South Africa

Politics, South Africa

Comrades in Qualms: Which pill will the ANC take?

Comrades in Qualms: Which pill will the ANC take?
Joel Netshitenzhe said the ANC should elect leaders who come from the best in the community and who have good ethics and are academically qualified. (Photo: Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection) Photo: Joel Netshitenzhe (Photo by Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection)

Warnings of the ANC’s imminent demise have, in the past, turned out to be greatly exaggerated. Electorally speaking, the party is more than hale and hearty. Ruling parties in most democracies would be more than happy with 62% of the vote. Still, signs pointing to problems within the party are becoming impossible to ignore. Difficult, complex, structural issues with, so far, few if any solutions being offered. Now, it seems, people very close to the action are beginning to get worried. Last week it was SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande warning of serious consequences if the current path is not altered. This week, it is the turn of another ANC stalwart, Joel Netshitenzhe. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Joel Netshitenzhe is one of those complex, rare characters in our politics. He doesn’t really enjoy the limelight. Not for him is the cut and thrust of personality politics: policy is his thing. He loves the nuance, the complexity, pondering what would happen if this, and how things would change with that. It’s partly that wonkishness that has earned him respect in the party. Despite his close association with Thabo Mbeki, his history in “that ANC” as opposed to “Zuma’s ANC”, he is still on the party’s national executive committee.

Which makes his warning first published in the book The Thabo Mbeki I Know all the more stark. Essentially, he says, if the ANC does not “change a culture that began in 2009, the party will die a humiliating death”. It is the kind of sound bite one would not normally associate with someone generally as unassuming as him.

When asked in an interview on the Midday Report exactly what he means, Netshitenzhe starts to discuss the problems of factionalism. Basically, his thesis is that people have now formed groups in the party, especially at a local level, and they fight for those groups. And because of poverty, because of the fact that people are desperate, because if the loss of power means loss of livelihood, people will resort to desperate measures. He is also clear to say that this is not about President Jacob Zuma, it’s about a dynamic that has taken hold in the ANC.

Listen: Joel Netshitenzhe’s interview on 702/567 talk radio

His warning comes amid the backdrop of the violence in the ANC’s Tshwane region that saw a member being shot dead on Sunday night, amid the fight over who would be the party’s mayoral candidate for the capital, an example which perfectly illustrates the point Netshitenzhe is making.

Netshitenzhe’s comments also echo, rather chillingly, what Nzimande said last week. Nzimande’s strongest point was that if the ANC does not change the way it elects leaders, after the splinter that was Cope and the drama that is the EFF, “how do we know it will not just implode?” the next time around. He also spoke of the power of the provincial leaders, how they have managed to hold the keys to the Kingdom of Luthuli House.

The problem, of course, is what now? Aubrey Matshiqi was asked just that question after Netshitenzhe. He suggests that one of the problems that makes this so difficult for this ANC at this stage in its history is that it “has lost moral authority over its members”. In other words, the party at head office cannot order its members to stop doing things like this and expect to be taken seriously.

It’s not like anyone in the party can say they weren’t warned. Back in 2007 all the middle classes could talk about was how bad Jacob Zuma would be as ANC leader and president, because of his history of corruption. Now, those warnings have come to pass, and no one can take him seriously when he wags his finger about corruption. The example he has set has certainly made things worse for the party, and for all of us as a result.

But Netshitenzhe does have a partial solution. He says that one of the consequences of this kind of dynamic, the in-fighting, the arguing, the contestation and now that shooting, is that fewer people will vote for the ANC. This will lead to there being fewer positions in government for the people fighting. Which means they may then have a strong incentive to self-correct. It’s a variation of the argument that we hear constantly; that for the ANC to shape up and fly right, it needs a strong opposition breathing down its neck.

When the critique by Nzimande and Netshitenzhe is put to the ANC, it has a ready response. Its national spokesperson, Zizi Kodwa, points out, correctly, that the party has made its own diagnosis of these problems. That it has already started to work on solutions to them. Of course, he is correct. If you look through discussion documents and resolutions, from last year’s National General Council through to the Mangaung Conference and the NGC in Durban, and even Polokwane itself, this kind of critique is made there.

In fact, even before Polokwane, in a famous interview in the Financial Mail in 2007, then ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe told Carol Paton that the “rot is across the board”.

One wonders how it was possible for one person to be able to make that comment, and then support Zuma in the same year? But that is an analysis for a different time.

If we take all of this together, it seems the ANC is not quite at, but is getting closer to, a crossroads. These factional dynamics, the violence between different groups, the increasingly desperate losers gaining nothing, could continue for a long time.

Or some kind of solution could be found. It may even be possible that that crossroads could actually be reached as early as December next year.

Imagine these scenarios:

Scenario One: The results of August’s elections are so bad for the ANC, and the perceptions of Zuma being corrupt take such a hold, that Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma decide together that things have to change; they run on a joint ticket. Or they agree for someone seen as neutral to jump over them to be leader (say, Zweli Mkhize). In the process, the power of the premiers, of provincial leaders, to determine the outcome of a national race is broken. The members of the party, many of whom must be keen for something better, support this. The example the new leaders set changes the tone for everyone else. Strong action is taken against corrupt officials, the Integrity Committee’s recommendations are invariably acted upon. A strong, independent Public Protector is appointed, and his or her actions against ANC deployees are applauded by this new leadership. The ANC is able to retain Gauteng in 2019 as a result, and the party self-corrects successfully.

Scenario Two: The election results are not that bad for the ANC, or the current leadership is able to explain them away. Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma decide they have to contest in opposite blocks, but now they also face a challenge from Baleka Mbete. The premiers find their power enhanced as a result. They know they will determine the winner, and thus hold out to the highest bidder. Money enters the fray like never before, delegates find cash literally being flung at them. Eventually one of the candidates wins. But they find themselves in deep political debt to the people who got them there. They are unable to break that power. As a result, to protect those people, and thus themselves, weak people are appointed to the institutions that matter. Whenever someone criticises government or the ANC, there is some kind of crackdown. The ANC loses Gauteng in 2019, which only increases the tension within it. Fights break out at almost every internal ANC gathering. Eventually, some kind of mass violence erupts at a big national meeting. The conference is called off, and the various factions are unable to reconcile to actually hold a proper meeting to put the party back on track, ushering in the final process of balkanisation.

The ANC as we know it simply disintegrates.

In truth, neither of these scenarios is likely to play out. The final result may be some kind of mixture of the two, with the figure of one Jacob Zuma looming large over the proceedings. The trick now is to know which of these two scenarios will be stronger. For the moment, certainly until the party’s leadership changes, it would appear Scenario Two is more realistic. DM

Photo: Joel Netshitenzhe (Photo by Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection)

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