The province’s leaders are calling for mob rule and will try to convince their comrades at this weekend’s national policy conference to support their untenable position. (Rajesh Jantilal)
The freshly minted secretary of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, Bheki Mtolo, declared in his debut speech on national television: “Therefore, conference resolved that delegates towards the national policy conference must forward a complete proposal that the step-aside rule must not only be reviewed, but must be scrapped.”
Though raising eyebrows for most watching at home, the mere adoption of the resolution was not quite startling. The KwaZulu-Natal ANC, especially its biggest region of eThekwini, had never been happy with the suspension of leaders facing legal charges. What probably got people astounded was Mtolo’s explanation for seeking to scrap the suspension rule: “Step-aside seems like the law that only applies to ANC members because all the proponents of step-aside don’t implement it in their own organisation. But, they celebrate it in the ANC because it constrains the ANC from discharging its responsibility to society. And, it makes the ANC to be in a continuous fight amongst itself.”
That’s how Mtolo decided to introduce himself to a national audience: by making an inexplicable, if not an outrageous, statement. Does Mtolo really believe that it makes for a convincing argument to not suspend leaders charged with corruption simply because it upsets them? Mtolo clearly doesn’t believe that the ANC should show any moral revulsion at the plunder of state resources. To be fair, these are not Mtolo’s views only. They’re widely shared among the office-bearers, and the provincial membership at large.
Making his closing remarks, Siboniso Duma, the newly elected chairperson, offered what he must have thought was a profound explanation for tolerating corruption: “Sesize sayigqoka into yokuthi i-ANC is corrupt even kwathina. Usewuthi mawumbeka u-comrade nawe ucabang’ i-corruption. Ideologically, i-superstructure has created an economic base. I-capitalism is inherent with corruption. But, i-corruption mawuzoyibona yenziwa nguSteinhof edla ama-billion asiyiboni kuyi corruption, and asisho lutho ngako.” [“Even we have also accepted that the ANC is corrupt. When you see another comrade, you think corruption … When Steinhoff syphons billions of rand, you don’t think that’s corruption and we say nothing about it”].
Duma doesn’t think the ANC deserves notoriety for corruption. Frankly, the KwaZulu-Natal ANC is symptomatic of what is wrong with the party: patron-client relations. Consider Zandile Gumede, for instance. She was dismissed as mayor of eThekwini following legal charges of syphoning about R250-million. But, she stood for chairperson of the eThekwini region and won. That victory meant that she could return to the mayoralty of eThekwini.
Her followers cared less about her competence, or lack thereof. Besides charges of syphoning funds, Gumede’s tenure was a disaster. She had managed to turn the normally scenic eThekwini into a disgusting sight. Waste was hardly collected, water supply faced constant interruptions and the city just did not pay its electricity bill. All that maladministration cost the party votes in the city. The ANC dropped dramatically to 42% in the 2021 local election, from 56% in 2016.
But, ANC members were not bothered about that when they elected Gumede as chairperson. They went on to nominate her now for treasurer at the provincial level. Her election was only blocked by the ANC’s recent ruling that suspended leaders can’t stand for elective positions. Uppermost in the minds of members are material gains her entry into power opens up for them. She provides patronage.
Actually, the KwaZulu-Natal conference has set ANC on the path of self-destruction. Their pronouncements go against the popular grain, and have ignored what actually matters. This province experienced civil unrest last year. Hordes of desperate people were mobilised to go on a destructive looting spree. They not only looted goods and burnt property, but also disrupted social services.
For a while after the destruction in July 2021, people battled to find foodstuff and drinking water, as warehouses and water-processing plants were destroyed. More than 250 people died in that mayhem. Estimates on the damage to the economy range between R20-billion and R70-billion. The harm has been equally devastating on employment in the province, with 123 000 people losing their jobs.
The unrest was not spontaneous. All the resultant deaths, mayhem and misery was deliberately orchestrated. Yet, there doesn’t seem to have been much talk at the conference to bring the perpetrators to justice. The conference resolutions haven’t been published yet. The ANC’s spokesperson, Pule Mabe, doesn’t know when they’ll be out.
Journalists’ enquiries to the newly elected secretary, Mtolo, have drawn a blank. If the closing remarks of the new chairperson, Duma, are anything to go by, it doesn’t look like the resolutions, when they’re eventually released, will contain any condemnation of the perpetrators or a call for justice.
For instance, Duma rebuked what he saw as uneven treatment of the few that have been charged. When appearing in court, according to Duma, African suspects are paraded before the media, but the Indian and white suspects have been spared such publicity. The insinuation is that this lopsided exposure, if at all it is true, is meant to embarrass Africans as potential killers, while shielding their Indian and white counterparts is meant to suggest that none of them was involved.
In other words, Duma remarked on the July unrest not so much to decry the lack of justice. Rather, he raised the subject as a rebuke of calls for non-racialism. It appears to have escaped Duma that a plea for equal application of the law, assuming that is a genuine problem here, is actually a promotion of equal treatment.
Frankly, Duma’s failure to call for justice is not an error. It betrays his sympathy for the African saboteurs. They brought hell upon their community in defence of former president Jacob Zuma, who had been sentenced to imprisonment for breach and defiance of the law.
The newly elected KwaZulu-Natal leaders believe Zuma is above the law. He is a cult figure of sorts, that has to be treated differently from the rest of the citizenry. So, they have vowed not only to support Zuma in his court appearances, but also to mobilise the entire province behind him.
And, the argument is simply that Zuma should be exempted from the laws of the republic. They’re not persuaded that Zuma has breached the law. Wenzeni’ uZuma [What has Zuma done] is their rallying song. The judiciary, they insist, is the problem, which they propose to remedy by overhauling South Africa’s constitutional democracy and replacing it with parliamentary democracy.
They don’t believe that South Africa should be guided by any ethical values, but the majority should get whatever it wants, however wrong-headed that may be.
The KwaZulu-Natal ANC leaders, in other words, are calling for mob rule. They’re at the party’s national policy conference this weekend to convince their comrades of the virtues of their position. They’re determined to roll-back the tide not only throughout society, but also within their own party. They say renewing the party has been weaponised to purge other leaders. Nothing is said of the infamy those accused of corruption bring on to the party.
I’d be highly surprised if the policy conference comes out on Sunday endorsing what KwaZulu-Natal leaders are saying. How can it possibly do so? Their positions are simply mind-boggling. Frankly, KwaZulu-Natal leaders are marginalising their province within the party and in electoral politics generally.
Having gained 41% of the vote in the recent local elections throughout the province, the party is clearly heading for a loss in 2024. The ANC’s national support, as a result, will also suffer. Ordinary people differentiate between right and wrong, and disapprove of impropriety. That is why the party has been losing electoral support.
For now, its farewell to the KwaZulu-Natal ANC. Its followers will have to await the emergence of a S’bu Ndebele-like figure to restore the party to common-sense and electoral strength.
Winning party contests on the basis of numbers is not everything. Intellectual and value-driven leadership still counts for something!
Mcebisi Ndletyana is professor of political science at the University of Johannesburg.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.