Kaunda can teach the ANC a thing or two about losing power

Dr Oscar Dhlomo, former president Kenneth Kaunda and former ANC leader Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg. Photo: Gallo Images/Die Burger
Dr Oscar Dhlomo, former president Kenneth Kaunda and former ANC leader Oliver Tambo in Johannesburg. Photo: Gallo Images/Die Burger


In 2012, Mondli Makhanya penned this article as the ANC started to discuss the possibility of losing power. In his analysis, he drew on the late Zambian leader Kenneth Kaunda’s stance when his party lost power after 27 years at the helm. Kaunda passed away on Thursday. He was 97.

The year was 1991 and Zambia was holding its first democratic elections in 20 years. Kenneth Kaunda’s United National Independence Party (Unip) had been in power for 27 years. The country’s one-party rule system, in place since 1972, had eroded accountability and damaged the economy. Poverty was rampant while the political elite enjoyed cushy existences.

In allowing democratic elections, Kaunda and Unip genuinely believed that the people they had impoverished would still be grateful for the 1961 independence from Britain and would vote correctly.

It was not to be.

Frederick Chiluba’s new Movement for Multi-Party Democracy trounced Unip as Zambians chose change.

On election results night, Kaunda acolytes and military chiefs rushed to State House to ask the big man how they could overturn the outcome. To them it was inconceivable that the party of liberation could concede power. A Zambia without Unip? Never!

But Kaunda lectured them about “the will of the people”, congratulated Chiluba and invited him over to State House. He took him on a tour of the residence, showing him the nooks and crannies, such as the bunker and the emergency phone.

With that gracious exit, Kaunda secured his place as an elder African statesman.

READ: Kaunda: the last giant of African nationalism and benign autocrat left a mixed legacy

His party, however, went into rapid decline. Unable to survive without the trappings of power and the firm hand of an iconic leader, Unip was consumed by leadership battles and organisational malaise. Its electoral support plummeted to the point that in the 2011 elections, it lost its last parliamentary seat.

This is the fate of many parties on the continent which, after losing power, have no idea of how to survive in opposition. Some, unwilling to risk this fate, have clung on through brute force and manipulation of the electoral system. Think Zimbabwe’s Zanu-PF, Angola’s MPLA and Mozambique’s Frelimo. To them the party is the state and the state is the party.

It is clear that this is something the ANC’s leading thinkers were well aware of when they drew up the Organisational Renewal document. The document is a frank and honest assessment of the ANC’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges. It was expected to be tabled at the June policy conference.

It acknowledges the rot that has set into the ANC since assuming power in 1994: corruption, factionalism, distance from the people, ill-discipline, internal battles over control of state power, the abuse of state institutions to fight intra-party battles, the buying of political support and the emergence of “secret caucuses”.

Although the writers of the document do not state this explicitly, the ANC’s tight grip on power, its influence on society and the conflation of party and state mean that this rot destabilises the work of the state and pollutes societal culture. The writers do warn that this conflation poses a danger to the existence of the party.

The document says:

The ANC has learnt from the experiences of other liberation movements and progressive parties” about the dangers of “being too dependent on the current position of power.

“Other governing parties disappeared completely from society the day they lost power,” it says.

This is probably the most critical of the ANC’s documents as it deals very frankly with the “cancer” that is spreading from the ANC to other parts of the South African body. (On the inspirational side it speaks about the sort of person who should be a member and a leader of the ANC. If one were to go by some of the obvious and rational recommendations, there is a certain septuagenarian who would be automatically disqualified.)

Even the ANC’s fiercest rivals would concede that – because of its place in our firmament – a dirty and self-destructive ANC is bad for all of us. If the ANC’s support is to decline and the party eventually does lose power, it should be because the people could no longer identify with it and not because “comrades” were behaving like latter-day Rashid Staggies.

READ: Kenneth Kaunda has died, aged 97

Another aspect which should not be taken lightly is the recognition by the ANC that it could lose power one day. For the ANC to understand this and begin to sensitise its members is a big step.

But for all the lofty ideals contained in the document, the ANC’s desire to modernise and clean itself up will be undermined by its refusal to dump its archaic struggle mind frame.

The party’s language is stuck in a bygone era: it still describes itself as a “revolutionary” movement, its members as “cadres” and job appointments as “deployments”. Why anyone needs to be on a war footing in democratic South Africa in 2012 boggles the mind.

This is the sort of thing that suffocated other former liberation movements. It is the reason they resorted to force and manipulation to stay in power. And it is the reason why the Unip bigwigs found it hard to fathom why they should relinquish power to a democratically elected opponent.

Such backward framing of debate will undermine a noble effort.

This was first published by TimesLive in April 2012.


Mondli Makhanya 

Editor in chief

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