With the national general elections of 2019 not far away, any candidate for ANC president who seeks to echo the much needed call for unity needs to be up to the difficult task of holding the political elite accountable.
‘Our strength lies in unity, and our future advances in action. Without unity we are weak and without action we remain oppressed.
– Former ANC President Oliver Tambo speaking on the 70th Anniversary of the African National Congress.
In a year dedicated to celebrating the life of the iconic former president of the African National Congress, Oliver Reginald Tambo, the ANC has become bedevilled with crippling problems of factionalism, political killings and a fierce internal struggle for access to resources.
Oliver Tambo once led the ANC at a time when the movement united against an unjust regime. His unparalleled leadership coupled with his humility and love for his people kept the ANC together at the most difficult times, including when he withstood scathing criticism at the watershed Morogoro conference of the ANC in 1969 when he considered resigning as ANC leader in the light of criticism that the leadership was failing the movement.
One could argue, however, that unity then was comparatively easier than unity in a climate of State Capture and grand scale looting. Back then, the ANC was able to unite against a conspicuous common enemy i.e. the might of the apartheid regime. In 2017, the enemy facing the ANC and its quest to build a national democratic society feels a lot closer to home.
In his closing remarks at the 5th National Policy Conference of the ANC held in Johannesburg in June 2017, President Jacob Zuma emphasised the significance of unity in the ANC, describing how it was “the rock upon which the ANC was founded”. He went on to bemoan the existence of slate politics and how they are used as part of a “winner takes all” strategy and ultimately damage and divide the ANC considering how factions take on a political existence of their own, and are committed to destabilising the incumbent leadership.
The current political discourse has however sought to single out and admonish individuals as opposed to critically assessing the state of the ANC. The “blame game” with regard to the problems facing the ANC is usually predicated on dishonest analysis and in recent times has taken a factional posture. In his political report to the 52nd Conference of the ANC in 2007, the former president of the ANC, Thabo Mbeki, made very unsettling submissions. This included an analysis of the meaning of leadership in the ANC.
As he said in the ANC document on leadership renewal, Through the eye of the Needle, former President Mbeki described how leadership in structures of the ANC affords opportunities to assume positions of authority in government, where some individuals then compete for ANC leadership positions in order to get into government.
Many such members view positions in government as a source of material riches for themselves compounded by the ability to dispense with patronage. Thus resources, prestige and authority of government positions become the driving forces in competition for leadership positions in the ANC. It is rather telling that the delegates at the conference refused to engage this political report and ignored the crucial diagnosis of the state of the organisation. It descended into chaos with very little foresight or analysis as to where the movement was going.
Mbeki went on to repeat these concerns at an ANC centenary lecture he delivered at the University of Fort Hare in 2012 where he chastised the hostile takeover of the movement by “staff riders who came on board the ANC train, intent to use their membership as a stepladder to access state power and abuse this power for self-enrichment”. This is the hostile environment within which unity is expected to prevail.
The ANC is not divided by political ideology or any policy position. There is consensus on transforming the structures of production and ownership of the economy to benefit the poor black majority (whether you call it radical economic transformation or inclusive growth); there is consensus on transforming the patterns of land ownership and speeding up the land reform process and, most important, there is consensus around the fact that the ANC needs a resounding victory at the polls in 2019.
What does divide the ANC is who will lead this process of transformation and, most important, to whose benefit. In the recent past we have been exposed to the painful reality of State Capture and how unscrupulous business people manipulate the state apparatus through backhand deals and offer politicians and/or their proxies lucrative stakes in companies where they add no value but are merely there to provide access to powerful political networks and to improperly influence the distribution of resources. If the ANC is serious about unity, this is one of the most important things it needs to deal with.
Unity cannot, however, be based on falsehoods and as stated in an opinion piece by ANC heavyweight, Joel Netshitenzhe, it should be based on principle and be in pursuit of the strategies, policies and programmes of the organisation. Violation of what the ANC stands for, by any member at any level, should be combated. This must include the combating of the abuse of state resources as family trust funds. That cannot be interpreted as sowing disunity. Even in unity, the ANC cannot unite in wrongdoing and must root out the sins of incumbency.
That being said, any candidate who seeks to echo the much needed call for unity needs to be up to the difficult task of holding the political elite accountable. That candidate will need to place the interests of the ANC above their own and will need to be committed to serving the people and the organisation. This will need to be a candidate committed to restoring the integrity of a bruised ANC and one capable of resisting the temptations of capture and the public purse.
With the road to December well under way, it would be noteworthy to make mention of a candidate who has based his race for the presidency on this call for unity, this candidate being the current Treasurer-General of the ANC, Dr Zweli Mkhize. In a powerful campaign, Mkhize has used a message of unity in an attempt to unite the ANC behind the vision of the late Oliver Tambo.
Some have criticised this call as being opportunistic in nature but very few have actually been able to find fault in the man, who boasts a track record of excellence as both a seasoned political leader and a clean and efficient administrator. Having played a critical role in consolidating the ANC’s support in KwaZulu-Natal and then voted as top premier during his tenure as first citizen of KwaZulu-Natal, Mkhize is a force to be reckoned with. This of course does not suggest that he is the only candidate capable of uniting the ANC but credit must be afforded to the fact that he is the only candidate, in my view, who has identified factionalism and deep divisions as the ANC’s Achilles’ Heel while others have focused predominantly on established ANC policy.
The ANC is probably the only political organisation with the capacity and reach to transform the lives of ordinary South Africans but its weakness is its inability to deal with perceptions of corruption and maladministration while the poor continue to struggle. This is exacerbated by the well-publicised infighting which fails to inspire confidence.
With the national general elections of 2019 not far away, the ANC will need to use its upcoming elective conference to agree on decisive ways of transforming society, the racial and gender dynamics of the mainstream economy and alleviating poverty. To do this, the ANC needs a leader capable of uniting the movement and, most important, the country behind a common vision. The strength of the ANC towards its elective conference and its ability to self-correct will be determined by unity within its ranks. DM
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