Opinionista David Reiersgord 14 March 2021

Factionalism and the ANC: Are we missing something?

The way the ANC manages divisions in its ranks suggests that it believes that an assertion of inner unity is a sufficient tactic to reinforce its claim to legitimacy and authority in South Africa.

While Jacob Zuma avoids the Zondo Commission, factions within the ANC jostle for position. One is anchored by President Cyril Ramaphosa, the other by Ace Magashule. Both groups find themselves traversing a tactical tightrope, unable to look below and see a public demanding – desperate for – accountability and leadership.

In the ANC, factions are prevalent, enough that conventional wisdom holds that the party is at war with itself. They greatly affect the country and reduce the party’s capacity to address challenges affecting daily life.

Nevertheless, are we missing something when we think of factionalism and the ANC? It’s worth considering that factionalism may not be as detrimental to the party as many think.

We should contemplate whether factionalism may be a mechanism for the ANC to appear to overcome what ails it – such as competing visions and corrupting incompetence – in order to demonstrate its unity. Factionalism might be an opportunity for the ANC to reassert its legitimacy as a governing authority in South Africa.

Remember that in 2008, the ANC was divided after Thabo Mbeki’s recall and Zuma’s ascension to the top position in the party. In the build-up to the 2009 national election, Zuma foregrounded the unity of the party, explaining how the ANC would now “work flat out to renew and build the organisation”.

More than a decade later, the ANC is still divided. In one corner Ramaphosa is pushing to reform the party and appears to demand accountability. In the other corner, Magashule aims to carry on the project of radical economic transformation and appears to resist accountability. Despite these divisions the underlying pattern is that the survival of the party often takes precedence over accountability and leadership.

Recall the months leading up to the 54th National Conference in 2017 when, in August, Zuma faced a motion of no confidence by secret ballot. The party was divided along factional lines between those aligned to Zuma and the Gupta family and those shocked to find out just how deep the rot was. After a season of revelations about networks of corruption and Bell Pottinger’s public relations project, the ANC seemed to be diminishing itself in the eyes of the public every day.

And yet, questioning Zuma’s leadership was taken as being akin to questioning the legitimacy of the party, so much so that some members of the ANC likened the move to regime change or staging a coup. The party had political capital to maintain by not endorsing the motion of no confidence. A vote in favour of the motion could have implicated more than just Zuma, since members – whether they believed in him or not – had endorsed him. Joining the push to remove Zuma would have been tantamount to admitting failure – or, being accountable.

Insisting that Zuma should not be recalled, as the party did in 2017, avoided accountability for his leadership. Additionally, it provided the ANC with the opportunity to demonstrate its unity. Soon after the failed motion of no confidence, the theme of unity was pitched to voters, supposedly with Zweli Mkhize as its figurehead.

If, in the months or years ahead, Zuma or Magashule – or both – end up facing consequences, or if Ramaphosa loses control of the party, a new dispensation could employ overcoming factionalism as a justification of its authority and necessity to lead – like it did in 2008. Such a move would be intended to remind the public of the party’s unity and its legitimacy. Whether it’s a “new dawn” or “radical economic transformation” the party repeatedly rewrites its legitimacy through the language of unity.

We shouldn’t overlook the fact that the ANC believes it is akin to an ordained authority. This is why Jessie Duarte, when outlining her dissatisfaction with the Zondo Commission, lamented that those who participated in the commission “displayed a lack of appreciation for the elected leadership within a political organisation”. From the ANC’s perspective, when “our people” criticise the party they forget how lucky they are.

The ANC’s authority is understood to be transcendent and beyond reproach because it believes it is the only party that can and should govern a democratic South Africa. Factions are not an impediment to this authority – they are an opportunity to reassert it.

When Ramaphosa addressed the nation in February 2018 after beating the Zuma faction at the party’s 54th National Conference, he referenced the need to move beyond factionalism, more so than addressing its consequences. Invoking the party’s historical legacy he implored everyone to “honour Madiba by putting behind us the era of discord, disunity and disillusionment”, since “a new dawn is upon us … inspired by our collective memory of Nelson Mandela and the changes that are unfolding”.

Yet, although the public expected members of the Zuma faction to be reshuffled out of key posts, Ramaphosa’s first cabinet was comprised of a significant number of members linked to it. In a balancing act aimed at maintaining unity, Ramaphosa had to repackage the image of the party since the consequences of Zuma’s tenure called into question its legitimacy to lead and govern South Africa. But at this point, the party can only overcome itself in appearance, because the corruption is too entrenched.

Zuma’s recent defiance of the Zondo Commission is an example of how factionalism, while complicated and dangerous, presents the party with an opportunity to launder its legitimacy. Encouraging him to face consequences threatens not just the perception of the ANC’s unity, it threatens the party’s legitimacy. So, giving him “space to continue consulting with lawyers to decide whether he will appear or not”, as Magashule said after the party’s leadership met with Zuma last week, maintains the facade of unity and keeps alive the possibility of the party working through its divisions once again.

If, in the months or years ahead, Zuma or Magashule – or both – end up facing consequences, or if Ramaphosa loses control of the party, a new dispensation could employ overcoming factionalism as a justification of its authority and necessity to lead – like it did in 2008. Such a move would be intended to remind the public of the party’s unity and its legitimacy. Whether it’s a “new dawn” or “radical economic transformation” the party repeatedly rewrites its legitimacy through the language of unity.

Perhaps the larger factional battle is between the ANC and South Africa. While the former believes it knows what’s best for what it commonly describes as “our people”, the latter is stuck with a party that thinks it owns them, with limited alternatives. However, South Africa faces serious challenges and teeters on a fragile swivel, which requires a governing authority that can overcome these, not itself. DM

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  • A political party that by omission or commission allows immorality and corruption is not aligned with the Constitution. I wonder if it’s even legal? There is too much analysis and hiding behind technical babble. What’s required is applying good values and common sense. Is it really that difficult?

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