The ANC cannot afford another Polokwane

As factional fighting intensifies in the ANC over who will emerge victorious in December, CAIPHUS KGOSANA warns that another vicious, winner-takes-all contest could decimate the party 

In 2007, the political battle between then ANC president Thabo Mbeki and his party deputy Jacob Zuma reached a dangerous stalemate. Branches, regions, provinces and the national executive committee of the ANC were split along factional lines.

Those that supported Mbeki remained steadfast, while those that threw in their lot with Zuma refused to back down. Leaders of the ANC and ordinary members insulted each other in public and private platforms, alliance partners chose sides and joined factional battles. There were very few voices of reason willing to stand up and preach unity.

One rainy afternoon in December 2007, inside a marquee erected on an open field at the University of Limpopo’s Turfloop campus, the party’s Secretary-General Kgalema Motlanthe presented his organisational report. Motlanthe might have been running on the Zuma ticket as Deputy President, but on that afternoon he laid bare everything that was wrong with the organisation at the time.

“The question that we must answer is where is the ANC?

“The ANC is not, has never been and will never be a faction. When elected leaders at the highest level openly engage in factionalist activity, where is the movement that aims to unite the people of South Africa for the complete liberation of the country from all forms of discrimination and national oppression?

“When money changes hands in the battle for personal power and aggrandizement, where is the movement that is built around a membership that joins without motives of material advantage and personal gain?

“When the members of the NEC themselves engage in factionalist activity, media leaks and rumour mongering, how can we expect the membership of our movement to carry out their duties to observe discipline, behave honestly and carry out loyally the decision of the majority and the decision of higher bodies?

“When lists favoured by a chosen grouping are rammed down the throats of branches, without the benefit of political discussion, where is the ANC?” Motlanthe rightly asked the 4 000 plus delegates as they listened attentively.

These were indeed pertinent questions at the time. Elected leaders of the movement were engaging in some of the worst form of factionalist activity. They took to podiums to denounce those that disagreed with their leadership choices. Who can forget Mosiua “Terror” Lekota telling SASCO aligned students that Zuma – with whom he served in the top six as chairperson – ‘akabhadlanga’? (he is not right in the head).

Money was indeed changing hands in the battle for personal power. That year, complaints mounted in Motlanthe’s office about how branches of the ANC were being offered bags of cash to vote for a particular outcome. Government tenders, lucrative shares and cushy jobs were exchanged in return for supporting the right candidate.

The NEC became the hotbed of factional fights. Stories would be leaked to Sunday papers about running battles between ANC members supporting different factions in a bid to hold sway in the party’s highest decision making structure between conferences. This was the ultimate battle of the soul of the ANC and nothing was going to stand in the way of factions vying for victory.

Ten years later, history seems to be repeating itself in the most farcical way. The ANC is by all accounts headed to a bruising leadership contest once more. This time, party Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is pitted against veteran NEC member and former African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Those who back Ramaphosa argue that it is ANC tradition for the Deputy President to succeed the President, while Dlamini-Zuma’s supporters say it is time for a woman President to lead the oldest political organisation in Africa.

Although the ANC has cautioned against leaders opening the succession race prematurely, it is evident that these two are firmly on the campaign trail. Ramaphosa has been criss-crossing the country tacitly seeking endorsement for his campaign. Last month he unofficially opened his campaign when addressing a memorial lecture in honour of the late SACP leader Chris Hani in Uitenhage in the Eastern Cape.

Dlamini-Zuma has also not been resting. Her supporters have been taking her to various churches and gatherings around the country, and at almost every one of these, there is an endorsement from structures that have expressed their support for her campaign to succeed Zuma. Even the President himself has taken her under his wing, declaring on various platforms his preference for a woman President to take over.

The stakes are again high. Branches, regions, provinces, the NEC and even the top six are split in the middle. As can be expected when factional fighting takes hold, comrade is turning on comrade, and unity is sacrificed once more at the altar of political brinkmanship where the victors claim all the spoils. The ANC’s alliance partners are openly rooting for Ramaphosa, going as far as to demand that Zuma step down. The ANC Youth League, Women’s League and the MKMVA will have none of it, and are endorsing Dlaimini-Zuma.  It’s another stalemate.

But can the ANC afford another Polokwane?

When the ANC came back from Polokwane, it experienced its first breakaway in the form of the Congress of the People (Cope) spearheaded by Lekota. The breakaway party won 8% of the votes in 2009 and entered Parliament with 30 MPs – almost all former ANC members. The emergence of Cope in the National Assembly cost the ANC its two-thirds majority, but it remained the dominant party in Parliament.

Ironically, an ANC-type battle for leadership between Lekota and his erstwhile comrade, Mbhazima Shilowa, saw Cope press the self destruct button in just a few years. At around the same period that Cope started imploding, outspoken ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema had a fallout with the ANC leadership and was eventually expelled from the party. He formed the radical Economic Freedom Fighters and contested the 2014 national and provincial elections, winning 25 seats in the National Assembly. He effectively replaced Cope which came back with just three seats.

Malema and the EFF has proven to be a bigger thorn on the side of the ANC than Cope, not just because of their abrasive approach in Parliament, but their impressive mobilisation of the disaffected youth vote. It is this vote that they used so effectively in August 2016 to sway the key metros of Joburg and Tshwane in favour of the Democratic Alliance.

This time around it is the SACP that is making noises about going it alone in future elections. If this were to happen, observers predict that the party could get about 4% or 5% of the national vote. That might sound negligible, but that 5% will most certainly come from traditional ANC support base. Given that the ruling party’s support nationally was reduced to 54% in the local government elections, another split and a concerted push by the opposition to consolidate the born free vote, the undecided and protest vote; could finally bring the ANC below the dreaded 50% mark. The opposition would rejoice as it would most certainly govern the country through a coalition.

If the ANC wants to preserve itself, then sober politics must emerge in the run-up to the policy and national conferences. A compromise must be found through which both Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma can run on the same ticket, with one sacrificing the top seat in favour of the survival of the party. The rest of the top six positions and NEC seats can be divided equally amongst both factions.

This is the most viable and most practical solution for keeping the ANC intact, otherwise it could face further declines at the polls which could expedite its loss of power and ultimate extinction. 

 Kgosana edits RealPolitik 

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