South Africa, Politics

Contralesa Angst: One problem too many for the ANC?

By Stephen Grootes 1 February 2017

Those who follow the ANC closely (perhaps even religiously) are often looking for evidence of when the “big split” will happen, when the big and increasingly cumbersome party is likely to implode. But from time to time, small events occur which suggest that the party may not be in line for a huge split, but a simple fraying of the edges. A process that takes a very long time, but over a period actually results in an organisation very different from the party we’ve learned to know. This week, the President of the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) resigned as a member of Parliament from the ANC. Then, he resigned from the ANC as well. It may not seem like much now, but it could be a symptom of the fraying. Once it starts, it will be hard to halt. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It is entirely possible that many people living in urban areas had not heard much about Kgosi Setlamorago Thobejane before he resigned. He is not someone who has sought headlines or appeared on live radio discussions day in and day out. But he is the President of Contralesa, and as such the leader of a group of people who have significant constituencies of their own. It is hard to nail down concrete numbers, or to run accurate polls of the strength of their support, but it is fair to say it is not unimportant, and that it could be a factor, under some circumstances, in any kind of election.

In the years after 1994, it made complete sense for this group to support the ANC, and for the ANC to accommodate them within its big tent. The history of our traditional leaders can, in some cases, be disputed, and there is not necessarily a consensus about the role that they should play in our society now. That said, their relationship with the ANC has probably been to the benefit of both parties. They have felt safe that their status will not be unduly affronted, and the ANC has felt safe in that these leaders will have used whatever influence they have to encourage their people to vote for the governing party.

However, tensions have recently started to boil over. Thobejane’s voice was full of frustration on Wednesday while speaking to Talk Radio 702. When asked why he resigned from the party, he said, “It’s about land”, about how the ANC has not done what it should do to “return the land to our people”. And he says he understands that land is “complex”, but “that’s only the land taken by the whites from the blacks”. It doesn’t apply, he says, “to the land that traditional leaders and their communities are residing in. What is the complexity there? The only snag is that once you give them their own land, you know the land has got its own benefit.”

It appears that for him it’s about title – title to the land for people already living there. There are different ways to interpret this; perhaps it’s about giving land title to all of the people individually, or to communities more generally. That, a cynic would argue, could mean that the traditional leaders would have more power over that land.

Either way, he’s furious with the ANC.

Furious enough to confirm that Contralesa is discussing leaving the party. He says it’s consulting with all of its various communities about what to do next, about whether they are going to give up on the party, or whether they will keep trying to change the party’s direction.

It could be tempting for some of these leaders to jump at the chance to start their own political outfit. They would be able campaign in their own way, and would no longer be constrained by the ANC’s massive, currently straining tent. But it could be a reckless move that rebounds on these leaders quite badly.

Under the current arrangement, traditional leaders can have it both ways, if the ANC does well, they can pat themselves on the back, if it does badly, it can blame other parts of the ANC. But if they were to go it alone, they would have no one else to blame if things went badly. Imagine this group being embarrassed at the polls, and finding they have very little support. What then? They would be a busted flush, much of the power they already have would be wasted away, and quite possibly a great chunk of the authority they currently enjoy.

Then there is the problem of their own management. All of these people are very important within their own communities. Managing a meeting of them all at the same time at the same place has the potential to make Gwede Mantashe’s job look easy. At the moment, where the stakes are relatively low, power struggles within Contralesa have not attracted much attention. That could change were political office up for grabs. And if that were not managed properly, the whole thing could fall apart. Before some of the leaders would go, slightly chastened, back to the ANC.

All of that said, the prospect of another political party, presumably concentrating on the rural areas, would certainly add some more spice to our politics. The results of the local elections show that there are many people who simply did not vote, probably because they did not like any of the options offered to them. The addition of another option, perhaps with some resources, and in many areas, name recognition for their candidates, could give those voters another space in which to mark their ballot.

This would probably not affect the DA much, as its support tends to be concentrated in rural areas, hence their success in the 2016 municipal elections, where they won control of most of the major metros. But it does have the capacity to really concern the ANC. It is doing badly in urban areas, and it is likely to rely on rural votes more and more. It would not enjoy the prospect of organised, legitimate competition there. It would also not enjoy having to actually campaign against traditional leaders. The ANC likes to consider itself as the political custodian of our cultures and traditions, it could find itself on tricky terrain were it still to presume that position in the face of a traditional leaders’ party.

At the same time, it would find itself having to make choices between urban and rural voters. At the moment, it can, when necessary, tack towards the urban centre, as it may assume that rural voters have no other option. Now it would have to tack back to the rural areas, and risk losing some urban votes. This is similar to the impact the introduction of the Economic Freedom Fighters has had on our politics. Before that, the ANC could hold as close to centre as it liked, knowing that only the DA was on the right; now it’s hemmed in on both sides. It would find itself in the same position on the urban/rural divide. Politicians generally will have to start making more choices along this divide, and they may not find it a comfortable place.

Were another party to form, it would lead to more congestion, and acronyms to remember, in Parliament. In some ways, our politics could start to resemble that of other countries that also use a proportional representation system. They often lead to many smaller parties winning votes (in some cases, this means governments are always coalitions). There is nothing inherently wrong with this; it gives people more choice. But it does also make it harder to govern, at a time when we may need strong direction from those who win elections, rather than a system where people are bought off with patronage and position.

There is still a way to go before Contralesa decides what it is going to do. But the frustration its members feel is a symptom of a much wider dynamic, the slow fraying of the coalition of groups, forces and constituencies that the ANC has led for so long. DM

Photo: Opening of National House of Traditional Leaders, 5 Mar 2015 (GCIS)



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