South Africa

United We Fall: The great farce of unity in the ANC

By Ranjeni Munusamy 10 November 2015

If there is one thing you can bet on after every major political meeting or conference in the ANC and the alliance, it is a declaration of 'unity' at the end of it. Whether it was the great battle of Polokwane in 2007 or the fiery Cosatu central executive committee that expelled its biggest affiliate Numsa or the past weekend’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial conference that saw warring factions go head-to-head, the outcome is always a pledge of enduring unity. While the ANC and its partners require unity to maintain dominance in South African politics, it is becoming somewhat of a pretence. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

In his now memorable speech at the KwaZulu-Natal provincial conference, President Jacob Zuma set off in his usual way to preach unity and discipline from the delegates.

“It is undisputable that unity and discipline combined constitute the cornerstone on which our movement was founded and sustained for more than one hundred and three years. It is unity and discipline which made us overcome the enemy in the past and which is all the more necessary now when confronted with a hidden enemy whose only aim is to perpetually keep our people in conditions of unemployment, poverty and inequality.

“We need to jealously guard the unity of the ANC and not do anything to compromise it,” Zuma said.

That was, of course, before he undermined his own message by attacking former ANC leaders. Zuma’s tirade was not aimed at general critics of the ANC but against people who went up against him previously in ANC battles and for leadership of the party. Reverend Frank Chikane, who was one of the targets of Zuma’s fury, was former president Thabo Mbeki’s director general during the time an almighty war raged between the Mbeki and Zuma factions. Chikane was also enmeshed in controversies like the “hoax emails” saga, which purported senior people loyal to Mbeki were plotting Zuma’s downfall.

The other subject of Zuma’s attack was former president Kgalema Motlanthe, who challenged the president for leadership of the ANC at the party’s 2012 national conference in Mangaung. While Zuma and Motlanthe partnered to defeat the Mbeki camp in 2007, their relationship was strained in the lead up to the Mangaung conference and subsequently.

Zuma’s message to the KwaZulu-Natal conference was to heal the divisions raging in the province and to rise above the battle for power. Yet he diluted this message by belittling his former opponents, calling them “politically bankrupt” and threatened with “don’t push us too far”.

It is one of the many façades the ANC and its allies put up that make a mockery of politics.

For years before the rupture in Cosatu, the federation’s leaders continuously lashed out at the media for reports about the deep divisions and battles. They claimed these were media fabrications and came from malicious leaks. Even when it was obvious that Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini and former general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi were leading opposing factions determined to boot each other out of the federation, they still denied it.

Every central executive committee (CEC) statement came out affirming Cosatu as a “strong united federation”. They continued to punt that line even as processes were underway last year to expel metalworkers’ union Numsa. Hysterically, the Cosatu statement announcing Numsa’s expulsion a year ago, after a marathon and bloody CEC meeting, ended with the line: “Unity of COSATU remains sacrosanct!”

Similarly, the Cosatu statement announcing Vavi’s dismissal instructed that none of the federation’s structures, affiliates or staff members were allowed to have any contact or dealings with him. And then the statement rounded up by saying the national office bearers would continue the work of “achieving the unity of the federation”.

No hint of irony whatsoever.

The South African Communist Party and its youth wing too have a penchant for mowing down critics inside and outside the alliance and then proclaiming unity. During the recent #FeesMustFall protests, the Young Communist League (YCL) called on the president of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) Collen Maine to be “hauled to a disciplinary hearing” for blaming the crisis on Higher Education and Training Minister Blade Nzimande.

The YCL said Maine needed to “explain his behaviour and mend his factional character”. As if this statement would not elevate tensions between the two youth structures, the YCL said Maine was “hellbent on perpetuating an anti-communist agenda and the total disrespect of the unity of the Progressive Youth Alliance” – an affiliation of youth structures aligned to the ANC.

Unity is apparently the weapon of choice of whoever is proclaiming to defend and uphold it.

The new ANC chairperson in KwaZulu-Natal Sihle Zikalala is the new unity evangelist after an intensive and bruising battle with his predecessor Senzo Mchunu. In his maiden address as the head of the ANC’s biggest province, Zikalala preached the unity mantra. He said his first priorities were unifying the province and dealing with corruption.

The big question is whether Zikalala will stick to his word or wield the axe against Mchunu and his supporters. Mchunu remains premier of KwaZulu-Natal for now, but some in Zikalala’s camp, most notably the ANCYL, threatened beforehand that he would be removed if he lost the chairmanship. Mchunu and others on his slate for the top five positions in the province were not even elected onto the provincial executive committee so they now have minimal political influence.

Even if Mchunu is retained, someone in his Cabinet will have to make way for Zikalala. The relationship may become even more untenable if Mchunu is Zikalala’s boss in the provincial government.

The ANC’s national leadership was also singing the unity line after the KwaZulu-Natal conference so perhaps there might be some interventions to manage the transition. But with the ill-fated eThekwini region still to hold its conference, with the same factional battles having caused stalled and rerun elections, it is unlikely that any form will last in the province.

History has shown that no matter how many exultations of unity newly elected leaders proclaim, the losers pay a high price. In his closing address at the Polokwane conference, Zuma said the following to give reassurance that Mbeki’s leadership in government was secure:

“The conference is now behind us and we will continue to work together to unite and build a stronger ANC. There is likely to be anxiety regarding the existence of two presidents – one of state and the other of the party. There is no reason for uncertainty or fear in any quarter. Comrade Mbeki and I, both as members of the ANC first and foremost, will develop smooth working relations between government and the ruling party, assisted by the leadership collective.”

Nine months later, Mbeki was “recalled” from his position as state president. Guess what the ANC national executive committee said in the statement announcing his removal from office:

“We wish to assert to you that our most important task as a revolutionary movement is the stability of our country and the unity and cohesion of the ANC.”

Of course the revolutionary movement was not that united thereafter as a few months later, Mbeki supporters led a breakaway in the form of the Congress of the People.

Unity is the most tired, overused term in South African political parlance. It is used to cajole and blackmail ANC members to behave but nobody, even the party’s top leaders, practice what they preach.

The ANC is in a great battle with itself for power and resources, and will remain that way for as long as they remain the ruling party. The biggest uniting force of the ANC was Apartheid. Once they conquered it, the common enemy, the glue that held the movement together, evaporated.

The enemy is now within. And unity, no matter how much it is proclaimed, is a fallacy. DM

Photo: President Jacob Zuma gestures as he speaks during the ANC’s final mass election rally in Soweto, Johannesburg, South Africa, 04 May 2014. EPA/IHSAAN HAFFEJEE.

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