Not so long ago, former ANC secretary-general and deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe stunned South Africans when he said the party needed to hit rock bottom for it to rise again.
This incredible admission was made two years ago, when things were bad in the party, but nowhere nearly as bad as they are now. Surely this was heresy? Now we can all see for ourselves what he was talking about. The party is headed for an implosion as its December conference approaches. The party’s top leadership, whether it be the top six or the national executive committee (NEC), has never been quite united, but the divisions are intractable now because there is an elective conference on the horizon.
The leadership, led by President Jacob Zuma, is one of the weakest in the party’s history. Even the more independent-minded people in the NEC and in the top six find themselves having to fall in line with decisions which are hard to defend, because of democratic centralism, which requires the minority to be bound by the decisions of the majority.
Many of them, formerly energetic supporters of Zuma, have come to their senses after realising that all that was required of them was to spend time and energy defending the president.
Many leaders realised too late that they were expected to cheerlead and not ask any questions. This explains why only in their last year in office did some NEC members try to pass two motions of no confidence in Zuma.
However, NEC members Joel Netshitenzhe and Derek Hanekom achieved their point of distancing themselves from Zuma, even if the motions did not succeed. The entire leadership presided over dwindling support in the 2014 national and the 2016 local elections. There may have been other factors, but a lot of the damage was self-inflicted.
Incredibly, some ANC members believe that anyone who highlights this obvious fact is embarrassing the organisation in public and should be disciplined. This is ultimately the group that will kill the party. Their belief is: see no evil; hear no evil. All is good inside the party and it is cold outside the ANC. This group, led by Zuma, has since invented a few radical-sounding slogans that the president echoes while conveniently forgetting that he made no attempt to implement them. Let them eat slogans! I can almost hear him say.
There is another group, led by deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa, which sees as its mission saving the governing party. They believe that so much has gone wrong with it, particularly in the past 10 years, that fresh initiatives need to be put in place to regenerate the ailing movement. Can Ramaphosa renew it? Is there anything left to renew?
Over the past two years or so, ANC veterans, including those not active in leadership positions, have come out of retirement to “save” the party. They asked for a special consultative conference to iron out difficulties in the party. However, the veterans ran into the first difficulty of being asked: Who are you and which structures do you represent?
Secondly, Zuma subjected them to a tongue-lashing, saying they were undisciplined and believed themselves to be above the organisation. The veterans are planning to continue with their special conference, but the party leadership has rendered them irrelevant and inconsequential.
So, enter Ramaphosa with his plan to renew the ANC. But does he really want to save the ANC? Or does he just want to be president of the country? A dream deferred when the ANC ignored Nelson Mandela’s wish for him to be his successor?
Judging from his statements and those who are on his side, Ramaphosa has chosen corruption as a major campaign theme. It is a convenient stick to beat Zuma and his supporters with. Interestingly, Ramaphosa’s competitor, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has opted for the message of radical economic transformation and getting the land back, but is less emphatic on corruption.
So for all his intentions, Zuma’s supporters see Ramaphosa as a lackey for white capitalism. Dlamini-Zuma, on the other hand, is seen as more likely to continue with Zuma’s agenda (whatever that is). Her constant refrain not to be judged on the basis of being Zuma’s ex-wife has not diminished the belief that she is his proxy.
Ramaphosa lobbyists believe he is the favourite to win if court cases and artificial disputes are not used to disrupt the December conference. But it is hard to imagine that Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters will accept him as the new president. The feelings have become hardened over the last few months.
The ANC’s biggest provinces, Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal, are good indicators of what is likely to happen. There is no faction that is prepared to accept the other winning. Court action, disruption and violence will be the order of the day. So when it comes to it, there might be little left for Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma to save, as a substantial part of the party will walk away, regardless of who wins.
Ramaphosa experienced this first-hand when he addressed the Eastern Cape ANC’s conference with only half the delegates there, while the other half continued the conference elsewhere.
When this repeats itself in December, we will remember Motlanthe’s words: the giant liberation movement will have to die first for it to reclaim its rightful status.
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