South Africa


ANC’s ICC debacle could hurt the party in fundamental ways

ANC’s ICC debacle could hurt the party in fundamental ways
ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula giving a keynote address at the Peter Mokaba Memorial Lecture in Botshabelo, Bloemfontein, on 7 January 2023. (Photo: Felix Dlangamandla / Daily Maverick)

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 It also came after the Justice Department had formally withdrawn from Parliament a bill proposing that we leave the ICC.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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Pet Bug says:

    Finally a serious effort to dissect a serious event.
    One mistake (Mbalula) – fine, sh*t happens; two mistakes (Ramaphosa) not fine, and stupid. And worse.
    As you say, how on earth could CR announce ICC withdrawal, even dragging Amnesty International into it, when he was present at NEC meeting where the exact opposite was decided… ?
    CR is not paying attention; he is not capable to engage his brain, or confident enough to stop, when the teleprompter goes rouge, and simply reads out trash.
    That’s serious, beyond incompetence. Character deficiency.
    We have a problem.
    The poor Finnish guy turned his back to Ramaphosa, a grimace of wtf just happened.

  • David Walker says:

    What the ANC says is completely meaningless, and this should have been clear to all many, many years ago. We know them by their actions, which are thievery, corruption, racism and incompetence. Trying to understand their utterances is like trying to decipher the squawkings of a dying chicken. Far better to just put it out of its misery.

  • Sydney Kaye says:

    Mbalula is an idiot and probably doesnt know what rescind means, and in any case how coukd anybidy take him seriously, ever.
    But Ramaphosa is supposedly literate and it is unlikely he didn’t understand or had forgotten what happened. The only explaaation is that Ramaphosa is punch drunk with the problems around him and just wants to get through the day, regretting he didn’t resign last year.

  • Luan Sml says:

    Fikile Mbalula has visions of grandeur, thinking where his SG star will lead him… But it’s very concerning that our President could not discern between a decision taken at an NEC meeting that he leads and what the teleprompter puts before him… is our country now at the mercy of some speech writer, perhaps using ChatGPT?

  • D'Esprit Dan says:

    Just another example of an out of touch, bombastic regime stuck in the mid-20th century that offers nothing to the people of South Africa: it’s all about ‘positioning’ South Africa as a kingmaker in global affairs, even when the world doesn’t give a toss about our puerile political elite and their shallow genuflecting in front of any neon sign that says ‘anti-western’. We have by some distance the least educated and discerning foreign policy makers of any mid-sized to large economy in the world. And our economy will be further damaged if we follow through and allow Putin here as SA products are shunned by consumers in the EU and USA, and face increasingly large barriers to enter those markets as a result of our, frankly, stupid and venal elite.

  • William Kelly says:

    If words had consequences SG, this government would have found most of itself behind bars. That’s entirely the problem, words do not have consequences. In the hands of the cANCer they are just poison.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Self imploding masochistic party , I hope,he he he

  • Confucious Says says:

    Why an issue about contradictory statements in the last week? Contradiction and confusion is the way of this party! It’s been going on for years! Statement, retraction, I didn’t understand!

  • Johan Herholdt says:

    Imagine what president Sauli Niinistö (one of the most competent and respected world leaders today) would say if someone asks him: “So, how was your trip to South Africa?”

  • Beyond Fedup says:

    What a circus! And these are the idiots running our country (into the ground)! No wonder it is such a mess and just about a failed state. Pure disgrace and embarrassment, but one is dealing with morons that have no values, decency, integrity and morals. Mabula is nothing but a clown who spews hot air whilst Cyril – what can one say. Clueless, inept, hypocritical etc. Say one thing and do the opposite. Usually do nothing, often retract statements, frequently express shock and often remain out of sight. That’s how to lead a banana republic – not SA with so much potential.

  • Hilary Morris says:

    How Mbalula could have been appointed as Sec Gen is beyond understanding. What did they expect when they put a clown in charge of the show? It’s only a half ring circus – the other half was stolen. How much lower can we sink before there is a total collapse?

  • Patterson Alan John says:

    Perhaps the Finns will now get the real picture of the mess in SA and come to realise that it can only get worse.
    Surely, he must be wondering why he came at all?
    What has Finland to gain, or was the SA begging bowl being shoved at him after all the Scandinavian financial support over the past years?

  • Gordon Bentley says:

    “Mr Do Fokol” and “Mr Fix Fokol” are both Tokking Kak. These two are holding very important positions in ANC government. What a team we have leading us ?

    As for Mr Do Fokol… We all complain about him lately: he does nothing …

    I’ve always maintained that it was a major mistake choosing Mr Fix Fokol to be SG. Remember the Free State potholes, he said he would see that these would be fixed …

    And as for the ANC, I was a bit of a student activist in my early days, rooting for all down trodden people to succeed in getting their freedom. When they finally did I was very happy for them. But what an out-right disappointment the ANC has been… I feel I had wasted my time and this has left me and many like-minded people very disappointed and depressed.

    Our trouble is that we “hope” they will be voted out in 2024. Apart from venting our spleen in DailyMaverick, what are we really doing about it? We need to do more to make sure the ANC will be voted out in 2024. Some comments in D.M. by concerned people is not going to cut it.
    We few cannot hope to succeed. Let’s hope some of the opposition parties and the public will get together and have a drive to make it clear that the ANC party are a poor excuse for the hopes that people had when the opportunity came to make things right for all South Africans.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    In Israel, hundreds of thousands have been demonstrating against government’s proposed judicial overhaul and we accept to be governed by total morons. What is wrong with South Africans?

  • David Pennington says:

    Uneducated illiterate incompetents trying to play grownups

  • Johan Buys says:

    Mbalula changes what foot he has in his mouth in order to shoot himself in that one. At least he is no longer a minister

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