As the 100th Birthday party of the African National Congress (ANC) finally neared its end on 8th January of this year, the party’s top brass poured champagne and ate cake in front of a stadium of supporters at Bloemfontein. Despite the intense mid-summer heat, the crowd was not even offered water. Even Jacob Zuma, the President of South Africa, appeared to wince as Baleka Mbete, chairwoman of the ANC, raised a glass to toast both him and the party. Other more media-savvy members of the ANC, shuffled to get out of shot. They knew it looked bad.
Earlier, the South African Broadcasting Corporation had not reported that as Zuma had lapped the stadium perimeter, a section of the crowd had given the wheeling hand signal that football managers use to show they want to make a substitution. These were supporters of Julius Malema, the controversial ANC Youth League leader whose populist rhetoric has won him attention and also expulsion from the ANC for bringing the party into disrepute. Malema and his followers had used the hand signal before. In December 2007, his supporters deployed it at the ANC conference to propel the crushing “Zunami” that removed Thabo Mbeki from the ANC presidency. In September 2008 lost the presidency.
The period of 2007-9 was pivotal for the ANC’s history. Old certainties fell away and new uncertainties rose up. Mbeki was present at the Bloemfontein party, showing signs that he was at last emerging from the sulk that followed his undignified ousting. He was the only one of the two living former ANC presidents to participate. The other, Nelson Mandela, was conspicuous by his absence. His last public appearance was when he was wheeled into a chilly Johannesburg night shortly before the start of the Football World Cup final in July 2010, provoking tears of joy from those present.
By then Mandela was already frail, though it did not preclude him from spending an hour or two a day working on his private records with archivists at the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Those loyal archivists were eager to secure his legacy. Although he has chosen to keep his own counsel, Mandela is known to be less concerned about his own legacy and far more deeply concerned about the state of the ANC—an organisation that appears to be falling apart under the sheer weight of its eclectic ideological mix and the internal pressures of its political contradictions. Indeed Mandela must have wondered whether to laugh or cry when he heard that at the first NEC meeting after the botched Bloemfontein celebration, time had been taken to debate how best to deal with public cake-eating in the future. As a metaphor for the state of the nation they liberated, as well as the ANC, there may be no sharper image available. Apparently the ANC wants to have its cake and eat it. An assessment compiled and presented by Mbete in February concluded that in future celebrations “the eating of cake should be made in private, as it does not augur well (sic) to be eating in front of our members and supporters while they are not eating.”
“On one level Mandela can do no wrong”, says Judith February, political analyst at African Democracy Institute Idasa, “his legacy is wrapped in cotton wool. But on another level, he has been rightly criticised—for example, his failure to intervene in the early cases of corruption… And so his legacy is not impregnable to revision as the full consequences of his time as president of the ANC and of the country become clearer.” It was under Mandela’s watch that Mbeki’s own disastrous dalliance with AIDS denialists began, as a consequence of which the ANC government resisted the introduction of anti-retroviral drugs until the constitutional court ordered it to stop being obstructive. Mandela has subsequently expressed his regret at not having stepped in earlier.
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Ronnie Kasrils, who served as a cabinet minister under both Mandela and Mbeki, once explained to me that the ANC has two great traditions: the first is socialist, with a class-based analytical frame of reference; the second, nationalist, with a primarily race-based analytical outlook. The first of these traditions is sometimes described as “Charterist” in reference to the Freedom Charter that was launched in Kliptown in 1955 and which was a statement of core principles of the anti-Apartheid coalition. The Charter was preoccupied with the equal distribution of wealth and power. The second is sometimes described as “Africanist” and is far more concerned with the acquisition of wealth and power by Africans. The primary task of any ANC leader, Kasrils maintained, is to pull the two traditions together and that to do so he said, “every ANC president must have a foot in each camp but rule from the centre.”
From 1967-1991, Oliver Tambo, the President-in-exile of the ANC managed to perform precisely this task, initially from his flat in Muswell Hill in London, and later at the ANC’s headquarters in Lusaka, Zambia. Tambo, a guileful tactician and astute diplomat was a ruthless party disciplinarian, recognising that efficient organisation was crucial in attacking the apartheid regime. That period of history brought with it advantages: an exiled liberation movement had by its very nature to operate secretively and with a strict, military hierarchical structure. And there was one goal, with one enemy. Declared a “crime against humanity” by the United Nations, apartheid was a cruel ideology; its crudeness and self-evident injustice had a unifying effect for its opponents. Differences in ideology and in political outlook within the ANC could be contained with relative ease by reference to the greater goal of defeating Pretoria. All else was secondary. In this way, the nationalist and socialist traditions were housed under the roof of one objective. Once victory over apartheid was secured, the cohering fact of a shared enemy was removed.
An irony is that Mandela’s leadership of the ANC was not only short-lived but also had a modest internal impact. Tambo served for twenty-four years; Albert Luthuli, his predecessor, served for fifteen, from 1952-67. Mbeki was in office from 1997 until 2007. Mandela, in contrast, was ANC president for just six years from 1991—and yet his vast global brand completely overshadows the others. The reason is that, even as president of the ANC, and certainly as president of the republic from 1994-1999, Mandela delegated much of the day-to-day management of the ANC and the government to his deputy, Mbeki. Mandela was consumed by the more public project of promoting national reconciliation, one that he performed with the grace that led to his becoming a global icon. Meanwhile, others were left to deal with the Sisyphian challenge of preserving ANC organisational unity and integrity. Looking at South Africa and the ANC from Britain, or elsewhere, it is perhaps hard to imagine that Mandela could provoke such irritation from amongst his own comrades, but there have been times when Mandela’s acclaim and international adulation has grated with other leaders of the ANC.
When speaking English, Zuma is not a good orator. But in his mother tongue, isiZulu, he is charismatic and engaging, slipping effortlessly into song and dance. This is one of the main reasons that he remains an electoral asset for the ANC despite and why he has attained success despite his many personal flaws and indiscretions which have brought him close to disaster. Back in 2009 he nearly went to prison, and was saved when the national director of prosecutions decided to drop corruption charges. Shortly after, Zuma led the ANC to election victory.
Though Zuma was cleared of corruption, the ANC has not been able to shed the impression of sharp practice. At a University of Cape Town seminar held in April, and entitled “The ANC: Liberation movement or governing party?” Sipho Pityana, a former senior ANC official, asked a further question: “Is the ANC captured?” before launching a scathing attack on the “tenderpreneurs” who use their ANC networks to win lucrative government contracts. “There is a lack of political will to deal with corruption. We have to ask, has the ANC lost moral high ground? And what does it mean to lose it?” Pityana worked for the ANC in London and later served as director-general of the department of labour in the Mandela administration. He is one of the few ANC moderates willing to criticise in public his own party. He is also the founding chair of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution (CASAC) an organisation that was launched in 2010 to mount a defence of the traditional vision of South Africa’s constitution as progressive. CASAC was established to counter a new reactionary threat to constitutional rights posed by Jacob Zuma’s government. During the seminar, Pityana als gave examples of how dubious businessman such as Brett Kebble who took his own life in a so-called “assisted suicide” in 2005 “captured” the ANC youth league with substantial donations—the same youth league that spawned the roguish Julius Malema. In recent litigation, the estate of Kebble has sought to recover millions of Rand that he donated to ANC leaders on the basis that no benefit was given in return. Rather than return the money, in their answering court papers, the ANC initially stated that “in return for the donation, Kebble obtained the benefit of access to political decision-makers and law-makers that would be beneficial to him both directly and indirectly by virtue of its benefits to companies in which he had an interests… so as to promote conditions more favourable for the conduct of his business and those of the companies in which he had an interest.”
Now a leading businessman himself, Pityana also wryly observed that “democracy has undoubtedly been good for business, but the question we need to ask is whether business has been good for democracy.” In a curious attempt to clean up its act, the ANC has in recent years set up a company named Chancellor House that is wholly owned by the ANC and invests in enterprises that do business with government, such as Hitachi’s contract to supply boilers to the Medupi and Kusile power-stations. “Chancellor House,” says Pityana, “is a blatant conflict of interest.” The ANC’s main official fund-raising arm is called the Progressive Business Forum (its website asks “can you afford not to join?”) which is led by two pragmatic Afrikaaners, Reiner Schoeman and Daryl Swanepoel. They are both former members of parliament for the National Party (NP), the former party of apartheid government. Both joined the ANC when the NP was absorbed by the ANC after the 2004 election. Many ANC traditionalists, especially from the community that grew up in exile, are exasperated by what the party has become. They complain in private about the “mongrels and scoundrels that have crossed the floor to contaminate us.” Lawson Naidoo, a director of CASAC, who worked alongside Pityana in London, says that “there are times when I look at the ANC now that I barely recognise the organisation. The ANC has lost not only its organisational discipline but also its principles. Its biggest mistake after 1994 was to abandon its long-held tradition of internal political education. As a result, we became exposed to opportunists who have exploited the ANC to enrich themselves at the expense of the public interest.”
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Corruption now infests the body politic of South Africa and its root causes are often to be found within the ANC. Kgalema Motlanthe the former ANC secretary-general, is now the deputy-president of both the ANC and South Africa and if Zuma’s support should waver in the run up to the ANC’s five-yearly national elective conference in December, he would be favourite to win the presidency. Motlanthe is aware of the corruption problem, commenting in 2005 that “this rot is across the board… almost every government project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC’s problems are occasioned by this”. As secretary-general, Motlanthe delivered a series of reports at national conferences, setting out in staggering detail the nature of the crisis facing the organisation and the threat to its political coherence, administrative competence, financial stability, membership discipline and capacity to mobilise.
The ANC is still grappling with these same problems, due to the disunity and ill-discipline that have been, since the mid-2000s, the organisation’s most obvious public traits, thanks principally to Malema’s efforts. Accordingly, it has published as part of its preparation for its 2012 national conference a document entitled “Organisational Renewal: Building the ANC as a movement for transformation and a strategic centre of power.” Like previous internal discussion documents, it grapples with the role of the ANC at community level in the context of a still “distressed” local government. The analysis unfolds in quasi-Marxist terms—the “motive forces,” the “balance of forces,” are both discussed. In sixty-six pages it essentially says, with commendable honesty, “we’re in a mess and we’ve got to sort it out.”
As the document then points out, “Cumulatively, the socio-economic conditions of the majority create a sense of grievance and social injustice, especially among the urban poor who live side by side with the rich. This also explains why people in urban areas quickly resort to protests, while the same or worse conditions in rural areas do not lead to protests.” Interestingly, on the subject of the growing number of violent protests, the document notes that: “A key and recurring theme arising from our own research and independent surveys is that protests are not against the ANC but are often in its name. Contestation among ANC local leaders, between ANC leaders and their counterparts in the local Alliance structures often sparks the protests. The adverse socio-economic realities affecting communities are used by disgruntled or opportunistic elements within our ranks to outmanoeuvre sitting councillors.”
All of which leads one to ask: is the ANC the solution to South Africa’s current problems, or the cause of them—or both? Speaking at one of CASAC’s first events in early 2011, Frene Ginwala, who was speaker of the first post-Apartheid parliament, lamented the decline in the ANC’s traditional values and conceded that the organisation’s leadership had been “naive” in the 1990s “to not realise that we needed to undertake a project to inculcate new values in our society. It was not enough to include these values in our Constitution, they need to be promoted throughout society.” As president, Mbeki not only tolerated the erosion of ANC integrity, but encouraged it in his pursuit of the policy known as Black Economic Empowerment (BEE). In many ways an enigmatic man, Mbeki was an nevertheless an archetypal ANC leader in that he conformed to Kasrils’s “rule” of having a foot in both the nationalist and the socialist camps. Mbeki’s weekly Friday “Letter from the president” on the ANC website provided an extraordinary glimpse into his thinking. Tapped on his own laptop late on a Wednesday night, often it is said with a large whisky by his side, Mbeki would invariably rail against “global apartheid” and the structural inequities of market capitalism, while in daylight hours he promoted the swift rise of a small group of black millionaires as a key strategy in what he termed a “two stage revolution.” Under Zuma that model of BEE has been abandoned in favour of BBBEE—Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment, though the shift has done little to assuage those wannabe millionaires who missed out on the Mbeki “revolution,” providing fertile ground for Malema to call for “economic freedom” and the nationalisation of the mines. The ANC’s long-time coalition partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the influential union federation, COSATU, both disagreed with Malema’s suggestions.
Unlike Mbeki, Zuma provides no weekly insights into his thinking. In fact, hiding as he does behind ANC policy documents, there is not a single speech or article in which he has shed any real light on his political philosophy. Zuma is an ideology-free zone. And professionally speaking, he is a spy, who pre-1994 ran the ANC’s intelligence operations. While intellectually Mbeki and Zuma are chalk and cheese, they have a common instinct for political control, derived from the time when the ANC was a banned organisation. It informs their approach to power and to the control of information and state institutions. It also raises profound questions about whether with such leaders at the helm the ANC can avoid clipping the democratic wings of South African society. It is currently threatening to do so with an ill-judged Protection of State Information Bill, known as the “Secrecy Bill,” that could be used to cover up corruption and arrest and imprison government whistleblowers and journalists who receive classified documents.
What Zuma lacks in formal education he makes up for in guile. But unlike Mbeki, he does not attract sufficient respect across the full spectrum of the ANC. Many moderates, and especially the Mbekite exiles, are contemptuous of Zuma and his rustic ways. They regard him as a country bumpkin whose traditional ways, polygamy included, fly in the face of the modern constitutional order that Mbeki sought. The Traditional Courts Bill that was recently tabled in parliament is cited as a prime example of this trend. The Bill would give remarkable powers to traditional (tribal) leaders, including the power to order their subjects to work for them for free. Long a thorn in the ANC’s side, director of the newly formed Citizens Movement for Social Change, Mamphela Ramphele, describes the Bill as “positively medieval; it treats citizens as subjects and essentially makes servitude lawful.”
Zuma’s approach to coping with the ANC’s broad political church is not to pull the far reaches of the right and the left to the centre, but to simply raise the sides of the tent to allow more space for everyone. It is not a strategy that is working or that is likely to succeed. His cabinet is effectively a coalition government, with representatives of the SACP and COSATU sitting alongside social conservatives from the nationalist right of the ANC. Ngoako Ramathlodi, the deputy minister of correctional services, is one of a number of nationalist ANC politicians who have blamed the Constitution for the lack of progress in transforming South Africa. He has described the adoption of the new Constitution as “a grand and total strategy to entrench… white economic interests.” As a leftist government minister recently told me “we are now having to respond to the fact that while Zuma has given us the power that Mbeki denied us, he has also created space for the right of the ANC to exploit.” The ANC was never only a progressive revolutionary movement and to suggest so was to apply a one-dimensional analysis. That was just one part of its political make-up. The fundamental weakness of Zuma’s leadership is that it appears to be failing to control, still less reconcile, the contradictory political impulses within his party.
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The most important part of the current narrative of the ANC is the rise of the right within it. Malema was but one symptom of it. He has now been expelled, but those who backed him are still around and yearn for more access to power. Their time may yet come and 2017 is the year when the ANC may face its own major fork in the road. Speaking at the UCT seminar, one of South Africa’s most dynamic analysts, Eusebius McKaiser, remarked on the “fascinating levels of paranoia,” within the ANC leadership, and then added “one wonders what the paranoia will be when it drags to beneath 60 per cent of the vote.” Will that happen? Or will the ANC rule until Jesus comes, as Zuma suggested during last year’s local government election campaign? In that election, the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) not only won Cape Town for the first time with a decisive majority, but threatened to compete with the ANC in three other metropolitan councils. For the very first time, the DA won votes in entirely black working class areas; in the new yuppie suburbs of Johannesburg, where younger, aspirant black professionals who advanced during the Mbeki years now live, the vote was evenly split, with many such voters disenchanted with Zuma. For the first time, there was evidence of a new class of swing voters: black voters who might vote for the ANC or vote against it, depending on the quality of its leadership.
In 2016, there is a distinct possibility that the ANC could lose its majority in four more of the six biggest cities. How will it react? Perhaps it will raise its game in the face of greater competition; to last a century, the ANC has had to regenerate itself on many previous occasions. Or perhaps it will succumb to anti-democratic tendencies, as it strives to hang on to power. Many people will have a great deal to lose if the ANC ceases to be the gateway to personal enrichment. Hence, the ANC’s choice of party leader going into the 2019 general election will be crucial making its 2017 national conference all the more significant. An even greater populist than Zuma could win then, in which case all bets will be off; South Africa could, as Mbeki’s political economist brother Moeletsi Mbeki has suggested, face its “Arab spring moment,” as the ANC is compelled to make more and more reckless and implausible promises to an angry generation of unemployed working class young people whose links with the ANC liberation movement are tenuous and whose loyalty can no longer be taken for granted.
At that point even Mandela’s legacy—of national reconciliation based on firm political principles and a commitment to constitutional democracy—might be under threat, undermined by his own organisation. Quoting Yeats, Thabo Mbeki was fond of asking “will the centre hold?” It was assumed that this question was directed at his country—but really the question was being asked of his own party. Despite the DA’s electoral progress, the democratic future of South Africa depends on the ANC’s commitment to constitutional democracy. Though there have been many advances since 1994, 57 per cent of people in South Africa do not have sanitation; unemployment is officially 23 per cent, unofficially around 40 per cent; the state of public schools and hospitals remains dismal. Though its pampered middle classes will not readily recognise or understand this point, the stability of South Africa depends greatly on the ANC’s ability to absorb these intense socio-economic pressures and inequalities. If the ANC’s own stability and capacity to play that role weakens much further then, to deploy Yeats myself, “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.
Read more: Justice Malala on the threatened legacy of the ANC