In his reflections from prison in 1976, Walter Sisulu said, “In a certain sense, the story of our struggle is a story of problems arising and problems being overcome.” The 53rd NEC of the ANC has certainly had more than its fair share of problems, something that, unsurprisingly, has always been a defining feature of our struggle. The question is whether this NEC has done all it could to overcome these problems, to complete our story as eloquently narrated by the great Walter Sisulu.
The 53rd African National Congress NEC has just concluded its five-year term, having been elected in 2012. It may be too soon to give a deeper assessment of just how consequential the impact of their actions and/ inactions in advancing the broad aspirations of the National Democratic Revolution. The immediate impact of their actions, however, must necessarily be examined now as we head towards the 54th National Congress so that we can right whatever wrongs may have been committed and realign our organisation, which is the most potent tool in advancing the deeper aspirations of our people.
Rule 12 of the ANC constitution, which deals with the NEC and its powers, states that the NEC shall “supervise and direct the work of the ANC and all its organs, including national, provincial and local government caucuses”. This is further reiterated under Rule 16 which deals with national officials where it says the President shall “under the overall supervision of the NEC, orient and direct the activities of the ANC”.
The constitution therefore puts the NEC at the centre of ANC governance above which there is no other authority except the national conferences. Any shirking of the NEC on its supervisory role necessarily cedes its powers to the very agents which it is supposed to supervise, including the President.
What is clear immediately is that the 53rd NEC has governed over one of the most devastating terms in the history of the organisation. At the centre of it has been the President.
The story and evolution of the 53rd NEC, however, goes slightly before the 2012 Mangaung conference which elected them.
In September 2010, one of the country’s large weekly newspapers, Mail & Guardian, published an article entitled “The coalition of the wounded turns on Zuma”. The article said, “A new ‘coalition of the wounded’ has emerged in the ANC ahead of the party’s National General Council, with many of President Jacob Zuma’s once most ardent backers now joining forces to stop his serving a second term”.
The paper also spoke about “a second group of leaders, calling themselves the ‘new frontier’, a subgroup of the broad front that questioned Zuma’s leadership. They were said to be talking to one another and their constituencies about what they saw as the erosion of traditional ANC values. The paper then said the key new frontier members were Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale, Zwelinzima Vavi, Cosatu’s then general secretary, and Sisulu.
This may have been just leaks and media peddling in 2010 but when Motlanthe challenged Zuma in 2012, the reports were validated. What this means is that, in only a year after Zuma became President of the Republic and three years into his Presidency of the ANC, the Polokwane Conference team that had helped him ascend to the higher office had already regretted its decision and sought to rectify it, starting with serious lobbying at the National General Council and hoping to unseat Zuma at the Mangaung conference.
A lot has been said about Polokwane being the biggest mistake in the life of the ANC, but not much has been said about the fact that most of the people who helped Zuma ascend to the Presidency, on seeing the manner with which he was governing, immediately regretted their decision and began the work of reversing it which culminated in the failed attempt at the Mangaung conference.
The first test for the 53rd NEC came in March 2014, two years after they were elected, when the then Public Protector released the cataclysmic Secure in Comfort report. This was two months before the 2014 elections, and it was no time to shirk leadership duties and certainly no time to bump along hoping for the best. This is exactly what the NEC did. The other half went on the offensive against the public protector.
The protracted antagonism and erosion of public trust in the NEC as a result of Nkandla deserves its own assessment. When the President decided in 2016 that he would comply with the Public Protector’s remedial actions, the worst damage to the credibility of the ANC NEC had already been done. Unfortunately, 2016 was also the year of local government elections and there was no dodging the coming bullet.
What most people missed is that the impact of Nkandla on the 2014 elections was almost the same as the one in the 2016 elections. As the 2015 NGC would highlight, in 2014, except for a marginal gain in Buffalo City, the ANC’s support declined in the metro areas by an aggregate of 10.3 percentage points, with the EFF gaining 11.4% and the DA increasing its support by 6.5 percentage points. Under this NEC, both in 2014 and 2016, the ANC suffered its most humiliating election victory since the first elections in 1994.
The sad reality of the 52nd and 53rd elective congresses is that both were so corrosive and divisive that the most skilled comrades found themselves outside the elected NECs and therefore outside government, leaving the loyalists who were ready to do anything to win a congress but had absolutely no idea what it took to govern.
As a result, one lasting legacy of this NEC has been its lack of state capacity and the daily lapses in good governance, leading to a government that is inept, incapable even of the most basic services.
Every other day the ANC government has been taken to court to be forced to do what it was supposed to do in the first place. Under this NEC, the ANC government has shirked its duties to a point that the courts have literally been running this country on all fronts. What has been more disheartening has been that even when the courts have found ANC officials wrong, incompetent or simply reckless in their government duties, starting with the President, and even the when the auditor general has found lack of capacity and looting of state money, there has been continued lack of accountability and lack of enforcing good governance on the part of the NEC as the overall supervisor of ANC government.
The last year of this NEC has been bombarded with the populist rhetoric of Radical Economic Transformation, a misdirection from a failed grouping trying to hold on to a modicum of public sympathy, desperately trying to escape the devastation they have brought into our beloved organisation.
Outside the ANC the NEC has also been found wanting on many fronts. The NEC was also found flatfooted when the student protests erupted in 2015, with contradictory responses from its members, attacking each other in a race to be the most popular voice who can be a darling of the students.
The most devastating consequence of this NEC has been in how they have handled the economy. For the first time, the ANC government has been seen as an impediment to growth instead of being its enabler. The recklessness with which the NEC has handled the President’s prerogative reshuffles and its destructive impacts on the economy will be remembered as the incidences which proved that the NEC is a powerless entity that exists only on the sidelines of power.
The economic uncertainty has been yet another defining feature of this NEC, including the divisive matter of a nuclear deal, to be or not to be, and the ever so polarising Mining Charter.
It is however the inability to deal with corruption that sets this NEC apart. While the 51st NEC, led by Thabo Mbeki, at the slightest hint of corruption, would make decisive and clear decisions, the major being to relieve Jacob Zuma off his duties as Deputy President for merely having a corrupt relationship with a convicted person, the 52nd and 53rd NEC seemed to operate as a rewarder off all those who were corruptible and loyal.
Even as this NEC wraps up its devastating term, there is still ambivalence about the establishment of the judicial commission to deal with all the corruption and the rot.
Instead of dealing with corruption, those who have dared to criticise corruption have been seen as part of the major problem in the ANC, accused of bringing the influence of the neoliberal ideological paradigm (and its ability to weaken resolve on transformation). This has resulted in the harassment of all NEC members who sit on boards of companies, presented as conflicted and not supportive of the transformation agenda.
Even a rebuke on ill-discipline, factionalism and infighting has been met with counter accusations by those whose political survival depends on chaos and instability.
The succession debate and inability to handle it has been the closing sting into this underwhelming NEC, which is a symptom of five years of consciously crippling all relations within the NEC itself and with important stakeholders, particularly the alliance.
There is only one lesson that this 53rd NEC can offer the upcoming 54th NEC: Be nothing like us. DM
Winston Churchill gave Charlie Chaplin bricklaying lessons. The activity was a hobby for Churchill.