/ 7 December 2023

Sanco shows unity is the solution

Sanco (1)
Solidarity: Factionalism and division in the South African National Civic Organisation have hopefully come to an end following its conference, attended by its president, Richard Hlophe, general secretary Mike Soko, ANC general secretary Fikile Mbalula and former Sanco presidents Ruth Bhengu and Mlungisi Hlongwane. Photo: Donovan E Williams

I was singing Queen Latifah’s breakout music hit U.N.I.T.Y at the South African National Civic Organisation’s (Sanco) 7th national conference at the end of November in Durban, dubbed the unity conference by incoming Sanco general secretary Mike Soko in his organisational report.

If ever there was an advertisement for the importance of unity in political processes in the Congress movement, then the Sanco conference was it.

Like all organisations in the alliance, Sanco was wracked with factionalism, political infantilism and greedy political ambition. Each time Sanco leaders have attempted to deal with these horrors, the blowback has been almost instantaneous, and their efforts thwarted before they began.

Sanco was split into two main factions, the Alexandra group and the Durban group, named after the areas where their disputed national conferences were held. Every time a Sanco leader spoke, the follow-up question would be, almost mockingly, “Which Sanco are you speaking from?”

Both groups vied for recognition from the ANC, and the matter moved into the courts to adjudicate on. While this legal and political battle waged on, people, especially those living in townships, suffered. 

The civic political tone and agenda was seemingly being set by the liberal-conservative group Organisation for Undoing Tax Abuse. In other words, the agenda of the poor was being set in formerly white suburbs. With the absence of Sanco, and its Congress traditions, poor people were being shorn of their revolutionary soul and working-class agenda.

Key members of the Sanco leadership on both sides of the factional divide recognised that the longer their battle went on, poor people would be the worse off for it. They needed to act decisively so that they ceased hostilities and create the momentum for a lasting, stable and unified Sanco. 

Richard Hlophe, from the Durban cohort, and Mike Soko, from Alexandra, met and decided to settle the matter out of court by merging the two leaderships. This could not be done by dishing out leadership positions as if they were handing out sweets at a birthday party, but by committing both groups to host a united national conference by November where a universally recognised national leadership would be elected.

Each respective national executive committee met and approved their own dissolution and merging into a national interim coordinating committee (NICC). As a sign of the political maturity not one leader complained when they had to vacate a position. For instance, Skumbuzo Mpanza, president in the Alexandra leadership, was, in a sense, demoted to national chairperson, and he embraced the position. 

The provincial and regional leadership collectives mimicked the example of the national structures, and also dissolved their parallel structures into a single interim committee.

The interim period was important. Its longevity was short enough to ensure leaders did not think of themselves as permanent and it allowed everyone to commit to the process. If someone was half-heartedly committed, their reluctance and lack of political will would be exposed. The core leadership, especially the office bearers of the NICC, could not reveal any weakness because it would be exploited. 

The Hlophe-Soko leadership was admirable during this interim period. They refused to allow bullying or extortion by political opportunists. They prized unity above everything else, refusing to sacrifice Sanco’s organisational integrity and the rules, in particular its constitution. 

Thus, when some leaders in North West attempted to throw political tantrums and bully the organisation into settling their personal scores, Hlophe and Soko acted decisively, removing the offending individuals. They did it by abiding by the constitution and by giving them every opportunity to act responsibly. 

Their commitment to principles and constitutional rules was played out over and over again as they criss-crossed the country to initially endorse provincial interim committees and thereafter launch permanent provincial executive committees.

The ANC leadership, in particular secretary general Fikile Mbalula, played a supportive role. The party stood by the interim leadership as they forged a durable united front. Thus, even when former ANC president Jacob Zuma was elected provincial chair in KwaZulu-Natal, there was no hint of the ANC leadership trying to interfere.

It is in this context that Sanco convened the 7th national conference under the theme of Building a Revolutionary Civic Movement to Fight Poverty, Inequality and Joblessness.

The delegates sang songs of unity and praised their leaders for reuniting Sanco. This convivial atmosphere ensured that electioneering and political manoeuvring was furthest from everyone’s mind. 

Former Sanco presidents Mlungisi Hlongwane and Ruth Bhengu, who also attended the conference, were delegated to improve the organisation’s investment footprint and establish a co-operatives programme, respectively.

Most importantly, the delegates worked with the leadership main table to ensure the conference was a success. There were none of those inputs that you recognised as delegates trying to get themselves elected. Or factional inputs, where someone would ask which faction the delegate belonged to as opposed to the matter they were raising. 

The two-day conference did run into time problems but delegates made a plan and adapted. 

A declaration was adopted that set out for Sanco to be a revolutionary social movement that advocated for radical change in government policy, while operating as a development agency that pilots and implements socio-economic development programmes. 

It placed Sanco firmly in the left of South Africa’s political spectrum, calling for radical change especially in land reform, local economic development in townships, the energy crisis and how the government deals with the private sector. 

The conference was especially scathing about the refusal by parliament, the treasury and the South African Reserve Bank to act against the 28 banks who colluded to manipulate the rand. 

It also gave the go-ahead for its business arm to assist township residents in establishing convenience stores called Shopoyaka. 

The declaration was a breath of fresh air. It was devoid of internal political machinations, but was one that signalled the reawakening of Sanco. 

Sanco dealt with factionalism in an open and principled fashion, and all other structures dealing with this demon should try to learn from them. 

This Sanco conference has reminded all of us that unity is more powerful than we care to admit.

But we can only know whether this conference has delivered if we witness a reinvigorated Sanco taking up people’s issues all over the country. 

Donovan E Williams is a social commentator and a member of the Sanco national executive committee. These are his personal views.