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ANC must throw succession debate wide open

Sipho Hlongwane is a writer and columnist for Daily Maverick. His other work interests also include motoring, music and technology, for which he has some awards. In a previous life, he drove forklift trucks, hosted radio shows, waited tables, and was once bitten by a large monitor lizard on his ankle. It hurt a lot. Arsenal Football Club is his only permanent obsession. He appears in these pages as a political correspondent.

Gwede Mantashe’s dusty-grey goatee is going to turn snow-white one of these days. He worries a lot about where the ANC is going, but some of his solutions to guide the party back to the narrow way are woefully outdated. The ANC, and the times, have changed – it’s time its rules changed as well.

When I was studying economics at the University of Cape Town, we were told about cycles of boom and bust. Countries will go through bear and bull phases. It’s all very natural. The problems start when you introduce anomalies into the market that accentuate crests and troughs. Apparently you don’t want an economy of extreme highs and lows. (I didn’t pay much attention during Economics 102, to be honest.)

The secret to managing these cycles is to reduce the effects of bubbles while keeping growth on an upward path.

This, in essence, is the challenge ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe faces. Instead of managing economic tokens of value like central bank governors do, he manages a political party. And instead of bull and bear runs in a market, the ANC has election cycles. Think of the elective conferences that roll around every five years as being the crests of a boom run, and the years in-between as the troughs.

Mantashe would probably disagree with my analogy. He still wants us to believe the ANC is a homogenous body that acts very predictably. He wants us to believe the myth of political cohesion within the party.

This is patently not the case.

The election of new ANC leaders isn’t as neat as Mantashe wants us to believe. The transition from Nelson Mandela to Thabo Mbeki was smooth, but wouldn’t have been so if Madiba had had any interest in running the ANC. The old man wanted to enjoy the trappings that came with being an international hero and statesman, not do battle with Mbeki. The transition between Mbeki and Zuma, via Motlanthe, was fraught, despite the informal agreement in the ANC being that the deputy president becomes the president. Political tradition eventually prevailed at Polokwane.

But the ANC learnt other things at Polokwane. Members learnt to exploit factional groupings within the party. The beast of populism was unleashed (though to hear the talk these days, people regret how Zuma was elected). These new habits in the party are like economic bubbles – they’ll heighten booms and deepen busts.

The ANC cannot continue to pretend leadership battles are fiercely and cynically contested these days. The party can’t pretend it doesn’t go through political cycles.

Mantashe himself hinted at this change when he wrote to the national executive committee in his regular organisational report. “Comrades boldly boast that the abnormal situation and the divisions that characterised the 52nd conference must now be accepted as a tradition of the ANC,” he wrote. “Kingmakers and bookmakers can only survive when the NEC is divided. Politics of blackmail get stronger when factions are growing stronger than the organisational structures.”

Another absolutely critical factor is the sheer size of the ANC. Mix together ambition, hunger for power, money and one-million members, and the idea that the party can be controlled flies out of the window. In the struggle days when the party was of necessity run like a Soviet politburo, it didn’t have so many people to manage. Plus the ANC had a common goal. It doesn’t now. Power is the only glue that holds it together.

This does not mean that this situation can’t be exploited by Mantashe and the ANC leadership for the long-term benefit of the party.

The ban on the succession debate hasn’t stopped the debate about leadership in the party. Lobbyists in the party are being forced underground where they can make mischief and later deny it. If the ANC stopped pretending it always speaks with one voice, and permanently lifted the ban on the succession debate, it certainly wouldn’t bring everyone closer together. But it would make it easier for the top leadership to control the extent to which factional battles are fought. People like ANC Youth League president Julius Malema – who is strongly suspected of trying to push the Zuma/Mantashe axis out by next year – would find themselves speaking openly, but also being publicly held responsible for what they say.

I don’t believe there is merit in disciplining Malema for comparing Mbeki to Zuma. We all do that. But if the NEC honestly believes by slapping Malema on the hand for engaging in “divisive behaviour” (the leadership debate), they will make the issue go away, then they are going to have to be prepared to bring charges against hundreds of other leaders.

Initially, members would go into overdrive with factional fighting, but the situation would eventually normalise.

As children we used to play pranks anyone foolish enough to bring a fizzy drink to school by shaking it up when they weren’t watching, and then falling about in fits of laughter when the can’s contents would explode into the owner’s face. The ANC factional lobbying under the current system is like that can of pent-up pressure. Sooner or later, it will explode in ways Mantashe never intended. It’s best to relieve the pressure long before by opening the leadership debate now. DM



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