Posted on Thursday, 17 April 2014 17:57

The battle for South Africa's Soul

By By Gregory Mthembu-Salter, Crystal Orderson and Patrick Smith in Cape Town

Photo©Radu Sigheti/ReutersWith the ruling African National Congress certain of victory in the coming national elections, attention turns to the countervailing forces within the party, and to voters who differ sharply over their country's future political direction.

Such is the power that the African National Congress (ANC) has assumed over the life of South Africa in the past 20 years that the announcement of its candidate lists on 11 March was seen by the country's political cognoscenti as being as important as the results of the national elections on 7 May.

Our government has run out of excuses [...] we cannot continue to blame apartheid for our failings as a state

In part, this is the downside of an electoral system – proportional representation – in which members of parliament (MPs) are selected by their party's national executive committees, not by the parliamentary constituencies they are meant to represent.

So when ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe told journalists "We are comfortable with the list [...] We looked through it carefully," everyone got the message. The party's apparatchiks had selected the country's new political elite. President Jacob Zuma was number one, of course.

Cyril Ramaphosa was number two and almost certain to be deputy-president, if not heir apparent. Malusi Gigaba, minister of public enterprises and director of elections, was number three.

Equally important were the absences. Two historic foes who had been openly critical of Zuma's leadership – Tokyo Sexwale and Mathews Phosa – had become unpersons, with a cloud of uncertainty hanging over their political and business futures.

A more amenable adieu was negotiated by two other party elders – deputy-president Kgalema Motlanthe and planning minister Trevor Manuel – who declined nominations.

Both were sterling representatives of the original rule-regulated and mass-based ANC.

Both also had their problems with Zuma's leadership. Indeed, Motlanthe challenged him somewhat half- heartedly for the party leadership at the ANC's Mangaung conference in 2012, but both maintained party discipline and an outward show of respect for the chief.

Manuel was right on target, however, when he made a perceptive aside about Zuma to a journalist: "He knows what he doesn't know."

He also admitted to a more general political frustration last year: "Our government has run out of excuses [...] we cannot continue to blame apartheid for our failings as a state. The time for change, for a ruthless focus on implementation, has come."

Their retirement from parliament prompted a special session to bid them farewell, drawing praise from across the house.

A few weeks earlier both men had attended the launch of Busani Ngcaweni's history of the ANC and spoke frankly about the direction of the party.

Motlanthe took another swipe at political patronage: "We have to draw lessons from our history. We must create the future from wisdom and how we will deal with the problems. The ANC has never been about a free ride."

And then Manuel, who had taken to the international stage with alacrity and may return to it, offered a more direct critique: "We choose to lock out certain information. Part of our problem is that we continue to worship the rich and the powerful and ignore and despise the poor. We must confront future generations of the country as well [...] it is not how many millionaires we create but how many millions of Africans we lift out of poverty."

Famous five survive

There was also a more awkward post-script to the ANC's list of MPs: at least five of those on the list were embroiled in corruption scandals or had damning findings made against them by public protector Thuli Madonsela.

The 'famous five' includes Dina Pule, sacked as communications minister after she was found by the public protector to have awarded contracts to companies linked to her partner, to have lied to parliament and to have misused state funds.

The interest and controversy generated by the ANC's list of MP candidates reinforce the sense among its loyalists that the party has moved from a liberation movement with well-defined ideals and moral standards to an electoral and political patronage machine whose dynamics are shaped overwhelmingly by personal interests.

Tom Lodge, a political scientist and author of several books on the ANC, points to signs of the party's changing character in an article entitled 'Neo-patrimonial politics in the ANC.'

They include "factionalism [and] the emergence of internal rival groups constituted by personal loyalty rather than shared ideological beliefs".

Added to this, Lodge explains that officials seek political legitimacy through appeals to solidarity rather than the quality of government performance.

The massive growth of ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal since Zuma became party president and the lauding of him as a '100% Zulu boy' runs contrary to the established principles of the original ANC, which guarded against the building of ethnic constituencies within the party.

Under apartheid, the reason for that was that the National Party went to great lengths to divide its opponents along ethnic and racial lines.

Post-apartheid and with the ANC in government, there are different risks to this factionalism and ethnic favouritism that undermines accountability and wider policy aims such as a fairer redistribution of wealth.

First family businesses

Among the most visible signs of these changes within the ANC has been the acquisition of business interests by leading politicians and their families, especially the rapid expansion of the presidential family's business concerns since Zuma's accession to the presidency in 2009.

By March 2010, members of the Zuma family held 134 company directorships. Of the companies in Zuma's official declaration of interests, 83 were registered after he became ANC president, reported the Johannesburg weekly Mail & Guardian.

This extends well beyond the presidential circle, according to Lodge: "The ANC's mobilisation of public support relies increasingly on patron-client relations."

Although Zuma, unlike his aloof predecessor, has cultivated a persona as a man of the people who is always willing to listen to requests and concerns. There are reports of long queues of citizens waiting to see him at Mahlamba Ndlopfu, the presidential residence at Pretoria.

These patron-client relations exist alongside a modern democratic state with an independent judiciary and media.

But the danger is that the shift to patronage politics and the dominance of personal interests within the ruling party could undermine South Africa's governance.

And certainly, some party apparatchiks are working hard to undermine the authority of independent institutions such as the public protector's office or even the Constitutional Court.

Desperate to work, South Africans contend with higher unemployment than in 1994. Photo©Rogan Ward/Reuters

Provincial springboards

Further down the hierarchy, this pattern is repeated with intense competition among ANC cadres to control provincial structures and local municipalities, which make decisions about tenders and contracts.

On the back of these financial powers, political careers can be launched. And it goes beyond the ANC.

Julius Malema, the firebrand former leader of the ANC Youth League, used his ties with the Limpopo provincial government to build a business and then a political platform: after he was sacked from the ANC, Malema's founded the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). So high are the stakes now that the competition for government jobs and even posts within the ANC has become brutally intense.

"The ANC leadership increasingly reinforces its authority and demonstrates its power through displays of ostentation and elaborate security procedures," writes Lodge.

A symbol of this is the R206m ($19.3m) security upgrade to Zuma's homestead at Nkandla, but it also revealed a gross miscalculation by the presidency. Initially the security project at Zuma's private house was pushed through as a perquisite of office, underlining the aura of presidential inviolability.

When journalists and MPs saw the details – which included the curious addition of items such as a swimming pool, an amphitheatre and houses for the president's relatives – the stage was set for a
political confrontation.

Parallel investigations were launched: public protector Madonsela's draft report was reputedly highly critical and a probe by the Joint Standing Committee on Intelligence found companies had been awarded contracts without security clearance.

They personally exonerated Zuma of any wrongdoing, however. 'Nkandlagate' rumbles on and will doubtless influence some voters in the elections.

There are clearly forces within the ruling party that revel in the move towards patronage politics and are happy to jettison the ideological policies and practices of the old liberation movement.

Yet there are countervailing groups that want strong and independent institutions in South Africa, precisely as a bulwark against the tendencies towards personal rule and clientism.

Some are younger activists with much broader agendas.

Paul Mashatile, who led the Forces for Change movement in Gauteng, is characterisic of the younger generation: "When there were challenges in the ANC, the party is able to self-correct. Some say that the ANC has fallen. It is not true. It is in our DNA to renew the ANC continuously. The renewal of the ANC is part of our history."

But some are adherents of the old ANC, which they saw as a disciplined and accountable organisation. That is the ANC of Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and Albert Luthuli.

Others are more sceptical of romanticising the past, arguing that some of the criminal tendencies within today's ANC have their roots in the deals that helped finance the liberation struggle, remembering the less scrupulous operatives who managed to earn money for the cause and enrich themselves at the same time.

The struggle aura fades

Martin Plaut, the co-author of Who Rules South Africa?, argues the new elite of the party "shows that the ANC is going back to its roots as a centrist Christian Democrat party" and is likely to end up squeezed somewhere between a leftist and trade-union-backed party and a more right-wing party.

Plaut also cites what he calls the "30-year rule": liberation movements that win independence for their countries lose their mass support and the popular imagination within 30 years, and can no longer hold onto power democratically.

"The ANC under Jacob Zuma has died a natural death," said Mpho Ramakatsa, national coordinator of the EFF, addressing a recent rally. "You threaten the interests of Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Khulubuse [Zuma] [...] because the ANC we have today protects the interests of owners of means of production."

Is the ANC heading towards the 30-year point? Its internal battles and victories have mirrored the wider changes in the country's politics.

After 102 years of existence and the last 20 in power, the ANC has established a political hegemony in South Africa equivalent to that of the Indian National Congress, which celebrates 120 years of existence next year.

A little bit of punishment

The comparison is apposite. Those parties were born out of revolutionary change and were powered by mass popular support. And in return they promised a future of freedom, equity and modernisation.

Indeed, Mandela's inaugural speech in May 1994 was one of the most eloquent expressions of political aims: "We have, at last, achieved our political emancipation. We pledge ourselves to liberate all our people from the continuing bondage of poverty, deprivation, suffering, gender and other discrimination [...] We enter in a covenant that we shall build the society in which all South Africans, both black and white, will be able to walk tall assured of their inalienable right to human dignity – a rainbow nation at peace with itself and the world."

Even loyal ANC supporters admit the record in power has fallen short of such lofty aims but see no reason to believe the ANC will follow its Indian counter- part into opposition any time soon.

And despite the plans by the radical National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa to break away from the ANC-aligned Congress of South African Trade Unions, this realignment could take many more years.

Fanie du Toit, the director of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, concurs with the gradualist assessment: "I don't think we are at the point where we have a viable alternative for most people in their minds. So they will do one of two things. They will vote for the devil they know or they will stay away. So there will be a little bit, but not too much, punishment for the ANC."

What happens to the ruling party after the elections depends as much on which group wins the battles within it as what happens in the swirling pool of radical politics outside. ●

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