ANC NGC: is a witch hunt by any other name still revolutionary discipline?

By Stephen Grootes 23 September 2010

The good news is that ANC members are clearly sick and tired of hooligans and their puppet masters who campaign through disruption, and influence by blackmail. The bad news is that the pendulum will now swing to the other side. Don’t get too used to the frankness with which the likes of Zwelinzima Vavi speak of corrupt officials and internal problems, because those days are nearly over. By STEPHEN GROOTES and PHILLIP DE WET.

Every big ANC event has its own pressing issue, the single issue that comes to dominate and flavour all the proceedings, and influences the nature of the party – and the direction of the country – long after the delegates have gone home.

Sometimes it’s easy to read; Polokwane was a coup, with loud music, anger and delegates waving football’s substitute motion at high revolutions. The jingoism lingered afterwards, partially paralysing the party and the government, sowing the seeds from which Cope grew, and leaving everyone paranoid about top-echelon divisions. One result was a slow start for the Zuma administration, which arguably contributed to anger and subsequent service-delivery protests.

At the national general council in Durban this week, things are a lot quieter, and a lot steelier. There is determination in the body language, that certain glint in the eye of many. If this is the start of a palace coup against Zuma, it is one very unlike what we’ve come to expect from the ANC.

Whatever some leaders may hope to achieve, for the members (who theoretically run the party in every sense except the day-to-day) it’s all about discipline. They are angry at what has been happening within their party, from the infighting that crippled it in the Western Cape to the politicking that turned the Youth League and its parent body into foes. They know things are going wrong, and they want it to bloody well stop.

That puts a great deal of pressure on leaders, as Tony Yengeni bluntly admitted on Wednesday. In closed-door sessions leaders had been criticised, forcefully, for not acting swiftly enough against “acts of ill-discipline”, he said, in discussions that had been coming up in every commission, regardless of its stated purpose. Members had demanded that leaders act “swiftly, decisively, but to act on anybody, whoever he or she is, as long as that person is a member of the African National Congress the code of conduct must apply to everybody equally.”

There are a couple of ways to interpret that. One is that the anger is directed at Julius Malema, who has increasingly been launching not-so-thinly-veiled attacks at the ANC proper and its leaders. Or the cause could be Zwelinzima Vavi, who was very nearly (but ultimately not) subjected to party discipline for his comments about corrupt ANC leaders; remember that he is also an ANC member, on top of leading Cosatu. Or, especially for delegations from provinces like Mpumalanga or the Eastern Cape, the beef could be with local leaders who have no qualms in using dirty lobbying campaigns to secure themselves mid-level positions.

The truth is probably a little bit of all of those. Different bad apples are pissing off different people, but the injustice in some getting away with murder and others getting a slap on the wrist is what really has them fuming.

ANC leaders are nothing if not sensitive to such sentiments, and you can be sure they’ll be alternating between skirting around them and exploiting them, competing to be the bigger champion of the ordinary member cause. And you can look to medieval Europe or early American colonies for proof of what happens when the pressure to be more pious than your neighbour starts to mount.

The first phase is a sudden outbreak of public commitments to being disciplined and policing indiscipline, which is where we are now. Next comes small infractions being pounced on big time, with harsh treatment of anyone who can be plausibly accused of a misdeed. Those who should, by rights, be speaking out about the abuses censor themselves in fear of being next, leaving the more principled individuals with a difficult choice: swallow and shut up, or become the obvious next target.

After the wild days of Nelson Mandela, when the organisation was undergoing radical changes in becoming a political party, the ANC settled down nicely under Thabo Mbeki. So much so that, for example, even a murderous anti-anti-retroviral policy didn’t have other party leaders stand up to Mbeki and damn the consequences. The Zuma coup ushered into another wild era, with internal democracy running rampant and the newly victorious, high on their achievement, speaking their minds freely.

We believe Zuma would like to see a return to the earlier days of the Mbeki era, when criticism still came, but never in public. We believe he is on the brink of seeing that achieved, albeit more by accident than by design. We’re also pretty sure that is particularly bad for the likes of Vavi, who have almost as much to lose by retreating from their positions now as they risk by going against popular sentiment. DM

Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.

Photo: The ANC delegates at the Polokwane conference. (The Daily Maverick)


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