Mangaung: Mantashe doesn't walk the talk

Shenanigans at branch level were in part responsible for the re-election of most of the ANC's senior leaders, including Gwede Mantashe. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Shenanigans at branch level were in part responsible for the re-election of most of the ANC's senior leaders, including Gwede Mantashe. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The ANC will be looking to deepen its relationship with the Communist Party of China over the next five years, according to the party's re-elected secretary general, Gwede Mantashe.

He and the ANC's newly elected national executive committee may do well to be reminded of the views of the founder of the Chinese republic, Mao Zedong, that "the cardinal responsibility of leadership is to identify the dominant contradiction at each point of the historical process and to work out a central line to resolve it".

Mantashe's organisational review of the past five years, which he presented on Monday to the ANC's 53rd national conference at the University of the Free State in Bloemfontein, and his off-the-cuff remarks about problems in the party are riddled with contradictions. The most glaring was his description of the state of the party in KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga – two vociferously pro-Jacob Zuma provinces – as being healthy and stable.

His amnesiac approach to the reality on the ground in these provinces was a trenchant reflection of his close relationship with Zuma. Both Mpumalanga and KwaZulu-Natal have witnessed the most violent articulation of the problems that have beset the movement since 2007.

Since 2009, there have been several political killings in Mpumalanga, including that of Mbombela local municipality speaker and corruption whistle-blower Jimmy Mohlala just before the 2010 Fifa World Cup, and the fatal poisoning of Mpumalanga politician James Nkambule and the Ehlanzeni district municipality mayoral candidate John Ndlovu, among others.

According to the ANC's own internal investigations, 38 party members have been killed since January last year. Mantashe said that the "organisational stability" in the province "made it able to deal with many challenges, particularly assassinations" and welcomed the "several arrests" that had been made. But the researcher David Bruce, in his work on political and police violence in the province, differs and suggests that arrests are made when this violence occurs outside of those cycles generally sanctioned by the political and police structures ordering them.

ANC insiders told the Mail & Guardian that murders were occurring in KwaZulu-Natal because of factionalism in the build-up to Mangaung and over competition for resources at local government level – precisely the "tendencies" that Mantashe bemoaned.

Delegates from other parts of South Africa, who attended the ANC's national policy conference in Johannesburg in June, also told the M&G that they were taken aback by the KwaZulu-Natal delegation's lack of political intellectualism. They  were derisively labelled "maskandis" at the Gallagher Estate venue – they were there to sing louder than any opposition because of their numbers, instead of dealing constructively with policy issues. In Mangaung, they were called "voting cattle" – they were marked present to vote in a pro-Zuma slate, instead of taking the party forward.

These views are perhaps pejorative, burnished into hyperbole by the fire of factionalism, but there is a certain truth of a membership crisis in the organisation.

With the sod-turning yet to take place at the ANC's political school, political education is "relatively weak" and this is "reflected in the quality of membership and the ease with which this membership gets manipulated", according to Mantashe's report.

The ANC achieved its goal of one million members in its centenary year. Since its Polokwane conference in 2007, its membership rose from slightly more than 620 000 to slightly more than 1.2-million this year. But Mantashe raised concerns about the "real challenge" being the "inability … to convert quantity into quality".

The ANC's branches are also out of touch with their communities and the culture of activism at the ANC's core – in the branches – has been "killed". According to Mantashe, "the most serious problem" at branch level is that there is "little or no political life. Branches get revived when we are heading for conferences and elections. Basically, our branches are driven by the need to either nominate delegates, or candidates for local government elections in the main. This is at the centre of a membership that is not politically conscious and therefore susceptible to manipulation" – usually, it is assumed, as voting blocs for internal and external elections.

Paper members
Mantashe also highlighted the problem of the gatekeeping of branches to ensure a sort of consensus that entrenches personal power and "bulk-buying" of "paper members", whose membership is paid but their forms are retained by power brokers to extend their influence at branch level.

Despite both Zuma and Man-tashe's public criticism of these tendencies, the evidence – in Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's report on the pre-2011 local government election nomination problems the ANC experienced, in papers in the Constitutional Court case Mpho Ramakatsa and Others versus Elias [Ace] Magashule and Others and in interviews with Mangaung delegates – suggests that all these were present in Bloemfontein. They were also, in part, responsible for returning Zuma, Mantashe and the rest of their slate to the ANC's top six positions and the national executive committee, a contradiction that affects the party profoundly.

But, according to Mantashe, KwaZulu-Natal is a template the rest of the organisation should be using. The province has almost trebled its membership, from slightly more than 100 000 members at Polokwane to more than 330000 at Mangaung. It has also made tremendous strides in Inkatha Freedom Party areas, absorbing many of its members. However, according to long-standing ANC members, the former Inkatha members have introduced a culture of political intolerance and violence that overrides discussion and democratic centralism as a form of political resolution.

This, along with Mantashe's report, which states that the lack of a political school in the ANC is hampering the development of cadres and "the real challenge is the inability of the structures to convert quantity into quality", means that he, although urging renewal, will only usher in more of the problems he has criticised if he is going to base it on a template of voting banks, gatekeeping, political myopia and violence rather than intellectual resolutions for the challenges that face the party.

It will also consolidate power in the hands of a few rather than the many – the ANC branches.

The indications that this is already happening are powerful. If they are to be entrenched, then Mantashe's review in five years' time will echo the words of the Spanish philosopher and novelist George Santayana: "The world is a perpetual caricature of itself; at every moment it is a mockery and the contradiction of what it is pretending to be."

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