Rhetoric, ambition and the ANC

There are moments in history when the future appears as a series of stark choices between life and death, good and evil, progress and regression. Such is the national mood as the ANC gathers at Polokwane.

We might call it the end of post-apartheid innocence—something similar to what other African countries experienced after a decade or more of independence.

The ANC is not the party it was 13 years ago. Strong business interests are exerting themselves throughout the party, the “left” is not always what it seems to be, “principles” are thrown about like confetti and little is certain. Where are we heading?

The decisions taken in the next week will mark a number of turning points for the country, irrespective of whether the Jacob Zuma or Thabo Mbeki camp emerges as the hegemonic group.

From the standpoint of who will govern, there is no certainty. It is unlikely there will be a winner-takes-all national executive committee and top six. Rather, they are likely to be formed from both lists. If Zuma is elected president, the ANC deputy president could become the party’s standard bearer in 2009. Crucially, this depends on the outcome of the National Prosecuting Authority’s criminal investigation and the ANC’s assessment of the damage it would suffer by having a candidate, already burdened by negative public perceptions of his character, facing corruption charges.

It is not legally possible, as one analyst mistakenly claimed, that a future President Zuma could simply pardon himself if charged and convicted. The attempt to do so would trash the Constitution and make South Africa the world’s laughing stock. And deciding not to lay charges against him at this late stage, while he desperately fights to prevent the prosecution from obtaining evidence that could nail him in court, is likely to be interpreted as a political decision, sending the wrong signal about the integrity of the justice system.

In short, a Zuma state presidency will tax the nation considerably, though his presidency of the ANC alone might not do so to the same extent.

Polokwane will be a watershed for women’s leadership. It will either raise the level of such leadership, which the ANC has championed since 1994, or it will signal stagnation (at best) of women’s gains in the new South Africa. Should the Mbeki camp win the presidency and deputy presidency, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma almost certainly will be the ANC’s presidential candidate in 2009, with perhaps a credible individual from the Zuma list becoming her deputy.

The run-up to Polokwane has exploded several myths, among them that the ANC remains the harmonious, united progressive movement that South Africa came to know over many years. Another fiction that has come to an end is the idea of South African exceptionalism: notwithstanding the very real progress made in the past 13 years, this country remains a capitalist society deeply divided along lines of race and class.

Central to today’s political developments is the fact that there is growing class stratification within the ANC and much of the factionalism tearing up the ruling party is driven by economic interest. Those who have benefited economically since 1994 are desperately seeking to protect and consolidate their gains by supporting whichever camp they believe will be more advantageous to them, while those who feel they are on the outside are doing the same. None of this is a matter of ideology. Ethnicity, hovering ominously on the horizon of the schism, has been deployed to the same end.

We must accept the fundamental change of circumstances. The ANC before 1994 had a core of leaders whose primary attributes were sacrifice and service to the cause of liberation without expectation of material rewards or benefits. Today the leadership is made up increasingly of seekers of fortune.

And, once we cast off the rose-tinted glasses of exceptionalism, there are clear lessons to be drawn from other post-colonial societies, including the propensity to primitive capital accumulation among erstwhile leaders of liberation movements. Such naked ambition has always been dressed up in the clothes of the “man of the people”, of revolutionary rhetoric and “the struggle”.

Frantz Fanon captured the demagoguery and ruthlessness of those who aspire to emulate their erstwhile oppressors in The Wretched of the Earth, while Lenin observed that people will always be fooled by political posturing and rhetoric unless they seek to understand the class interests of those who loudly pronounce pious political positions.

Much of the rhetoric emanating from the Zuma camp in particular deserves close scrutiny. To attack state institutions simply because they seek to bring to justice those suspected of criminal wrongdoing implies that, if this camp prevails, “comrades” will enjoy immunity and impunity. If Mbeki’s rule has been selective in law enforcement, this must be corrected, but not at the expense of the rule of law.

Of late the opposing factions have called forth “principles” and “traditions” of the movement, invoking the names of Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Chris Hani to buttress their arguments. There have been cases (confirmed in court) where people who are long dead have been on the list of delegates “voting” in the provincial nominations process. The Women’s League’s nomination process was manipulated and compromised. There have been allegations of hidden foreign funding of Zuma’s expensive foreign travels and bribery from the Mbeki camp.

All this indicates a party that is fast destroying its own legacy.

Is it too late to stop the rot? Are delegates able to produce a leadership that will consolidate South Africa’s transformation towards a non-racial, non-sexist society that maintains the rule of law? A leadership capable of healing the rifts in the ANC and providing leadership for Africa’s renewal?

The nation holds its breath.

Shadrack Gutto is director of the Centre for African Renaissance Studies at Unisa

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