Thabo Mbeki, but that it goes deeper, will also determine the success of a new party. There is a failure of democratic, moral and principled leadership. It is about the fear that the new Zuma crowd, rather than bringing renewal, will be no different than the previous one and the brutal ousting of former president Mbeki has played into these fears.

Astonishingly, Zuma has denied that there is a problem at all, saying: “Where is the crisis? ... the crisis is in the head of these people [the media, academics and analysts].” The pro-Zuma ANC leadership wrongly argues, as evidenced by Jeff Radebe, the minister of transport, that disillusionment with politics is confined to a few disgruntled allies of Mbeki, now fearing that their own careers will be cut short.

But so serious is South Africa’s political crisis that even Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, the moral voice of South Africa, declared that he will not vote unless party leaders see sense. The point is, Mbeki’s exit was supposed to herald a more democratic, inclusive and caring era, not a repeat of the worst under his watch.

Right now, those seen in the wider ANC as pro-Mbeki or just critical of Zuma are being purged from the party and the government. This is likely to swell the ranks of the new group.

What makes this split different from others in the ANC’s history is that for the first time it includes a whole range of people, including capable senior ANC leaders, officials and civil servants, not just one individual ANC leader. In previous splits the ANC has been able to rally around a unifying figure; while Zuma has cult status among some supporters, others oppose him with equal vehemence.

In the 2004 general election disillusionment was already high, with only 48% of those eligible to vote doing so, compared to over 80% in the 1994 elections. Disaffected black voters stayed away from the polls most. With opposition parties so irrelevant, staying away from the polls has been the way traditional ANC supporters have shown their dissatisfaction. This means that potentially the new party can tap a rich vein.

However, the Zuma faction will have the state’s resources to fight back, and the nation’s democratic culture — already under threat, as seen in attacks by Zuma supporters on the judiciary, media and other institutions in an attempt to get his corruption charges squashed — would face a big test.

Successful parties in South Africa have deep roots in villages, townships and cities, providing anything from welfare for members to shows of solidarity at funerals. Time is against the new party to do this, with next year’s general election fast approaching. The policy platform of a new party is also going to be crucial.

In South Africa, the poor and their issues have been marginalised. A new party must not only stand for greater democracy, it must also genuinely care about the poor, social justice and equitable economic redistribution. It must also firmly fight corruption, start to deliver services and be more racially inclusive.

Within the ANC, the black middle-class and black big business have been the most closely allied to Mbeki. The new party will be viewed as dominated by the middle-class and business. Mbeki attempted to reposition the ANC as a party of the poor and of business and although this is not impossible, he failed. If Mbeki is the face of the new party — which is unlikely — or if the new party exists to defend his legacy, it will be stillborn.

However, if someone more dynamic, such as the former Gauteng provincial premier and former trade union leader Mbhazima Shilowa steers the party, its stock may be higher. Zuma is deeply indebted to the black business oligarchs who were excluded from lucrative contracts under Mbeki; those traditionalists on the right, who argue for virginity testing; and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP) on the left. Because Zuma will be pulled in diametrically opposed policy directions, the irony is that a Zuma ANC will most likely stay the centrist policy course of Mbeki — to please its diverse backers.

Nevertheless, the problem is that the ANC and the breakaway will slug it out over the same policy space. Yet the best solution re-mains the reconfiguration of the ruling ANC tripartite alliance into a clear centre-left party and a left one, existing as separate political parties competing with each other, and the assortment of opposition parties, black and white, mostly based on the centre-right.

It is unlikely that the new breakaway would win next year’s general elections but it could reduce significantly the ANC’s 66% vote from 2004, using it as a platform to challenge the ANC more significantly in the polls thereafter. Of course, even if a new breakaway party fights even half-effectively for the same centre-left ground, if it forces the ANC to become more democratic and improve its record in the government, then even if it does poorly in the elections it will serve a purpose.

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