15 January 2012
Last Sunday the central South African city of Mangaung, known as Bloemfontein in Afrikaans, came to life as current and future heads of states, distinguished guests and thousands of ordinary people converged in its conference halls and streets to celebrate the hundredth birthday of the oldest political party in the continent, the African National Congress (ANC).
The city, whose name means “a place of cheetahs” in Sesotho, reverberated with dance, feasting and speeches as presidents and other dignitaries praised the party of Nelson Mandela. Apart from the numerous milestones that mark the ANC’s journey of a hundred years, the gathering also provided an opportunity to take a hard look at the party.
As ANC celebrates, critics say acrimony, backstabbing and corruption are festering in the giant party. The ability of the party to hold together will be tested during the 53rd National Delegates Conference at the same venue in December to pick its presidential flagbearer for the 2014 elections. However, in spite of internal fissures, the ANC remains one of the most organised parties in Africa, boasting huge grassroots support besides resounding victories in three post-apartheid elections.
With fanatical members like its chief whip Mathole Motshekga claiming that “the ANC has a responsibility to rule until Jesus pays us another visit,” being a successful politician in South Africa more often than not means being a member of this monolithic party. The ruling party has 264 seats in the national assembly, which is more than double the opposition’s. But figures in the last general elections offered a glimmer of hope to the opposition in a democracy where the essence of single party rule dominates but in name. Many were quick to claim the tiny percentage ANC has been losing the opposition was an indication of a population, whose faith in the ruling party is waning.
“South Africans have become less and less happy with ANC,” Radio Netherlands reported after the 2008 polls. “While the majority of the people still live in poverty, ANC officials are seen as squanderers driving luxury cars, living in mansions and eating sushi. Many local politicians are corrupt and, according to South Africans, just want to fill their own pockets.”
This observation was vindicated by an annual survey published by South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR), which indicated that the ANC has lost a sizeable number of ward seats to Democratic Alliance, whose support is strongest among white South Africans.
“Between the last local government elections in 2006, and up until August 2010, ANC managed to hold 306 ward seats, gaining 17 new ones and losing 55, giving it an overall loss of 38 seats,” the survey said. “By contrast, the DA retained 61 seats, gained 29, and lost only five, resulting in an overall gain of 24 seats.”
Although ANC controls major cities across the country, DA, whose leader Helen Zille is the premier of the Western Cape, controls Cape Town. But party stalwarts and sympathisers have dismissed these reports as exaggerations, citing the landslide victory during the local government elections in May last year where ANC garnered 62 per cent of national vote.
“Attempts by some writers and analysts to pour cold water on the overall performance of the ANC are strange indeed,” opined Sandile Zungu, spokesman of the Black Business Council, in the Times Live. “Clutching at the decline of three percentage points and trying to stir the pot with false headlines such as “ANC is left shaken”… was a mischievous attempt aimed at inciting the membership of the ANC to bay for the blood of its senior leadership.”
However, Zungu admits that the party lost its influence in its traditional strongholds like Nelson Mandela Bay in the Eastern Cape Province. This apparent loss of support from a section of the majority black electorate that once looked up to ANC as its only vehicle for political salvation is being blamed on infighting, corruption and greed in the party.
What is happening?
Before his ascendancy to the presidency Jacob Zuma was charged with several cases of corruption which led to his dismissal as both the national vice-president and the party’s deputy leader, with his long-time business associate Schabir Shaikh being handed a 15-year jail term. Schabir served 28 months of the term before he was released on “medical grounds”, while Zuma was reinstated after charges against him were dropped.
Currently, several provincial leaders are facing graft charges in court, which has prodded the party to launch a series of anti-corruption awareness seminars across the country. But some members have claimed that a clique of powerful party leaders, dubbed the “Alex Mafia”, is using the anti-corruption war to settle political scores.
“Although the organisation’s struggle for liberty was supposed to have ended with the 1994 election that defeated apartheid, rampant unemployment, income distribution as skewed as anywhere on earth, catastrophic corruption, plummeting education and healthcare, and lingering racial tensions have cast shadows that lengthen with each passing year,” said Heidi Holland, author of “100 Years of Struggle: Mandela’s ANC”, which was published to coincide with the centenary celebrations. “Clearly, ANC’s struggle to deliver “a better life for all” is going to take longer than 100 years.”
The battle for supremacy between former and current presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, respectively, saw the party experience one of the most devastating internal conflicts in its history, culminating in the forced resignation of Mbeki and the formation of the splinter Congress of the People (COPE). This was followed by another equally stormy conflict between Zuma and youth leader Julius Malema, which ended with the latter being hounded out of the party by its disciplinary committee.
But even opponents agree that despite all these shortcomings, ANC has managed to achieve one of the best development records in sub-Saharan Africa that include overseeing the continent’s biggest economy.
“ANC’s success outweighs its failures in the eyes of the majority citizens, most of whom still vote for the party in regular, well-organised elections,” Holland says. “Apart from the ascendancy of black rule having purged South Africans of the pain and indignity of apartheid, government has provided welfare benefits for 15 million people, cut its murder rate dramatically over recent years, almost eradicated severe malnutrition among the under-fives, increased primary school enrolment to nearly 100 per cent and established the world’s biggest anti-retroviral treatment programme for HIV/Aids patients.”
The long walk to ey
But the journey has been long and treacherous since a grouping of chiefs, people’s representatives, church organisations and others congregated in Bloemfontein in 1912 to form a vehicle through which Africans could fight for their rights and freedoms. Among the ANC founding fathers were John Dube, Pixley ka Isaka and Sol Plaatje. ANC adopted the philosophy of national inclusion where people from all races and political views were accommodated as long as they shared the common goal of fighting apartheid. This did not go down well with radical black supremacists, leading to the formation of a breakaway Pan African Congress.
The liberation movement at that time advocated passive resistance against the whites, It was modelled along what Gandhi had done in India, but the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, where 69 Africans were shot dead by police during a protest against the restrictive pass laws, forced ANC to embrace violence.
Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) or “Spear of the Nation” was formed with Nelson Mandela, who missed the celebrations due to old age, as its first leader. At the beginning of the violent resistance, Mandela and seven other high-profile ANC figures were condemned to a life in prison during the infamous Rivonia Trials, thrusting the anti-apartheid struggle in the hands of radical individuals such as Steve Biko, Chris Hani and Hendrick Musi.
Through a consistent campaign of bombings, sabotage and targeted assassinations, MK and its allies made the townships ungovernable, where apartheid collaborators were arraigned in kangaroo courts or summarily executed by “necklacing”, which entailed setting them on fire using car tires. With ANC banned, intrigues of the cold war joined the conflict, with MK getting the backing of USSR and Cuba to wage a guerilla war against apartheid. Combined with the students’ uprisings of the 70s and 80s which claimed at least 600 lives, the era ushered in what was called as a “decade of violence.”
The escalation of violence and the bite of sanctions slapped by the international community led to the capitulation of the apartheid regime and eventual freedom in 1994.
Kwazulu-Natal, one of the most volatile regions during the struggle, has always been the hardest nut for ANC to crack because of the presence of Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) led by Mangosuthu Buthelezi. Being an apartheid sympathiser, IFP was always a thorn in ANC’s flesh during apartheid, which was manifested in the many bloody conflicts between supporters of the rival parties. But perhaps as a sign of ANC’s rising fortunes in recent years, it has been ruling the province since the 2004 general elections. This is partly credited to ANC Imvuselelo (Revival) campaigns and the influence of Jacob Zuma, who hails from the region.
However, if the current trends of infighting and balkanisation of the party into competing cliques continues, experts warn, ANC will find it hard to avoid going the way of its peers like Kenya’s Kanu. Even the opposition seems to have sensed such a possibility for they have started talking of a future ruled by coalitions.
“What many people and analysts forget is that when we say we believe we will be a party of government in 2019, we are not saying we will achieve the 50-plus majority,” said DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko. “We are saying we can push ANC below the 50-plus per cent majority and that will give us the opportunity to form a coalition government.”
But ANC spokesman Keith Khoza dismisses Mazibuko’s claims as daydreaming, saying she represents “a minority of black people who are comfortable with white rule or domination.”
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