/ 17 January 2024

It is the ANC that is the threat to its future, not opposition parties

Graphic Tl Manto Cult Website 1000px
(Graphic: John McCann/M&G)

It has been nearly 30 years since the ANC ascended to power, following the first democratic elections in the history of South Africa.

It is only fair to acknowledge that with its victory the lives of the historically marginalised South Africans, the majority of whom were black, changed dramatically. Growing up in the Eastern Cape villages, I was one of the many who experienced the transformation from dim candlelight to the illumination of light bulbs.

But nearly thirty years into the democratic dispensation, the adoration for the ANC government is progressively diminishing. The causes are not hidden. Other than the poor or lack of service delivery, the infrastructure the ANC either built or inherited from the apartheid regime is in dismal states of disrepair. During the rainy seasons, the poorly maintained or completely neglected rural roads become dangerous miniature gorges.

The people in these areas know the cause is the government’s negligence to maintain the infrastructure.

Nonetheless the former glory of the ANC still endures, and the reasons are not entirely sentimental. The beneficiaries of state welfare programmes such as the older person and foster child grants associate these benefits with the ANC. But there are signs that the growing disillusionment is increasingly outweighing the last drops of appreciation for the ANC government. 

The eclipse of the ANC’s former glory is not unavoidable. It is human-made, internally generated and a chronic moral crisis. Endemic in the progression of chronic conditions is forgetting that they are abnormal, causing a delay to interventions.

Observers often highlight corruption and factionalism as the major threats that could precipitate the demise of the ANC if not addressed. That assessment is not off the mark. But I have a slightly different view of these factors, and the perceived order in the causal chain. In my opinion, corruption or factionalism are not causes; they are effects of a more sinister, complex problem. 

A closer investigation of the internal machinations of factionalism would lead us to conclude that at its core is a cult of personality. This highlights two crucial elements. First, the phenomenon of factionalism does not materialise from a vacuum. There is a factional cultic leader at the centre, regardless of whether they were responsible for or complicit in their positioning as the cult leader. The outcome of this logic is that the cult leader is guilty of the greater crime than their followers.

And one of the most dangerous elements about the cult of personality is its amoral character. The party principles are subordinated to the whims of the individual, who cannot be wrong in the eyes of their supporters, often resulting in the knee-jerk reaction “hands off our leader”. And because cult leaders are exempted from ethics by their followers, it does not matter if they are corrupt. If anything, their criminal examples pave the way for corruption to spread widely under their leadership.

Multiply the number of the cult leaders, and the complications of the party grow exponentially. Dealing with the corrupt leaders gets complicated by the considerations for the numerical supremacy of their factional followers, and the magnitude of the influence associated with it. 

And suspending or undermining the rule of law for one cult leader invites a slippery slope of widespread impunity. The by-product is that “ultimately,  every leader has a ‘small-anyana’ skeleton they do not want to break loose,” as the former minister and ANC Women’s League leader Bathabile Dlamini once said. 

So who dares to correct others?

But if the personality cult in the ANC continues unabated, the collateral damage is most severe for the lives of the people, who are the main source of the party’s power. The causal link is not untraceable. In the culture of factionalism it is not guaranteed that the choice of political leaders will be driven by confidence in their competence to implement the party’s mandate for the people. 

So in my view the future of the ANC depends on its own radical political transformation. That task entails another struggle for liberation. But this time the goal is to liberate the ANC from its divisive captors and put it back in the hands of the people and the national democratic revolution programme.

To appreciate this charge, the ANC will have to recall that its abysmal performance in the 2016 local government elections disproved any illusions of self-sufficiency without the voters. I hope it also taught the ANC that its pulse is the masses. And that matters even if it takes another five years for the party to be confronted by the people at the polling stations. 

The ANC may have to shift its gaze from the perceived threat from opposition parties. 

The demise of the party is not likely to happen in the theatre of ideological competition against other political parties. It will be from the final response of people to the ANC’s chronic moral crisis, and the lack of commitment or courage to end it. 

Despite its public display of hubris, it is not inconceivable that the sensible among the ANC leaders contemplate this year’s elections with foreboding. It is at the polls where the ANC’s self-aggrandisement gets tested, and where the lack of courage to eradicate corruption and incompetence gets punished by voters. 

In his address during the dialogue convened by the Thabo Mbeki Leadership Institute on 22 August last year, former president Mbeki remarked, “When you say I must go campaigning next year, to say to people vote for the ANC, how am I going to do that when I know very well that the branch of the ANC in this constituency is led by a criminal?” 

I am convinced that Mbeki’s candour was out of his sincere commitment to the party’s renewal. I argue that it was dutiful loyalty to the ANC that triggered his public denunciation of leadership immorality in the party, which is the major obstacle to the party’s renewal. 

It would be naïve to believe that every ANC member was impressed by Mbeki’s rhetorical question, especially with elections being around the corner. 

But that attitude would be part of the problem, not the solution for the ANC. 

As counterintuitive as it may sound, Mbeki’s rhetorical question is more important and urgent than the cosmetic narrative for winning the elections. Besides, the ANC going to the 2024 elections is in its weakest shape. The ANC should view its renewal as the priority long game. It will take more than the promotional election manifesto to achieve the renewal. 

It might look beyond 2024, and make the party’s renewal a priority even if it is not convenient to say what needs to be said as the party gears up for the 2024 elections. 

Whatever the outcomes of the 2024 elections might be, undertaking the radical political transformation of the party will still demand serious attention. I suspect that the election results will confirm this imperative. 

The formation of the ANC Veterans’ League is a formidable movement towards the party’s renewal. But the structural and systemic nature of the ANC’s internal problems require the power and the executive authority of ethical leaders in the decision-making structures of the party. 

I sincerely hope that someday the ANC will once again find the ethically and intellectually courageous leaders it once had and cherished. 

The battle to secure the future of the ANC is not against the opposition parties. It is against the ANC itself. Winning in the 2024 elections should be considered a comparatively short-term goal in relation to the greater task of radically transforming the party.  

Mzwandile Manto is a thinker and community activist.