Refusing to change

2009-09-15 00:00

THE Inkatha Freedom Party is still its own worst enemy. It seems that the party is either unable or unwilling to learn from its past failure to handle issues of succession. Its leadership stubbornly shuts the door on calls for reforms and renewal in the name of discipline and internal coherence. The street fights between militant youth calling for democratic change within the party and those in support of the current leadership are worrying. They can no longer be dismissed as the actions of a small clique of mavericks or hot-headed youth, which due to bad upbringing, is intro­ducing ill-discipline to this traditional party.

The decline or death of the IFP is not good for politics in KwaZulu-Natal and South Africa in general. Not only is the IFP an important black opposition party with seasoned leaders and a growing youth appeal, but it is also a remarkable institution in the history of South African politics. Its founding president, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, epitomizes the importance of the party and the mix of wisdom and errors that make up its image. But the end of Buthelezi’s career should not mean a collapse of the institution.

The problem is that traditionalists and old hands in the party have found in his permanent presidency an opportunity to retain control and ward off challenges from reformers. By traditionalists, I refer to conservatives committed to the idea of a cross­over between tradition and modern politics. The old hands are those who have fought alongside Buthelezi for decades to keep the party in control of its constituencies and to prevent it from falling into the hands of reformers. Among the old hands are Dr Oscar Dlomo from the eighties and nineties and Dr Ziba Jiyane from the nineties and 2000s.

Some in the party leadership do not want Buthelezi to retain his position for long, given his health and waning physical vitality. However, they would rather have him be the president, than a reformer with strong leadership qualities such as Zanele Magwaza-Msibi. It is a common tendency in African political parties for leaders to refuse to allow change.

Given the IFP’s poor showing during the 2009 general elections and with the all-important local elections imminent, the IFP leadership was expected to build and consolidate rather than shrink and defend the party. They should have taken advantage of the youthful exuberance of its youth structures and directed their energy towards deep reform of the party, its leadership and conduct. The party should have used the increasing numbers of pro-IFP youth, owing mainly to the good showing of the South African Democratic Student Movement (Sadesmo), to project itself as a party of the future.

This does not mean that the party should not deal with internal discipline, but that it should balance this with a clear policy space for this militant youth to shape the IFP’s political programme. This should be done especially because the youth have become the largest portion of South African voters.

At the very least, the IFP should have done everything to set right the perception that it is a party of aging conservatives out of touch with post-2000 politics.

But the expulsion of outspoken leaders of the militant youth structures and the postponement of the elective conference has fed into the perception of the IFP as so committed to protecting its heritage that it is willing to sacrifice its future. The Congress of the People would be well advised not to follow suit and think carefully before removing Cope’s youth leader, Anele Mda, from her position simply bec­ause many are uncomfortable with her rabble-rouser style of politics. There has been grumbling about Julius Malema’s militancy, with some in the ANC calling for him to be restrained. No one is worried about young leaders in other parties, mainly because they are passive.

So, the IFP has a challenge that stems from the leadership’s self-preservation agenda. It is about leaders refusing to allow and direct change. If, as it seems, these challenges arise from the changing dynamics in politics, including the growing interest of young people and spread of the doctrine of democracy, then trying to stop or reverse the momentum for change is a futile exercise.

The IFP leadership must think carefully about the kind of political institution they want to leave behind. They should remember that the youth have an interest in shaping the future. While the IFP cannot abandon its heritage and Buthelezi’s personal legacy, it can’t preserve order and discipline at the expense of charting a future for the party.


• Dr Siphamandla Zondi is the director: Southern Africa at the Institute for Global dialogue.

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