ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete contradicted President Jacob Zuma’s views that opposition parties were being “counter-democratic” by opting to settle political disputes in court, when she said they had “the democratic right to do so”.
Mbete said she believed ANC stalwarts such as OR Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela would be appreciative of the new challenges the movement faces, without being overly concerned.
By contrast, secretary general Gwede Mantashe took it further, laying the blame on some in the ANC.
Mbete was speaking to the Mail & Guardian on the fifth day of the ANC’s national policy conference on Tuesday, when she said the behaviour of opposition parties was not anti-democratic, but was “unnecessary”.
“It’s unnecessary energy and resources that are being used in that exercise,” Mbete said. “However, people have a democratic right to do it, so they do it nonetheless. But we hope they will see sense one of these days.”
During his opening address on the first day of the conference, Zuma accused opposition parties of refusing to accept the democratic principle that majority rules and trying to win debates using the courts.
“You argue in Parliament and then the opposition is defeated they say: ‘Okay, we’re going to court.’ The debate in Parliament these days ends up in court. Is that the democracy? Is that what we designed as our democracy?” Zuma said.
The most recent parliamentary disagreement to end up in court was the quest for a secret ballot in a motion of no confidence in the president.
The United Democratic Movement (UDM) approached the Constitutional Court to rule on whether Mbete could grant a secret ballot after she said she did not have the power to do so.
Despite Zuma arguing that opposition parties were counter-democratic and Mbete’s assertion that their court applications were unnecessary, Mantashe said it was the behaviour of ANC leaders that was to blame for some in the party complaining of judicial overreach.
In his organisational diagnostic report, Mantashe said the inability of leaders to own up to their faults and correct them was seeing them continuously hauled before courts, creating the impression that the party didn’t know “the difference between wrong and right”.
The report outlined other concerns, including the political bankruptcy of branches, money and status replacing real politics and the rapid decline in the party’s support.
When asked if the founding leaders of the ANC would be concerned with the current state of the party, Mbete said: “They would, but not so much.”
This year the issue of organisational renewal in the ANC was elevated to a strategic level, with talks on strategy and tactics addressing the challenges the party faced internally and externally.
Mbete said although the party was facing a difficult time, leaders such as Tambo, Sisulu and Mandela would understand that the ANC of today was at a new stage with its own set of challenges. “We are in a different space. We have learnt more things about governance and there will still be more challenges and we are up for it,” she said.
“We’re in an ocean. The waves never stop, they keep coming. But you can’t just keel over and die just because they’re not stopping. You have to come up with a way of responding to them and surviving and moving forward.”
With the party only a few months away from its December elective conference, there are fears that it may become more fractured as factions start lobbying for their preferred candidates.
Mbete is understood to have presidential ambitions and is hoping to become the first woman president of the ANC and the country.
During a separate interview with the M&G earlier this year, Mbete said she would avail herself for a position if nominated by branches: “I’m saying, I’m here, in the ANC and in its process.”
Despite fears that the leadership race may see the party become more divided, Mbete displayed an optimism about the organisation’s ability to mend itself.
At the opening of the conference on Friday last week, she burst into tears when Reverend Vukile Mehana prayed for the ANC’s unity.
As Mehana raised his voice, calling for ANC members who didn’t have the unity of the party at heart to remove themselves from the organisation, tears started streaming down Mbete’s face. It was unclear whether her tears were a sign of pain over the fractured state of the ANC or simply an act of being moved by the charismatic pastor.
In an interview on Tuesday, she said her crying symbolised a nostalgic moment about the ANC and how far it had come in its more than a century of existence.
“When you think back 105 years ago, and you think about what Reverend Mehana was reflecting on at that moment, he was thinking about what was sung at the founding conference [of the ANC]. And it’s a song I love, Lizalis’ idinga lakho,” Mbete said.