ANC’s ICC debacle could hurt the party in fundamental ways
The series of contradictory comments by the ANC last week over the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the fact the Presidency eventually had to put out a statement ‘clarifying’ government’s stance may well suggest even worse to come for the ANC.
The ICC debacle suggests that it is possible for decisions by the ANC’s national executive council to be misconstrued. This may even be done deliberately, meaning that the decisions of the ANC NEC could be manipulated to reflect the views of those who publish them, leading to a cycle of unstoppable recrimination.
So much has happened around the office of secretary-general of the ANC in recent times that it can almost be forgotten just how important it is. Legally, the position is the same as that of an accounting officer for a government department, or similar to an MD of a private company.
The secretary-general represents the ANC in court, it is the office which manages disputes between groups, branches and factions in the party. Crucially, it is the office which also speaks for the party, with the ANC spokesperson reporting directly to the secretary-general.
That’s why what happened last week is so serious.
On Tuesday afternoon, as much of the country was preparing for the long weekend, the ANC released a statement on behalf of the NEC.
It said, clearly:
“On the International Criminal Court, the NEC noted its 55th National Conference Resolution that ‘the ANC and the South African government must rescind the withdrawal from the ICC Court and intensify its lobby for the ratification of the Malabo Protocol.’”
Justice Department formally withdrew bill proposing leaving the ICC
This appeared to mean the ANC had decided South Africa would stay in the ICC. It also came after the Justice Department had formally withdrawn from Parliament a bill proposing that we leave the ICC.
This is in keeping with ANC practice. The NEC was merely quoting a decision of a conference. The NEC would not have the power to overrule a decision made by a conference anyway.
However, in his press conference about the meeting, secretary-general Fikile Mbalula gave a different impression, that in fact the party had decided South Africa would withdraw from the ICC.
Then, shortly afterwards, President Cyril Ramaphosa, speaking with the President of NATO’s newest member, Finland’s Sauli Niinistö, appeared to confirm Mbalula’s statement, that South Africa would exit the ICC.
Hours later, the Presidency released a statement saying that, in fact, the opposite was true. It said that Mbalula had made a mistake, and that Ramaphosa too had followed that mistake, when in fact the ANC’s decision was for us to remain in the ICC.
In short, the Presidency had now confirmed the ANC’s NEC statement.
If the Presidency’s statement can be accepted as an authoritative description of events, it reveals the scale of this series of mistakes.
It suggests that our President stood on a stage, during a State Visit by another head of state, and misquoted the policy of his own party.
It leads to many important questions.
Perhaps the first is whether Mbalula deliberately tried to change public ANC policy by contradicting the NEC.
Conspiracy or just an incompetent cock-up?
It is hard to know if this is true. Often it is a mistake to presume there is a conspiracy when a cock-up is more likely. Incompetence is almost always more responsible for this kind of situation than deliberate action.
If it was deliberate, he would have known that other members of the NEC would have publicly disowned the decision.
Also, it would have been entirely possible for Ramaphosa to contradict him almost immediately, and to do so with the backing of the full NEC.
This would probably have led to Mbalula losing his legitimacy as secretary-general.
That said, the fact it probably wasn’t deliberate, and was most likely a mistake also has consequences.
If the secretary-general of the ANC cannot be believed and understood to be the voice of the organisation, then the party itself is going to further lose credibility.
This could happen in several ways. It is not just that the voice of the party will not be understood by society to be the voice of society. It is also that different groups in the ANC, and individual members, may not believe that he is speaking for them.
The voice of the ANC no longer its own?
In other words, the voice of the ANC will no longer be the voice of the ANC, and other voices could emerge to claim to occupy that role.
There is already some evidence that this may be happening on other issues.
On Sunday, the Sunday Times carried a report quoting an NEC member telling the paper what they believed was discussed by the party’s leadership about coalitions.
During his Tuesday press conference, Mbalula had said that the ANC would not work with the DA but would work with the EFF.
This NEC member said that was not the case, and that in fact discussions about which parties the ANC would work with were not mentioned at all. There are other indications that some in the ANC would prefer to work with the DA and not the EFF.
This could suggest Mbalula was not speaking for the NEC, or even the ANC, when he made his comment about working with the EFF.
There are more questions, however.
How could Ramaphosa have got it so wrong?
Surely, as the man who gave the closing address at the end of the NEC meeting, he would have known what the real position was. When he followed Mbalula’s mistake, was it deliberate, did he even know what he was saying?
In the end, much of this must fall on his shoulders, he is the Head of State, speaking in front of another President. For him to misquote a resolution of his own party at a meeting he attended is serious.
For some, it could even lead to questions about whether he is able to remain in his position, particularly if something like this happens again.
Like Mbalula’s voice for the ANC, Ramaphosa’s voice has to be trusted as the voice of the country.
If it is not, South Africa too will lose legitimacy.
In politics, as in life, words matter. They are all we have between our aims and physical violence.
If people in the ANC, and in government, are not able to control their use of words, both the party, and government, could find life becomes much more difficult in future. DM