A Question of Leadership

2014-05-12 16:07

Now that the election is over, South Africans face the prospect of a markedly new political culture. A smaller ANC, growing DA and emergent EFF will, over the next 5 years, come to dominate the public discourse on the issues of the day. That is apposite to their size in Parliament, reflective of the support that they enjoy in the country. Each of these parties face their own unique challenges. What is certain, however, is that if they do not start addressing those issues today the 2016 and 2019 election already threatens to run away from them. As most politicians will attest, you win elections between elections. In order to do so, it is important to examine the leadership challenges each of these parties need to overcome so as to try and understand what will happen in the run-up to the next electoral cycle.


For the ANC, then, Jacob Zuma’s continued leadership of the party, and the country, proves to be the most challenging. Since his ascension to the Presidency, the ANC has been beleaguered by his personal scandals which have come to dominate not only the party but the government machinery too. One of the inadvertent consequences of blurring the separation between party and state is that the latter’s credibility can do very little to rescue the former. Despite the objectively commendable progress that the state has made in rolling back the pernicious effects of Apartheid, under the ANC, it is the ANC’s internal issues that overshadow any good performance that it has to its name. Nkandla and the lengths to which the ANC has gone to defend it – and by extension, Jacob Zuma – has not only been voting manna for the opposition: it has disillusioned many within the ANC too.

That explains why, to some extent, Zuma was largely out of the spotlight during the ANC’s campaign. Not only would he be an easy target from the outside, there are many on the inside who faced difficulty in campaigning for ‘him.’  It also explains why the ANC cleverly delineated the party from Zuma personally. For example, by running the ‘I Am ANC’ message, the party managed to create a sense of personal ownership, connection and history between it and the voters. The merit in this is clear: the ANC relied on its own credibility to try and quell the rebellion it faced at the ballot box because of Zuma’s actions that had rattled its own base. And it worked – to an extent. What is clear though is that for as long as Zuma remains at the helm, supported by a far-reaching and powerful group of patronage appointees, the ANC’s ability to campaign for a better tomorrow – as opposed to a better yesterday – is severely limited.

But, Zuma is not going to be around for much longer. And replacing him is not as easy as it may seems. Nor does it necessarily get rid of all the problems that the ANC presently faces. Zuma has himself said that he will be retiring from the ANC and state presidency in due course. He has no intention of seeking a third ANC term and is unable to do so for the country in terms of our Constitution. But, given the personal interest he has in ensuring that whomever replaces him will continue to protect him once he is out of office, it is likely that he will play a significant role to influence who the next president is. It may not be to protect his legacy as much as it will be to protect himself.

Because the obvious choice that any new ANC president faces is clear: in order to rescue a dwindling organisation that is getting tired – both as a source of intellectual strength and good governance – the easiest thing to do would be to hang Zuma out to dry. It would be an immediate boon to the ANC’s ebbing credibility and any person brave enough to do that would undoubtedly ride high upon a wave of public support.  Zuma and his allies must be consciously aware of that. Given that many of his allies are also implicated in the Nkandla scandal, among others, they too have a vested interest in determining who the next president is.

That is why the manoeuvrings within the ruling party to replace Zuma will be particularly worthy of noting. While it is assumed that Ramaphosa will be the next ANC and South African President it is not a certainty. He may have proven to be a useful addition to the pro-Zuma ticket at Mangaung but his seeming reluctance to give unwavering loyalty to Zuma – in light of his own ambitions – may explain why the rumour mill is working overtime suggesting that Baleka Mbete and a few other more predictable Zuma allies will have an enhanced role to play in the new government. Ramaphosa faces a difficult balancing act: he must be loyal enough to survive but not so loyal that he cannot be thought of as being independent. While he may have been well regarded as a skilled negotiator during the transition, his skill and prowess has yet to be seen when matched against Number 1.

Further to this, whomever manages to build a successful coalition to assume the leadership will also face their own internal challenges at managing a diverse grouping with their own demands. As Zuma’s first term illustrated, coalition partners cobbled together for the sake of winning internal elections then demand payment at a later stage. The acrimonious split with NUMSA, and within COSATU more generally, shows how these tensions – if they go unattended – not only threaten the internal dynamics of the alliance but can also threaten the ANC’s status as the ruling party too. Especially with the emergence of the EFF on the left the ANC’s guaranteed support of the unions is no longer as watertight as it once was. Not since Thabo Mbeki’s administration – which decapitated unions, civil society and internal critics – have we witnessed such an open and sustained assault on the ANC President.

The ANC can, theoretically, silence many of its critics by governing better. However, that is unlikely. For the ANC has, by-and-large, been paralysed by internal factionalism and position jockeying. Its own political popularity will be its undoing: as more careerist politicians view the ANC as a means of personal wealth and power accumulation, rather than as a party to serve the people, it will turn its focus inwards and do so to the detriment of the voters. While it may be a long yet while for the ANC to be ejected from office, the series of scandals that are, of late, becoming more synonymous with the party will only increase as the number of internal disputes grow. The ANC has some very clever people at the top who are not policy or intellectual lightweights. But, as is clear, even the cleverest of people can be reduced to state of incompetence when what consumes the organisation’s energy is not getting things done but fighting to maintain one’s own turf. It will take true leadership to turn the ANC’s fortunes around. And we should all care about that given that while it is in government its crises become ours too.

The DA

The DA is in a slightly more interesting position. Indeed, its leader, Helen Zille, is the only political leader (other than Tony Leon and Thabo Mbeki) who can, at present, show demonstrable and sustainable growth during her tenure. While much of the initial success is arguably attributable to Leon’s repositioning of the DA, the supersonic way in which that has been accelerated under Zille cannot be ignored as the cause for the party’s recent growth. Zille’s project has, electorally, proven successful but it has come at a certain cost: the party, on her watch, has made some calamitous errors. The BBBEE debacle and the Mamphela Ramphele fiasco immediately come to mind. They isolated the very target that Zille so prizes: increasing numbers of black voters. Despite these incidents, a couple of unfortunate tweets and personal run-ins with journalists, Zille’s position is more or less secured. While she faces some internal opposition within the party – as is to be expected – she well and truly dominates the DA.

But therein lies the problem. Zille was elected to lead the party in 2007. She has been party leader for 7 years now. The question that many are asking is how much longer can she last? Some asking the question may be motivated by their own desire to replace her. Others know that the longer a political party leader remains in office the more dangers present themselves. Not necessarily because of the leader’s lack of skill to continue in that job but because of the sheer presence they maintain while in office and out. John Major’s struggle to dominate the Conservative Party after succeeding Margaret Thatcher is testament to that. The shadow Thatcher cast over Major’s leadership did to the Tories what is presently happening to the ANC: it made the party hold on to a better yesterday where any incumbent faces comparison to a fondly nostalgic through completely unrealistic standard. And, as happened with the Tories, they were destroyed electorally and were only able to partially recover 13 years later. Zille’s successor possibly faces the same daunting task. Zille, of course, managed to avoid the happening to her for two reasons: (1) Tony Leon had been so caricatured by the time he left anything different to him would be welcomed; and (2) Zille physically changed the DA’s branding to something which only she was associated. David Cameron attempted something similar with the Tories, as did New Labour under Blair. Whether Zille’s successor would be able to do that considering the brand loyalty the DA has now developed is questionable.

Another interesting facet of the DA’s leadership, especially with respect to Zille’s replacement, is the leadership election that won’t take place. Gareth Van Onselen, who has penned a remarkable attack on the DA and Zille, had long suggested that Mmusi Maimane would, after the election, abandon the voters of Gauteng and take up a seat in the National Assembly. So Van Onselen’s thesis went, Maimane would then use that as the basis to challenge Mazibuko for the parliamentary leadership and, assuming he won, use that as the platform to replace Zille. Van Onselen suggests that the breakdown in the relationship between Zille and Mazibuko is what convinced Zille to switch allegiances from Mazibuko to Maimane, the former being too independent and the latter being suitably malleable because of his ambition.  Whatever the truth is – and in her own words Mazibuko has suggested that Van Onselen is wrong – the party will be weaker for it.

Firstly, open competition lends itself to better ideas and policies as opponents seek to outdo each other. This is especially relevant where the competitors have different understandings on issues. It would have been excellent for Mazibuko and Maimane to debate, among others, race realism and liberalism, for example. Not only would it have revealed so much about themselves but it would have also revealed what they believe the trajectory for the party should be. A clear policy difference, if it exists, would have been welcomed.

Secondly, this would have been the first significant internal election, at a national level, where two black leaders from the DA went head-to-head. Some may say that this already happened at the party’s Federal Congress, that election is nowhere near as intense and prominent as this one: the winner here would have become Leader of the Opposition. It would have spoken volumes to all the DA’s race critics: the party has its own black leaders that are no one’s puppets but rather fully-fledged members, equal to others, with agency and ambition.

One of the many problems the faced New Labour was the internecine warfare that was waged between the Blairites and the Brownites. The former thought Gordon Brown disloyal while the latter thought Tony Blair undeserving. All because rather than tough it out, as a result of being unsure who would win, they created a pact and averted conflict altogether. While this may not be the case that faces Maimane if he becomes the Parliamentary Leader – he won’t have to deal with Mazibuko’s presence in the caucus – her allies and her legacy will remain.

While there may not be anyone for those loyal to Mazibuko to immediately coalesce around to stand up to Maimane’s seeming juggernaut, it would be foolish to pretend that they will go quietly. That is especially the case if half of what Van Onselen suggests is true. And, ironically, this also hurts Maimane. The more he gets an easy ride into leadership the more he will be thought of as Zille’s puppet. Victory for him, then, over Mazibuko, would have been the best thing for him to attain: it would have silenced his critics in the DA and outside of it.


Julius Malema is in the most intriguing position of the lot. Although we know much of him, we know nothing of him as a party leader and parliamentarian. His new party has, much like COPE did 5 years before, made a great entry into politics. However, it remains to be seen whether his and the EFF’s brand of personality politics will be sustainable. Much like COPE, which was founded after those loyal to ousted President Thabo Mbeki left the ANC, the EFF was founded in the heat of the battle between Zuma and Malema. If anything, the COPE example should be at the forefront of the EFF’s mind as it continues its journey; lest they want to end up eating their red berets at the next election.

Malema faces no real internal opposition and if his behaviour at the EFF’s rallies is anything to go by, he truly enjoys his title of Commander-in-Chief. Indeed, the entire EFF project is fashioned in his vignette as a revolutionary freedom fighter and barring an adverse finding against him in the tax court he will be a person to watch. It would be foolish to undermine him and the role he will come to play in determining policy responses of the ANC. The more he squeezes the party from the left, the more likely they are to drift in that direction in an effort to outflank the ill-feelings that those disenchanted with the ANC have.

But, like with COPE, the dominance of a single leader is dangerous. Not only does it make them prone to behaving erratically and in a politically divisive way, it also incentivises them to keep fighting internal turf wars to ensure their own predominance. Not many people like giving up the throne once they have sat in it and everything shows that Malema is no different. With his coterie at the top, the more the EFF grows and the more it strengthens organisationally, the more likely it is that diverse and differing opinions will emerge. Whether the EFF welcomes such dialogue or disavows it, will remain to be seen. If his leadership of the ANCYL is anything to go by, it is unlikely that Malema will welcome any opposition to him. The serious questions that raises for the EFF’s internal democracy – and what role it will play in South Africa, by extension – remains to be seen. If Malema’s leadership proves to be harmful to the EFF, one wonders whether his friends that dominate the organisation will stand up to him. To fail to do so will be weak and threaten to kill the party. To do the opposite would require the kind of discipline and stature none of them demonstrated after they were ejected.


By far the most important measure in a political party is leadership. Leaders tend to dominate their organisations and are crucial in determining its strategic objectives. Leaders are also an embodiment of what the party stands for. The image of the leader in their personal capacity and their political role is inseparable. South Africa’s polity may be healthy in that we have held our fifth election that was largely free and fair. But in terms of leadership significant questions remain. And that’s a challenge facing all parties and one we must keenly watch to see how they respond.

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