KwaZulu purge is all about No 1

Crossing the line: Disgruntled ANC members march to the party’s offices in Durban late last year. (Tebogo Letsie/Gallo Images/City Press)

Crossing the line: Disgruntled ANC members march to the party’s offices in Durban late last year. (Tebogo Letsie/Gallo Images/City Press)

The scene in November last year at Pietermaritzburg’s Royal Agricultural Show Ground was as unedifying as it was reflective, its purgative nature palpable.

ANC branch members, gathered for the party’s KwaZulu-Natal elective conference, were nominating comrades for the provincial executive committee (PEC) following Sihle Zikalala’s victory over the incumbent provincial chairperson, Senzo Mchunu.

Every time someone who was not on Zikalala’s factional list was nominated from the floor, his backers let out a loud, sweeping shushing sound – a signal that translated into a paltry show of voting hands and a smack-down of the aspirant nominee.

It was clear that no Mchunu supporter would make the final list from which the PEC would be elected, and halfway through the nomination process most of the delegates from the Far North region, who had supported Mchunu, had resigned themselves to the outcome and left the conference hall.

The victors’ antipathy towards the vanquished was so raw that, until the newly returned provincial deputy chairperson, Willies Mchunu, clarified that the previous top five would automatically be included on the voting list, it seemed unlikely that Senzo Mchunu and those on his 2015 slate – which included provincial MECs such as economic development head Mike Mabuyakhulu (a decent man, a hard worker and a loyal ANC cadre) – would make it.

But the intervention by the province’s elder mattered naught. Neither Senzo Mchunu nor those on his slate made it to the PEC.

Despite Zikalala’s public proclamations that the new leadership would heal the divisions wrought by the contest, rumours were already swirling around the conference venue that Senzo Mchunu would be recalled as the provincial premier before the month was out.

He lasted slightly more than six months before being forced to resign by the party’s provincial and national hierarchy. This week, his successor, Willies Mchunu, replaced another four provincial MECs seen to be close to Senzo Mchunu with people instrumental in Zikalala’s victory in Pietermaritzburg last year.

A fifth, Mxolisi Kaunda, replaced Willies Mchunu as transport MEC.

The past few months were not easy for Senzo Mchunu, according to sources. Some of his cabinet had apparently been running to the PEC with complaints about provincial government decisions and programmes to “safeguard” their cabinet positions with the new provincial leadership, thus undermining Mchunu’s own position and ability to run the government.

He also appeared to be increasingly hamstrung by the new provincial leadership and their criticism that his government was conducting programmes “parallel” to the PEC’s.

A purge on this scale is unprecedented in KwaZulu-Natal.

Even after the bitter contestation between pro-Zuma backers and those supporting former president Thabo Mbeki in the build-up to the ANC’s 2007 national elective conference in Polokwane, grudges were buried. Mbeki-ites, such as then-premier Sbu Ndebele, were allowed to complete their terms before being moved on to national positions. Others with experience in government, such as Cyril Xaba (who was removed this week as agriculture MEC), were brought back into the fold. Institutional memory in government and cohesion in the party appeared important to the ANC then.

No longer.

What has changed in recent months that has led to the spewing of bile between former comrades – and the bullets that have seen political assassinations in the ANC itself?

The simplest answer is the ANC’s understanding of itself – as a party in power, and within which power must be consolidated – is very different to a decade ago, particularly when national leadership positions are going to be contested.

Zuma’s ascension to the presidency of the party in Polokwane was built on the support he received from the ANC’s regions, not the provinces. His main organisers, such as the deceased former eThekwini regional chairperson, John Mchunu, and Senzo Mchunu, then the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial secretary, had helped to rally regions around the country behind Zuma’s “100%” cause leading up to Polokwane.

That recognition of how power can be consolidated within the ANC, in the years since the Polokwane conference, has led to an increasing conflation of the state’s structure and its resources with that of the party: regional ANC power-brokers land jobs as mayors and municipal managers, with their backers at branch level becoming councillors.

Tenders go to the right business people, who channel part of their financial rewards back into building support bases. Provincial tenders and service delivery programmes are likewise used to fortify support.

This is how those with political aspirations understand the organisation as the incumbent government.

To maintain power within the ANC at its national elective conference next year, the groundwork must be done in the lead-up to this year’s local government elections. Whoever has political aspirations to lead the ANC in 2017 needs mayors (and those supporting them – ANC regional leaders) and councillors (ANC branch leaders or those close to branch leaders) in power after the elections in August.

They also need provincial departments to roll out services to people, or to buy things such as medical equipment for hospitals, from the kind of service providers who will return some of the cash for political campaigns.

This is why aspirant councillors and the appearance of their names on lists have gained such significance – and the attention of assassins – over the past few months.

It is known that Senzo Mchunu’s support of Zuma has cooled. He evidently could not be trusted to lead the province as a homogenous bloc to the ANC’s conference next year.

To consolidate support for Zuma in KwaZulu-Natal then, those who assumed power in Pietermaritzburg in November had to crush the dissent in party ranks – dissent that reflects the sentiments of almost half the organisation’s structures, judging by the roughly 100 to 150 vote margins between the victors and losers in each of the top five contests at a conference with 1 463 voting delegates.

It is telling that some of the branches disqualified from participating in the conference, ostensibly on technical grounds, but apparently because of their support for Senzo Mchunu, have lodged complaints with Luthuli House about their councillor nomination processes being irregular – all of which appear to have been ignored by ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe. ANC members this week protested over the list processes as the sense grew that Zikalala’s victorious faction was imposing itself on pro-Mchunu branches that did qualify for last year’s conference in an attempt to sideline those not toeing the new party line.

Zikalala, who was secretary general of the ANC Youth League when it backed Zuma in Polokwane, remains the president’s point man in the province. Since Monday, after his appointment as economic development MEC (replacing Mabuyakhulu), he has also been handed the keys to the provincial government coffers.

The purge that started in November has ensured a PEC that supports Zuma, or whoever his anointed successor as ANC president is.

At provincial government level, it means state resources and “programmes” can be used not just to ensure support for this particular version of the ANC – one that is increasingly antidemocratic and violent internally – but also for Zuma.

The president’s greatest trick, since he was temporarily cast out of power in 2005 by Mbeki, is to conflate his image and interests with those of the ANC.

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi


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