The ANC’s Polokwane Conference: Dangers and Opportunities
December 10, 2007
In 2007, South Africa is celebrating 13 years of democracy. It has been a year characterized by the trials of adolescence and the growing pains that are bound to occur in a maturing democracy. Most notably, the year was one of bitter political infighting within the ruling African National Congress (ANC), in the run up to its national conference, scheduled for December 16 to 20, 2007.
In some ways, the country as a whole has benefited from the rising political controversy. A greater openness has broken out within segments of the ruling party; there is a willingness by individuals to speak out on a range of subjects; and a vibrant culture of discussion and debate is growing as the country prepares for new national political leadership and a new President following elections to be held 2009. South Africa’s President is elected by Parliament, not directly by the electorate, and there is no doubt that the ANC, which led the anti-apartheid struggle and brought the country to majority rule in 1994, will hold a majority in the new parliament.
The ruling party’s choice of a new President in 2009 will most likely be determined by what happens at the ANC conference, to be held in Polokwane, formerly Pietersburg, a pleasant town north of wealthy Gauteng. One hopes that their agreeable surroundings will remind delegates of the poverty and underdevelopment that still faces most South Africans and the ANC government.
The national conference takes place every five years and is the most important decision making structure within the African National Congress. It was this body that anointed Thabo Mbeki as Nelson Mandela’s successor, choosing him as party president in 1997. Mbeki was duly chosen by Parliament as President of South Africa in 1999 and again in 2004. Limited to two terms, he cannot run again. Hence, the party’s choice at Polokwane of a party president, and its decisions on the membership of the important National Executive Committee, will likely determine who the next national President will be. Popular views in the country about who should or should not be the President will have little sway. In all likelihood, behind the scenes discussions and horse trading will determine the winners.
The key decision makers will be the nearly 4 000 voting delegates who represent the ANC’s grassroots branches. Over the last months, branches in good standing – those with enough paid up members and able to convene meetings with sufficient quorums – have made nominations for the top party leadership and the National Executive Committee. The process saw the emergence of two proposed leadership lists. One is associated with the Mbeki camp, and there is nothing in the party rules that would prevent Mbeki from being re-named as party president, giving him the potential to pick his own successor. The other list is associated with the Jacob Zuma camp. Zuma was forced out as South Africa’s Deputy President in 2005, after a close associate, Schabir Shaik, was convicted of corruption and fraud in connection with a major South African arms purchase. Legal tangles kept charges against Zuma himself from coming to trial, but he could yet be prosecuted.
The possibility of a victory by the Zuma camp, which would make him ANC president and then almost certainly President of the country, appalls many South Africans, the majority of the media, and most certainly the chattering classes. Zuma is associated with corruption, Zulu nationalism, and outdated traditional practices, such as polygamy. Zuma has had several wives, numerous children (so many that it is a debatable point whether he can live within his means and still support them all), and several consorts. He gained further notoriety when accused of raping a young family friend who was infected with HIV. While he was acquitted of the offence, his comments about HIV and the behavior of his supporters outside the court – some of whom burnt effigies of the victim – drew sharp criticism.
Nonetheless, the Zuma list has been supported by the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). The ANC, the Communist Party and Cosatu together make up the tripartite alliance, a formal political grouping which plays an important part in the ANC’s impressive showings at the polls. Why have these and other powerful political organizations decided to back such a controversial figure?
Zuma’s populist style, which so repels the critics, at the same time attracts many supporters, and this may be part of the reason. He has developed a theme song `Umshini wam’ Zulu for `bring my machine gun’, which harks back to the armed struggle and which some find inappropriate for the new ‘Rainbow Nation.’ His supporters sang it with gusto during the rape trial, and it marks Zuma as the candidate with the popular touch in contrast with the more staid Mbeki.
As the Polokwane conference draws closer, however, it has become clear that the more important reason for the backing the Zuma list has as much to do with the leadership style and approach of Thabo Mbeki as it does with Zuma himself. Eight and a half years into his ten year term, Mbeki’s presidency is coming under close scrutiny, with a particular focus on the choices he has made and the leadership that he has shown concerning HIV/AIDS, the fallout from the country’s enormous arms deal, and the erosion of democracy and human rights in neighboring Zimbabwe. Important subtexts include the marginalization of Parliament in relation to the executive, the primacy personal loyalty seems to have assumed in politics over real delivery of services to the people, and internal developments within the ANC under Mbeki. University of Masschusetts scholar Padraig O’Malley suggested in his biography of Mac Maharaj, a lifelong anti-apartheid activist forced out of government, that Mbeki has given the
‘thumbs up for the revolution, like most revolutionary movements in history to start eating its own – a time to settle old scores, personal and ideological, a time to get down to what postrevolutionary movements do best: marginalize old comrades and trample on others in the stampede for power.’
This is a harsh judgment, but there is some truth in it.
On the other hand, the rising opposition to Mbeki in the ANC is bringing a glimmer of glasnost to national politics, as party elders, backbenchers, former party insiders, and others step forward to speak openly about their perceptions and experiences of Mbeki the man and the party under him, no doubt in anticipation of a changing of the guard.
Recently, Kader Asmal, who for two terms was a member of the cabinet, became the most senior member of the party to publicly question South Africa’s position on Zimbabwe. Echoing Martin Niemöller’s poem about the silence of German intellectuals following the Nazi rise to power, Asmal stated that he regretted not speaking out in the 1980s, when thousands of people were murdered by the infamous Fifth Brigade in Matabeleland and during Mugabe’s recent Operation Murambatsvina, which sought to physically remove thousands of Harare’s poorest and most vulnerable in a brutal slum clearance program.
Pallo Jordan, also a member of the cabinet and an impressive ANC intellectual, has suggested that it is time for the Mbeki-Zuma generation to make way for new blood. In Parliament, two ANC backbenchers broke ranks, when they abstained in a vote concerning the nomination of board members for the national broadcaster, SABC. This in a party which has not yet permitted its members to vote with their conscience on any matter before Parliament.
Although these may seem like very limited expressions of disagreement, they are significant in a party grappling with internal democracy, and struggling to find a healthy way in which leadership contests and debate can take place. A few months ago dissent like this was unheard of, and its outbreak suggests that Mbeki’s iron hold on the party cannot last, as seasoned members of the party recognize that they have nothing to lose in opposing him.
Not all who have spoken openly have fared well, however. The former deputy minister of health, Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge was earlier in the year shown the door on account of her inability `to work in a collective.’ Madlala-Routledge, who has managed to retain a seat on the back benches of Parliament, had spoken openly about the mismanagement of the HIV/AIDS crisis in the country. Her stand has ensured a growing following and nomination for the ANC’s National Executive Committee on the pro-Zuma list.
While on the face of things, the ANC’s leadership contest looks like a two way race, a third option, with a compromise candidate for ANC President, could still emerge. This would require the 95 year-old ANC to draw on established traditions and emerge from the conference as a united front, rather than as a party riven through with factions and conflict, ill-prepared to fight a national election. The party may yet turn to seasoned leaders, less tainted by controversy, at Polokwane, and this would be healthy for the nation. The former trade unionist, Cyril Ramaphosa, now a successful businessman, is often mentioned as a candidate for the party presidency who could stabilize the ANC.
Such an outcome would hopefully bring closure to the at times destructive debate that has broken out over the country’s future leadership. While this is part of democratic life, it is unfortunate that in a developing country like South Africa, the debate has dominated the national agenda, drawing attention away from vital development issues.
While economic growth is steadily increasing, hovering around the nationally set target of 6%, there is more and more evidence to suggest that this growth is resulting in little trickle down to the households and communities that need it most. For a middle income country South Africa still has very high unemployment, somewhere between 30% and 40%, depending on which technical definition of unemployment you adopt. The social security net is insufficient to support those unable to obtain employment, and desperate poverty characterizes the country’s thousands of burgeoning shack settlements, townships and rural hamlets. For the current generation of job seekers, there is no real solution in sight.
Future generations on the other hand must look to the education system to deliver the skills they will need to compete in a knowledge economy. Increasingly, economic sectors dependent on low skilled or unskilled workers have been unable to compete sufficiently with bigger emerging markets – particularly China and India. South Africa spends a small fortune on education (95 billion Rand, approximately $14 billion, or 5.4% of the country’s GDP in the 2006/07 financial year) but has not been able to put the system as a whole onto a footing that will enable South Africa to fundamentally shift the current development trajectory. The reasons are myriad, but boil down to the terrible legacy of apartheid, which will take years if not decades to transform and reverse. Children of those families that are able to get them into private schools or the elite state schools that were previously for white children only, will receive a world-class education. The majority, who are unable to access these facilities, must contend with poor teaching standards, and often very poor facilities.
This does not mean to imply that little has been done. Under apartheid the situation was far, far worse. Black children had no right to education, and where schools did exist they were often of extremely poor quality with classrooms and basic facilities like water and toilets nonexistent. It is unsurprising, in light of this legacy, that the examination results of the many school leavers have continued to be very poor, with the annual gains and improvements modest in comparison with the magnitude of the challenge.
While privileged, white South Africans frequently talk about the need to look forward and put apartheid behind, this is an impossible dream. The social fabric of our society remains indelibly marked by the brutal social engineering of apartheid and colonialism. This history overlays the physical and spatial structure of South African cities and towns, where apartheid laws like the Group Areas Act ensured that suburbs were demarcated along racial lines. In most cases, cities are still structured with the majority of poor, black citizens located on the urban periphery far from social and economic goods and services. Many people live in informal dwellings without secure tenure, spending precious hours each day on poor public transport to reach centers of opportunity.
The ANC government has struggled to take on all of these challenges. In some areas, it has done well. Electricity and clean water have been brought to crowded townships outside major cities, where black and mixed-race South Africans were required to live during the apartheid era. But transforming apartheid towns and cities into truly integrated communities, dealing with the formal housing backlog, cracking the public transport problem, and taking on crime are challenges for which solutions have not been found. There are no easy, quick-fix solutions, but the great concern today is that South African society as a whole is not addressing these challenges with sufficient urgency.
A contributing factor is the way in which the state is structured under South Africa’s negotiated constitution, which established three spheres of government – national, provincial and local. In critical areas, the constitutional apportioning of powers and functions across the spheres of government has inhibited development and growth. Public transport is a case in point. Provinces, local and national government are each responsible for a bit of what should be an integrated service.
At the same time, there seems to be a very hierarchical view within the ANC that sees national government as the apex of power, followed by provinces, with municipalities at the bottom of the pile. In fact, however, the international experience and the body of practice developing in South Africa suggests that municipalities will be the sphere of government that can make the most difference in improving the quality of life for poor and vulnerable citizens. The strategic place-shaping decisions on issues such as housing and local transport, are best taken at the municipal level; and hence it is South Africa’s municipal governments that have the greatest potential to foster inclusive economic growth. South Africa’s municipalities, particularly in the big cities – Durban, Cape Town, Tshwane/Pretoria, Johannesburg – need to have more power to make decisive interventions in these and a range of other areas.
A successful conclusion to the Polokwane conference would help the government to refocus on some of these important issues. A conference that ends in controversy and division could set the country on a dangerous course.
Katharine McKenzie is the publisher and editor of Delivery, a magazine aimed at local government in South Africa. She has been a public servant in the democratic South Africa and continues to work closely with government at the interface between policy and people.
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