Ripe with possibilities

2008-10-29 00:00

As readers of this column will know, I have long predicted that the ANC was headed towards an inevitable split. But I didn’t expect it to come so soon, nor that it would occur the way it is happening.

My thesis has always been that the ANC, which was formed as a coalition of many different elements and ideologies who came together for the common purpose of ending apartheid, would start losing its cohesion once that goal was achieved. In particular, it seemed likely that the rapid emergence of a black middle-class over the past 15 years would split the ANC’s support base into two separate constituencies with diverging interests.

In other words, our society would undergo a class restratification that would begin to overlay the old racial stratification and that a political repolarisation would follow.

But given the heroic image of the ANC as the party of liberation, it seemed reasonable to assume that such a process would take at least another 10 years to unfold.

Yet here it is upon us. But as I’ve noted, it’s not quite the same as the anticipated version. The split taking place under the direction of Mbhazima Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota is less about diverging class interests than about personality differences and individual grievances. However, the two are not entirely unconnected and we may yet see the division take on a more definite political shape.

Two things have hastened the process — the ANC’s vision of itself as a “vanguard party”, which is derived from Lenin’s notion of a specialist elite that would prescribe the way to the ultimate utopia; and its concomitant policy of “deployment”, which means deploying chosen “cadres” to key positions in the government service.

The two in combination have centralised decision-making and politicised the civil service, thereby turning what was once a people’s liberation movement into a governing party of patronage. Insiders get all the key jobs, while independent thinkers and creative initiative get spurned.

This is what has been behind the power struggle between the Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki factions of the ANC. It has not been so much about the respective policies of the two factions as about who will control the allocation of these highly desirable jobs and the perks that go with them.

Certainly there were aspects of Mbeki’s policies which displeased many of his followers, such as his Aids denialism and his soft approach to Zimbabwe. But it was Mbeki’s favouring of acolytes and the sidelining of perceived critics, his personal appointment of provincial premiers, metro-council mayors and other key “deployees”, which produced the accumulation of resentment against him that led to the putsch at Polokwane.

An array of different groups with little in common except their pent-up resentment of Mbeki came together in the weeks before that national conference last December to form “a coalition of malcontents”, with the common objective of ousting Mbeki from the party presidency. Zuma was simply the focal figure in bringing about that coalition and ultimately the instrument for achieving its objective.

Once achieved, phase two followed. A turning of the tables with Zuma supporters embarking on a nationwide campaign to purge the party structures of Mbeki supporters and take over the powers of patronage for themselves.

Of the 4 000 voting delegates at Polokwane, 60% cast their ballots for Zuma, 40% for Mbeki. The vast majority of delegates were from party branches, which means that 40% of ANC branches and most provincial and regional committees have been under attack from Zuma challengers in structural elections that have taken place since then.

It has been a long and acrimonious struggle at grassroots level — “the opposite of comradeship” as one member put it to me — which, together with the bitterness of Polokwane itself, has produced a whole new coalition of malcontents. These are the people now planning the breakaway party.

Like the Polokwane malcontents who included professed champions of the poor along with such mega-rich figures as Mathews Phosa and Tokyo Sexwale, the so-called “Shikota” group have no clear political identity at this point beyond claiming to represent a movement towards some kind of purified ANC.

But that may come with time. Indeed it will need to begin taking shape at the convention Shilowa and Lekota are planning to hold on Sunday in preparation for the launching of a new party on December 16. They will have to start defining more precisely what kind of party they have in mind, where it will position itself in the political spectrum and give it a brand name.

Already a few hints are emerging. Shilowa has spoken of a social democratic party that will appeal to the many voters he believes to be disillusioned and disengaged from active politics. He has hinted at moving away from outdated dogma.

More specifically he has talked about targeting young black professionals and certainly there is a substantial constituency there. In my professional life I meet countless young black men and women who express their disillusionment with politics and tell me they don’t want to be associated with the ANC because of the intellectually demeaning presence of Julius Malema and his cohorts leading the Youth League.

Beginning there, one can foresee the split perhaps gradually taking on more of a class aspect, particularly if Zuma comes under pressure to deliver on his IOUs to the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Union (Cosatu).

But even without that, this split is profoundly significant. This new party can’t pose a serious threat to the ANC at next year’s election; it might not even emerge as the strongest opposition party. But its mere presence is going to change South African politics forever.

For the first time there is going to be a predominantly black political party, led by people with impeccable struggle credentials, that will have growth potential in the total South African electorate and therefore constitute not just another sectarian opposition group but one that can become a realistic alternative government.

That means that the ANC will no longer be able to govern with impunity. For the first time its public representatives will have to take account of public responses to their actions and not be concerned only with pleasing their party bosses to secure their patronage benefits, as is now the case.

Even in the short term, the presence of this new party and the votes it will take from the ANC will be enough to ensure that the next government no longer has a two-thirds majority in Parliament — so securing our Constitution from the threat of opportunistic amendment by a too-powerful ANC.

That in turn points to the possible formation of coalitions in future parliaments to introduce the prospect of periodic regime changes, which is what breathes life into any democratic system. Helen Zille, the new Democratic Alliance leader, who is steadily rebranding her party as she chips away at the white ceiling she inherited from her predecessor, has shown the way with her remarkable six-party coalition that is governing the city of Cape Town.

I have a hunch that is going to become the way of the future at national and provincial levels of the government as well.

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