The apparently increasingly cosy relationship the Congress of Traditional Leaders of South Africa (Contralesa) enjoys with the Economic Freedom Fighters is the least of the ANC’s concerns ahead of the 2019 general elections, according to Mathole Motshekga, head of the party’s cultural and religious affairs committee.
Motshekga said the ANC had “noted traditional leaders’ concerns on land reform, rural development and the role of traditional leadership”. But, he added, it did not believe their unhappiness signalled a split between the ANC and Contralesa.
“They may have reasonable concerns, but we don’t think those concerns would justify serving divorce papers on the ruling party. And an engagement with the [ANC] will show that their true home remains the ruling party. When people have concerns they can look around … but that does not necessarily mean they have turned to someone else,” Motshekga said of Contralesa’s relations with the EFF.
Last week, Contralesa signalled a fraying allegiance to the ANC when it held a joint media briefing with the EFF, declaring that the two organisations shared common ground on many issues and would continue to work together.
There, Contralesa president Kgosi Mathupa Mokoena alluded to the organisation’s unhappiness with the ANC’s attitude towards traditional leaders, hinting that this was the catalyst behind developing relations with the EFF.
“They [EFF] have never insulted our kings, queens and traditional leaders by calling us village tinpot dictators. These are the true South Africans we are comfortable to associate with, unlike other people who insult ama-khosi,” Mokoena said, referring to a remark made by former president Kgalema Motlanthe in May.
Motlanthe spoke at the ANC’s land summit, at which he criticised traditional leaders for their failure to ensure land tenure for communities.
Contralesa will be a valuable ally for political parties ahead of the 2019 elections, given its access to rural communities, which make up more than 30% of South Africa’s total population. Although traditional leaders cannot instruct rural communities on how to vote, they do wield influence over which political organisations may gain access to communities for campaigning.
Historically, the ANC was preferred in many areas because of its relationship with Contralesa, but at the EFF briefing Contralesa called on its members to stop this practice.
As tensions between the long-time allies appear, other political parties have moved in. At the briefing with the EFF, Contralesa told the public to “watch this space” for further collaboration with the EFF.
But it seems the ANC is also trying to mend fences. Motshekga said he would work on ensuring that Contralesa and the ANC returned to their historical arrangement, allowing traditional leaders a seat on the ANC national executive committee (NEC).
“We have also decided that … they must have a seat in the NEC subcommittee and have a direct channel to influence the leadership of the ANC and a direct channel to influence Parliament,” Motshekga said.
Contralesa knows the influence it holds ahead of elections and is on a mission to use it.
Speaking to the Mail & Guardian this week, Contralesa secretary general Zolani Mkiva said the organisation was preparing to change the terms of engagement with political leaders so it could instruct them on how to serve rural communities.
“We need to be advising political parties on what to do and actually, sometimes, command them on what they have to do,” Mkiva said. “And that thing of people agreeing with you simply because they want your vote … we’re not going to take that anymore. We will tie political parties to their word and they will see the strength of Contralesa this time around.”
Contralesa has been holding roadshows to meet different political parties and religious and business bodies, saying these meetings form part of the process to cement its leadership role in the mainstream.
Mkiva denied speculation that the roadshows and the renewed energy of traditional leaders signalled the possibility of Contralesa establishing itself as a political party ahead of next year’s elections.
“Political parties become petty and lose focus,” Mkiva said. “We don’t need to play in the party-political space to have an impact. We can’t be a political party, or we will lose our cause. Contralesa must remain what it is in order for it to be respected.”