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‘Unity and renewal in the ANC’: The echoes of promises made countless times before

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Rebone Tau is a political commentator and author of The Rise and Fall of the ANCYL. She is a Research Fellow at the Institute for Pan-African Thought & Conversation (IPATC) at the University of Johannesburg. She writes in her personal capacity.

A difficult year looms for the ANC as it heads towards its 55th National Conference in December. Already the factions are positioning themselves for dominance at the key gathering. The ANC January 8 statement’s promises of party renewal and unity were echoes of what has been promised countless times before. It’s difficult to see how it is any different this time around.

The ANC is facing an identity crisis as it heads towards its 55th National Conference in December. The theme for this year is “The year of unity and renewal to defend and advance South Africa’s democratic gains”. What does this mean?

The goal of unity and renewal is not new for the ANC. It is an annual slogan that is repeated by every leader of the ANC, yet we cannot see unity and renewal in the organisation. Ten years ago, the ANC January 8 theme was “The year of unity in diversity”. The theme of the January 8 statement in 2021 was, “The year for unity, renewal and reconstruction in the year of Charlotte Maxeke”.

In 2017, the ANC said it was the year of deepening unity as it was preparing for the 54th National Conference at Nasrec. In the years since that statement, it has been a struggle to understand the aims and objectives of the ANC NEC collective that was elected there.

The word ‘unity’ is used over and over again, while the organisation continues to be highly divided.

In this year’s January 8 statement, we saw something different. What was interesting was when ANC Limpopo chairperson Stan Mathabatha did something that has never been done at a January 8 statement celebration, something that is foreign to the ANC’s traditions and culture. His task was to welcome comrades and the national leadership as the chairperson of the hosting province for the ANC’s annual rally. Never, in the history of the ANC, has the January 8 statement rally been used to make a pronouncement on who should next lead the ANC. The event is strictly about the statement of the ANC NEC for the year ahead.

It was notable that some things that began during the era of former president Jacob Zuma are continuing even now – such as not allowing the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) to give messages of support during the January 8 statement gathering. This foreign tradition started during the time that Julius Malema was president of the ANC Youth League when he no longer agreed with Zuma politically. In an era of renewal, you would expect the ANC leagues to be giving messages of support as they have always done, since they represent the ANC constituencies of women and the youth.

A big problem with the ANC is that its leaders are praise singers of the sitting president. This is not new. During Zuma’s era, we had what was called the “Premier League”, a faction of ANC provincial chairpersons under whose watch many wrongs happened. They were unable to hold Zuma and his NEC accountable for wrongdoing. They were also at the heart of the destruction of the ANCYL and central to the election of Collen Maine as its president. In an era of renewal and unity, one would expect the ANC leadership to do things differently.  

If the ANC is serious about its claimed goals, it needs to do away with personality cults. Zuma could not be held to account by his collective during the era of State Capture. We would not have to deal with the consequences of State Capture today if the ANC NEC had called him out, and if they had not told their members to consider it a collective responsibility when wrong things were done.

At its 53rd conference in Mangaung, in 2012, the ANC declared the next 10 years to be the “decade of the cadre”. We are now in 2022 and the “decade of the cadre” ends in December. Yet again we see the ANC taking a resolution and failing to implement it. You can never advance renewal and unity if you do not invest in cadre development.

The problem within the ANC is not the radical economic transformation faction, which is known to be close to Zuma. In reality, both the Cyril Ramaphosa and RET factions are actually one faction. The CR faction is a breakaway from the RET faction, and they worked together back in 2005 when the ANC was preparing for its historic 2007 conference. Zuma built this faction after the 2007 conference, with those who did not go to exile during the Struggle. The formation of the “Premier League” provides a case study of this strategy. That is why in today’s ANC top six, for the first time since the 1991 conference, you have people who were not in exile.

It will take a special type of cadre to rebuild the ANC and those who take on the task will have to go through a process of cadre development. It is a process that will separate the careerists from the activists who are genuinely there to serve the people, rather than serving the interests of individuals – unfortunately a trait we continue to see in the ANC which keeps unity and renewal just a dream for party members.

The upcoming conference of the ANC will produce further division in the ANC, as there cannot be unity without a unity of purpose. And we have seen that there is really nothing that can unite the RET and CR factions. They failed to unite after the conference in 2017 and the goal is not looking any closer.

Without unity, the ANC will struggle to achieve renewal. Without renewal there can be no unity and the battle lines between the factions are being drawn.

The RET faction in particular is facing a crisis, as it is at its weakest with Ace Magashule suspended as the secretary-general of the ANC. It also does not have a presidential candidate going to the national conference.

Ahead of the 55th National Conference, the NEC made a startling admission in the January 8 statement: “The reality is that ANC structures are in a poor state. Many of them are focused on internal organisational conflicts, factionalism and furthering the self-interest of individual leaders rather than the aspirations of communities they are meant to serve.”

One has to ask how will the current ANC NEC go to its national conference with branches that are in a poor state? How can it have faith in such branches that they will help in the process of unity and renewal of the wider ANC when these very structures need to be renewed and united themselves? The members of the current ANC NEC leadership have to ask themselves how they have contributed, over the past four years, towards the current state of the ANC structures that they highlighted in their statement.

Lastly, this is a year of conferences in the ANC, as its leagues – the ANC Women’s League and the ANCYL – also prepare for their conferences and congresses. The last time the ANCYL was a vibrant structure was during the era of Julius Malema. Since 2013, the ANC has been saying it is rebuilding the ANCYL. But it has been eight years since then, and it has failed to achieve this so far. 

The current leadership of the ANC has been central to the destruction of the ANCYL. DM

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