/ 9 February 2023

Factionalism is the nature of politics; Ramaphosa and the ANC must stop its cancerous effect on state capability

Ramaphosa Anc Conference Delwyn 2
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Lots has been made of the importance of unity in the ANC and the end of factionalism, which will lower our blood pressures 

But it’s become increasingly clear that this is a rather trivial pursuit. And not because of any uniqueness of the ANC but rather because of the nature of politics — especially in this social media age. It’s madness out there; there are too many soapboxes and sources aplenty for those of a conspiracy mindset.

Ever since the formation of the Congress of People before the 2009 general election, the second (after Bantu Holomisa’s exit from the ANC to form the United Democratic Movement in 1997) and most significant split in the party as members most loyal to the deposed Thabo Mbeki left to form Cope, unity and an end to factionalism has been the pledge of his successors. It is a silly pursuit, because factionalism is a reality in every modern democracy on the planet. 

Suppose the key to managing it, especially when a party is in power, is ensuring that the state functions optimally despite the competing forces over ideology, power and — cynically in my case — Louis Vuitton handbags.

The internal politics of the UK’s Conservative Party is fraught with factionalism, something that was kept in check until the country’s former prime minister in David Cameron decided to have a referendum regarding that country’s continued membership of Europe in 2016. Divisions over the UK’s role in Europe probably go back hundreds of years. 

In the 19th century, Britain’s foreign policy on Europe was, quite simply, “splendid isolation”. It would be one of the key themes during Margaret Thatcher’s years in Number 10 — feeding into her eventual ouster.

But so strong was Cameron in the party, or so he thought, and the state that he believed the electorate would follow his lead and vote to stay in the EU and solidify his power by defeating a faction in the party that had long been sceptical about Europe. 

Oh hubris. If he didn’t fall victim to it by believing that he would weaken the faction against him and his erstwhile sidekick in George Osbourne, Cameron wouldn’t have considered a divisive referendum. He’d rather have negotiated harder — or sought to appear to be negotiating harder — with the EU and safeguarded the future of the British economy. 

Today, the UK is out of Europe and in the space of six years, a once stable democracy has seen four prime ministers. It’s beginning to look like Italy. Across the Atlantic, factionalism is rife in the US. It caused Hillary Clinton to lose to Donald Trump because her Democratic Party could not unite behind her. Hit with a similar affliction, the Republican Party as I grew up knowing it, the one of Reagan and Bush, is simply no more. 

This is factionalism. 

Why it differs with the South African story is that their states somehow still function — not optimally admittedly, but the wheels are still oiled. Divisions in the ANC over the past 16 odd years have cut the supply of oil to some of our large state-owned enterprises such as Eskom. 

A critical lesson in the ANC’s near 30-year rule is that we should find policy measures to shield the state and its functioning from the turbulence that factionalism breathes. It’s something the ANC and its national executive committee has failed miserably to do. 

What Ramaphosa must understand as he gives his State of the Nation address is that there is no silencing his critics regardless of what path he chooses and it would be folly to try to get all on board, especially now. He has to lead, despite the factions snapping at his heels.  It’s just the beast of modern day politics — worrying about factions has led us down the road of indecision, the worst possible outcome in this fast changing world. This obsession with building unity, thina ayisizizi ngalutho.