Closed leadership contests will kill the ANC, and they daren't change the system
The ANC silences whistleblowers, and not in a nice way. It also refuses to let open leadership campaigns happen. The reason is the same, and it is a frightening one. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.
July 11, 1963 is a critical day in the history of the African National Congress and the fight against Apartheid. On that day, a number of senior party leaders were arrested at Liliesleaf Farm in Rivonia – and a serious blow was dealt to the anti-Apartheid movement.
If you go to Liliesleaf Farm today (now ensconced in genteel suburbia) you will find the story of what happened on that day. The inscription says: “On the afternoon of the 11th July, 1963, a dry-cleaning and flower van drove down the dusty farm drive way and stopped just past the Manor and slightly back from the Thatched Cottage. Someone in the Thatched Cottage had just opened the thatched cottage door and noticed the vans. As he was about to ask one of the farm labourers about the vehicles, armed policemen burst out of the vans, and from that moment, the word 'Rivonia' became synonymous around the world with the silencing of resistance in South Africa. In the thatched cottage, the police had found a number of senior leaders of the resistance, as well as the document outlining Operation Mayibuye (a plan drafted by Govan Mbeki and Joe Slovo to overthrow the apartheid government), the resistance movement’s plan for guerrilla warfare in South Africa. All the men were arrested. The police raid on Liliesleaf Farm on July 11th, 1963 was critical. The arrest of so many senior ANC leaders was a major blow to the movement and the struggle for liberation. However, the subsequent trial, which became known to the world as the Rivonia Trial, finally focused world scrutiny on South Africa and its oppressive regime.”
The incident shows why the ANC has always had paranoia about its leaders. Being the top dog in the party during the 80 or so years when it fought against apartheid could oftentimes be extremely dangerous. In truth, the organisation did not exist as a political party so much as it did as a collection of guerrilla fighters, communists, leftist intellectuals and community organisers, all hell-bent on destroying one of the cruellest modern political systems ever devised.
There was good reason, back then, not to hold open elections for leaders. In fact, the concept of “running for president” or any other position was entirely foreign – in the same way that an army might blanch at the thought of the soldiers electing their general. ANC leaders were chosen for their specific qualities – when Oliver Tambo was selected to lead the organisation after the death of Albert Luthuli it was because he was deemed to be the most able to lead the party as it changed from local resistance to global influence. His ascension to his new role was not announced with rooftop shouts and brass bands. In February 1990, the ANC was unbanned – and in 1991 Nelson Mandela became the president of the party in much the same way that Tambo did. There was no open contestation. That tradition has been unbroken, officially, since then.
But does it serve the ANC, and South Africa, well today? We’ve asked this before, many times, and so have many other media commentators and analysts. The difference is that today the ANC is a legitimate and governing political party that contests elections on the local, provincial and national government level. The prize of winning such positions is usually very lustrous: it is power, and also a lot of personal gratification. Whereas the party was once very united in purpose (the destruction of the apartheid apparatus), what motivates each individual member is very different today.
There are numerous signs coming from every direction that the secret election campaign system is stifling the party rather than preserving its tradition. From fake death threats to hilariously polite public battles, the ANC’s factions are having a go at each other, and the silent sword that hangs over every member only serves to breed resentment.
Many ANC leaders are getting killed, and it looks like their deaths are politically motivated. Bushbuckridge mayor Caswell Maluleke was shot 14 times in April 2000. He had been appointed to help re-establish the destroyed Bohlabela District Municipality in Limpopo. In 2009, Mbombela speaker Jimmy Mohlala was killed after he started speaking out against tender corruption around the construction of the World Cup stadium in that city. In 2011, Ehlanzeni chief whip John Ndlovu was murdered.
The habit of ignoring whistleblowers who come from within the system is well established within the party. Last week, the killers of Rustenburg councillor Moss Phakoe – the former mayor of the city, Matthew Wolmarans, and his bodyguard, Enoch Matshaba, were handed lengthy prison sentences. Phakoe was killed for trying to alert Luthuli House to the corruption that was going on in Rustenburg. In a bid to quash the troublesome councillor, his own mayor had him killed. It was not because of the quick actions of the top ANC leadership that Wolmarans and Matshaba faced the full brunt of the law. It was thanks to the tireless efforts of Cosatu’s Alfred Motsi that Phakoe’s killers are now in jail.
In an interview with Pretoria News, Motsi said he and Phakoe had tried in vain to raise the matter with ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe. “We had meetings with ANC structures in the province, went to individual ANC bigwigs, including Mantashe, senior party leaders Siphiwe Nyanda and Billy Masetlha, among others, but no action was ever taken. In the end we managed to get President Zuma’s attention,” Motsi said.
His dire words echo those of the Limpopo textbook crisis whistleblower Solly Tshitangano. The former basic education department financial manager is now in a battle to save his career after he was turfed out by his bosses. He also laments the lack of support from the top government officials.
Could this macabre refusal to act against fellow party members be a hangover from the old system, where trench comrades were to be protected at all times? Is this a symptom of a party refusing to adapt to its new circumstances?
And the ANC's alliance partners are not immune to secrecy and threats of violence. On Tuesday, the Gauteng wing of the Young Communist League sent out a press release asserting that some of its members were being intimidated for “our programme of taking responsibility for the national democratic revolution and advance the struggle for socialism”. Head of organising and secretariat Maria Mochaka was kidnapped for ten hours, the release said. It wasn’t made clear why this titbit was mentioned, or if it had anything to do with the supposed death threats. A phone call to communist party officials (who asked not to be named) put a weird slant on the release – the Gauteng YCL may be playing up the whole thing to buff their own importance. This is a weird ecosystem, where being threatened is a sign of political importance.
A few weeks ago, on the eve of the first day at the communist party congress, metalworkers’ union boss Irvin Jim also complained of being trapped in a situation involving heavily armed men, which he and his colleagues happily interpreted as naked intimidation. “Who knows where this group that intimidated him came from? Numsa's call for the nationalisation of mines is a call that makes all types of people angry. Some right-wing organisations might want to take the situation into their own hands,” the union’s president Cedric Gina said.
The common thread through all of this is stifling secrecy – the same attitude that regards ANC whistleblowers with rank suspicion also prevents openly contested leadership races. The idea is noble enough. The party wants to present a united front to the public, but this particular façade was blown to bits long ago. These days, you will be hard pressed to find a party leader who will deny that factions exist within the party. Yet differences between factions are expected to be ironed out in private.
At the same time, the prize (the trappings of power) are very public. No wonder the resentment often boils over. A few days ago party veteran Winnie Madikizela-Mandela criticised the party for its arrogance. Deputy communications minister Stella Ndabeni reportedly took to Facebook to criticise Madikizela-Mandela, which prompted a response from ANC Youth League spin doctor Magdalene Moonsamy in the Mail & Guardian.
Let’s not forget the bizarre sight of the ANC trying to quell a very public uprising by the youth league via the very effective medium of the whingeing press release.
The signs are there for all to see. So why won’t the ANC free its members to openly discuss leadership and campaign for their preferred candidates?
The answer could lie in the knowledge of Luthuli House that they dare not open up the debate, lest the public finally realise that the arguments are almost never about policy, but almost always about people. At the party’s policy conference, the leaders who faced the press always spoke about robust debate amidst unity, yet the flood of leaks from the plenary sessions told a different story. People were about personalities, not policy. The idea that the uppermost consideration ought to be what is good for the country was far from minds. And if the ANC allowed this sort of thing to happen out there for all to see, we would all quickly cotton on to the fact that the much-vaunted unity is a lie.
It is for the same reason that the party can never do away with cadre deployment. It is the final glue of unity remaining. It is far better for the party members to be united in keeping power (even if it means deadly internal battles) than it is to dissipate it by holding it outside of the party. Without power, the ANC would resemble Cope – a party in name only.
So we cannot expect the ruling party to do away with secret elections, as much as it needs to. The question now is: how long will it be before the factional resentment reaches such an intensity that the party will have to keep things quiet for fear of open civil war between warring factions? DM
- The ANC looks in the mirror, sees its war with itself in Daily Maverick