South Africa

South Africa

Young Blood vs Dead Wood: Where are the ANC’s Maimanes and Malemas?

The 2016 local government elections did more than shift power and major municipal budgets away from the ANC. It exposed how the ANC’s antiquated traditions are hampering the rise of young leaders and stunting generational change. The ANC elections campaign recycled the same tired ideas and useless rhetoric, with the only new twist being ageing, uninspiring leaders performing a new dance move. The two main opposition parties saw young leaders Mmusi Maimane and Julius Malema take the lead, redefine the terrain and change the conversation. At the same time, the ANC is gearing to elect a new leadership next year with no strong, young leaders ready to grab the mantle. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.

President Jacob Zuma has a favourite line when he speaks about criticism from the opposition/media/commentariat: “They don’t know the ANC!” It stems from a common belief in the ANC that the party is an all-powerful, living organism that is able to devour its enemies and constantly surprise its critics. There was a time when there was some truth to the myth – a political organisation cannot exist for 104 years without the ability to adapt to changing conditions and confound its opponents. But that was when the ANC had a legion of exceptional leaders and dedicated members and was able to foster new generations of leaders who carried the same values and selfless dedication to the fight against apartheid. 

Perhaps it is the business of governing that detracted from the work of passing on the torch to the next generation. Perhaps it is the unfettered access to resources and wealth that made the ANC’s former values and principles look like a joke. Maybe it is that comrades could no longer be bothered with political education when living large and upward mobility are priorities. Whatever the reasons, there is a big distinction between the character of the liberation movement and the party that currently governs the country.

The problem is not only the damage people driven by wealth accumulation and the quest for political power can do to the party and the state. How do strong new leaders emerge to refresh and re-energise the organisation when those who are there do not want to make room for others? What happens when the organisation can only tolerate younger people rising through the ranks who are willing to defend the old guard and maintain the status quo? The current crop of ANC Youth League (ANCYL) leaders certainly believe that defending the frontline is their core mandate. The ANCYL is also testament to how people can be elected into leadership positions without any political sense and with no connection to the constituency they are meant to serve.

In the 22 years that the ANC has been in power, organisational renewal has been a major challenge. This features on all the organisation’s literature, but the ANC has struggled to modernise and upgrade itself. ANC leaders still believe they are primarily a liberation movement, belting out revolutionary rhetoric of yesteryear, rather than a party governing a developing and modern economy. The party also does not allow open debate and campaigning for leadership positions. Leaders are anointed based on popularity instead of competing on the basis of their abilities, strengths and leadership skills.

After 22 years in power, liberation-era leaders should be at work preserving the history of anti-apartheid struggle and passing on political education to those who come after them. The ANC should by now be producing savvy, skilled men and women who can bring innovation and fresh ideas to grow the appeal of the party to new constituencies, and to invigorate the state and develop the economy.

Instead, who is the ANC’s next great hope? The current pool of people being considered to lead the organisation after Zuma are not that much younger than him. Cyril Ramaphosa, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Gwede Mantashe and Baleka Mbete are all in their 60s. They are all liberation-era leaders who will keep the wheel turning in much the same way. When the ANC talks of “generational change” and younger leaders who could energise the party, two names always come up: Malusi Gigaba and Fikile Mbalula. Both are former ANCYL presidents and are therefore seen as people schooled in the movement who can bring new life to the party.

But what strong leadership traits have Gigaba and Mbalula shown up to now in the ANC? What conversations have they led? What issues have they owned? What fresh ideas have they pioneered? How are they making their mark?

Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema was able to dress them down at his media briefing last week precisely because it is their extra-curricular activities rather than their political standing that keeps them in the news. Both Gigaba and Mbalula are obsessed with their own self-image and trending up their personas rather than being political pathfinders.

There are a handful of other younger ANC leaders who have made an impression in their current positions. David Makhura and Panyaza Lesufi have excelled in their positions in the Gauteng government. Sihle Zikalala has proved he is a wily leader by managing to win a messy ANC leadership battle in KwaZulu-Natal and manoeuvre his way into the provincial government. However, they are all older than the two men leading the opposition and giving the ANC the greatest hell ride since the fall of apartheid. 

Mmusi Maimane, 36, has only been at the helm of his party for a year. He has only been in politics for six years; his political career began when he applied to run as a Democratic Alliance (DA) candidate in the Johannesburg City Council in 2010. He made a rapid rise in the ranks of the DA, learning the ropes along the way. When he became the DA’s parliamentary leader in 2014, and hence Leader of the Opposition, he appeared to be out of his depth. He came across as too packaged and amateurish to take on an army of experienced politicians on the other side of the House, and to represent a diverse set of opposition parties whose leaders all had more experience than he did.

Maimane was still finding his feet when a year later was thrown in the deep end, having to take over the leadership of the DA after Helen Zille decided to resign. It looked like a recipe for disaster with Maimane trying to do too much too soon, without much grounding to carry it all off. To his credit, Maimane took it all in his stride, tried to put his own stamp on the DA and also kicked off the local government election campaign. Maimane has faced a barrage of constant criticism, including insults about him fronting for whites in the party. 

The local government election results have been Maimane’s deliverance. Under his leadership, the DA has made inroads into former ANC strongholds and is in the process of taking control of major metros – something that would not have been thought possible under Zille’s leadership. The DA has formed a coalition agreement with four opposition parties and negotiated separate collaboration arrangements with the Inkatha Freedom Party and EFF. 

Zuma called him a “snake” and a “fake leader”, thinking this would demean Maimane and cause people not to trust him. The strategy did not work. Maimane brought fresh energy to his party and clearly this helped to draw support to the DA. He still has an uphill climb trying to change perceptions of the party but control of major municipalities now gives the DA more muscle than was thought possible.

Julius Malema, 35, shook the ANC to the core while he was ANCYL president. He and his leadership core in the ANCYL owned the nationalisation and radical economic transformation issues, pushing so hard until they became a threat. His expulsion from the ANC could have been the end of his political career – particularly with corruption and tax evasion charges adding to his mix of problems.   

The launch of the EFF looked a revenge mission at first, a platform to agitate and irritate the ANC. But the party caught fire, drawing support from poor and discontented constituencies. Over 1.1-million votes in the 2014 elections catapulted the EFF into the National Assembly and saw it represented in nine provinces, a phenomenal feat for a party that was nine months old at the time. Over the past two years, the EFF has shaken up Parliament and run a hard campaign to hold Zuma accountable for the Nkandla upgrades. They dragged him to the Constitutional Court, which found him guilty of violating the Constitution.

Malema continues to be the biggest thorn in Zuma’s side and, more than anyone else in post democracy South Africa, has rattled and disorientated the ANC. The municipal elections gave the EFF the leverage to help the ANC retain control of the major metros; it opted instead to shame the ANC and vote against it. This decision is prompting a major shifting of sands, with Malema’s EFF now in a position to stand in opposition to both the ANC and the DA in the areas they govern.

The ANC, with all its heritage and numerical strength, is yet to produce young leaders who can hold their own, let alone compete in the league of Maimane and Malema. The party has been so engrossed in protecting its old guard, fighting internal factional battles and sweeping scandals under the carpet that it is effectively devouring itself. Youthful energy and dynamism have proved to be the differentiator in the 2016 local elections – South Africans are clearly fatigued with time-worn politics and old men past their sell-by date.

Now is the time for the young Turks in the ANC to step forward and make their voices heard. If they do not, another crop of aging leaders will settle into the ANC leadership next year, and continue boring the country with meaningless rhetoric and tired ideas. As much as they loathe them, the ANC needs their own Maimanes and Malemas to infuse energy and ring the changes in the party. Otherwise, it will simply continue to produce more Zumas. DM

Photo: Economic Freedom Fighters leader Julius Malema (L) and DA Parliamentary Leader Mmusi Maimane are seen during a debate in Parliament on President Jacob Zuma’s State of the Nation Address, Wednesday, 18 June 2014. Picture: GCIS/SAPA