Let us learn from past congresses

2017-12-17 06:12
The ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane pitted Jacob Zuma against the incumbent president Thabo Mbeki in a bitterly contested succession battle. Photo: Brendan Croft

The ANC’s elective conference in Polokwane pitted Jacob Zuma against the incumbent president Thabo Mbeki in a bitterly contested succession battle. Photo: Brendan Croft

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Ten years ago today, the ANC elected new leaders at its national conference in Limpopo. That gathering was held in the northernmost province of our country, in a city that had just been renamed Polokwane. It was meant to represent the liberation movement in all its glory, with ANC members young and old, rich and poor, arriving from all corners of our beautiful land to attend. The ANC’s founders had wanted the organisation to emulate inkundla yabantu, a public gathering where none is excluded, to deliberate on matters affecting abantu, the people.

Since the national elective conference is deemed to be of the people, for the people, nothing at the event is meant to be secret. Problems are discussed openly and solutions are devised collectively. Every individual matters – such is the magnificence of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.

However, the outcome of the 2007 conference left the ANC covered in anything but glory. Polokwane – which, ironically, means “place of safety” in Northern Sesotho – put the organisation on an unsafe path. The dangers that lay ahead were not readily evident – or, perhaps they were, but few people bothered to extend their gaze beyond the resolutions taken there. They were too preoccupied with the idea of being part of history in the making to deal with any controversies that were arising.

The conference was marked, and marred, by a sense of urgency to overhaul the leadership – an urgency that was prompted by limited efforts to co-opt some ANC members into the state’s apparatus and, by extension, society’s upper echelons. Not for a moment did the delegates pause to evaluate the suitability of their presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma, to lead the historic movement and occupy the highest office in the republic.

Zuma had proved to be tainted. He had recently been acquitted of raping the daughter of a family friend. She had known him since childhood and regarded Zuma as a father figure. Around that time, Schabir Shaik, a close associate of Zuma, had just been convicted of fraud and corruption, and was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment. Although suspected of similar crimes, Zuma was not charged.

ANC members elected Zuma party leader so that he could become president of the republic, knowing full well that he was potentially corrupt. The implications of that decision, for their movement and the country, seemed irrelevant. Top of mind was self-interest: they wanted to be part of the inner circle. It was now their turn. Had the victors of Polokwane prioritised the public good over self-interest, they would never have elected Zuma president. For them, the public good was the enemy.

A week after his election to the ANC presidency, Zuma was charged with fraud and corruption. What followed was a series of moves by his backers to undermine the institutions upholding our hard-won democracy: the successful crime-busting institution, the Scorpions, was disbanded; the judiciary and media freedom came under attack; and corruption charges against Zuma were withdrawn in 2009 under spurious circumstances – a decision that courts have recently rescinded.

Zuma’s ANC would suffer

Throughout these controversies, the language used by the victors at Polokwane was belligerent. Theirs was an assault on civility itself. And, because their actions fell short of standards of decency, it was inevitable that Zuma’s ANC would suffer.

Zuma’s depravity proved so repulsive to some ANC members that they left to form a new party, the Congress of the People (Cope). This splinter group took with them a portion of the ANC’s support in the 2009 national elections.

Zuma’s embracing of an ethnocentric identity increased the loss. Minority voters who had previously supported an all-encompassing universalist movement were taken aback by the sudden parochialism.

The ANC’s centenary conference, at Mangaung in the Free State in 2012, presented delegates with an opportunity to rectify the situation. Party stalwarts Kgalema Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa, former enablers themselves, were among the few who distanced themselves from Zuma. Cyril Ramaphosa became a new recruit, joining Zuma to give respectability to infamy. Zuma was re-elected, despite his notoriety. And worse was still to come in the Nkandla and Saxonwold scandals.

I am recounting this history not only to remember the past, but also to inform the future. Polokwane offers a number of lessons to ANC delegates gathered today at Nasrec, of which the following three are crucial:

- Decisions guided by short-term interest are ruinous in the long run;

- Collective leadership is overrated. Individual leaders exert enormous influence on the direction of the party and the country. Therefore, who becomes president matters.

- Self-interest desensitises people to the ruin caused by their own actions or inaction.

The 2017 conference is a pivotal contest. Whoever is elected president will determine the depth of the ANC’s decline in 2019.

It is hard to imagine the ANC reversing its fall. Next year will be especially debilitating for the party, given that a commission of inquiry into state capture must be appointed – in keeping with Wednesday’s judgment by the Pretoria High Court. This inquiry will bring more revelations about the rot that has set in so deeply.

And what of Zuma’s presidency of the republic? His continuation in this role invites further losses for the ANC. Zuma’s presidency has already cost the party 15% of its electoral support – from 69% in 2004 to 54% in 2016.

Of the two leading candidates at the 2017 conference, Ramaphosa gives the ANC a better chance at regaining its competitive stride than rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. His presidency will represent a rupture from the status quo, which is what the ANC needs.

Given her association with Zuma and the fact that her strongest backers are the ANC women’s and youth leagues, Dlamini-Zuma appears to represent a continuation of the Zuma presidency. With her at the helm – supported by Free State Premier Ace Magashule and Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza – few will believe that the ANC has renewed itself and cut ties with the Gupta family. Magashule will probably appear before the commission of inquiry into state capture next year to account for his government’s R30 million payment for the Gupta wedding, along with many other shady deals we may not be aware of.

Polokwane’s events have taught us that delegates prioritise their personal interests over the public good. This conference could signal a case of déjà vu. Some are already dismissing state capture as being a middle class preoccupation. That’s what they said of Nkandla, and look at what happened in the 2014 and 2016 polls. Yet they will dismiss the possibility of losing in 2019.

My advice to the ANC is: Don’t repeat Polokwane. If you get it wrong again, you may not get a second chance to recover.

- Ndletyana is an associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg

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