The party’s OVER
Liberation movement that’s outgrown its utility as a ‘broad church’ faces split
IN A WEEK oF unprecedented drama that’s seen President Thabo Mbeki bow out of office along with a rump of Cabinet ministers, a loosening up of rigid party loyalties was bound to happen. “When a chief falls off his horse all his followers fall,” ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe half jokingly told a gathering of editors at ANC headquarters Luthuli House last week – in an apparent attempt to downplay the crisis.
But the actual extent of disarray in the ANC is potentially more damaging than a few lieutenants trailing their leader – raising questions whether there is in fact an incipient trend towards an organised faction in the party and, ultimately, the formation of a new breakaway party.
Although it’s still too soon to make a definitive pronouncement (neither a formal political platform nor a rival faction has been officially declared) the leadership’s aggressive posturing with regard to Mbeki’s dismissal and the cloud of suspicion hanging over ANC party president Jacob Zuma may have already set off alarm bells as members threatened to leave the party.
In a pre-emptive move, the party’s national executive committee (NEC), spooked by rumours of a split, moved swiftly to rein in dissidents and sap some of Mbeki’s swagger by stressing unity and stability. “I don’t think there’s a newfound ANC,” Mantashe said disconsolately, adding the party leadership hoped to quash any organ- ised dissent by visiting all provinces to reinforce the twin themes of unity and stability.
There are certainly signs of an early exodus, evidenced by the resignation of 850 ANC members in the Port Elizabeth region last Wednesday. Even Mbeki’s 92-year-old mother, Epainette Mbeki, a member of the party for more than 60 years, has confirmed she would back any move to split the ANC – no doubt taking a sizeable support base with her – as she saw no future in the organisation under Zuma. And with veteran activists sunk in gloom, the battle lines are now being drawn at provisional party conferences ahead of the elections next year.
For a monolithic party whose status as a liberation movement has been a sure-fire vehicle for electoral victory, that prospect may have been unthinkable a few years ago. Soon after the 1994 general election Mbeki (then deputy president) predicted the ANC’s monopoly of government would dissolve only after the legacy of racial supremacy and division was eradicated. He did not say, but no doubt assumed, that would take at least a generation or two, during which the only credible challenge to the ANC would be likely to come from a black-led alternative with impeccable “liberation” potential.
Little did Mbeki know then that the greatest momentum for a split would be his own removal from high office. Indeed, since his defeat by Zuma in Polokwane last December,
there’s been talk that Mbeki’s backers have been seriously considering the formation of a breakaway party. Former defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, his deputy, Mluleki George, and Gauteng Premier Mbhazima Shilowa are believed to be leading the campaign to start a new party.
Whether that rival is currently on the horizon is a moot question. Analysts believe that, in the absence of Mbeki’s expulsion from the party, he’s likely to remain loyal to the ANC. “In Mbeki’s understanding of the ANC as family, the power of blood means it’s unthinkable Mbeki or comrades such as Joel Netshitenzhe and Essop Pahad would be part of a new political formation,” says Mbeki’s biographer Mark Gevisser. However, Gevisser doesn’t dismiss the likelihood that “younger, proMbeki followers who face years in the political wilderness would be tempted”.
They already are. In what could be the first sign of an organised platform and breakaway faction, Mbeki supporters are believed to be planning demonstrations, beginning with one outside Parliament in a symbolic protest against the swearing in ceremony of Kgalema Motlanthe as interim President.
The key question is on what specific basis pro-Mbeki supporters would mobilise support for a breakaway party. On one level, the prime challenge in the runup to and after Polokwane was to regroup a popular movement around a common set of objectives, the most obvious one being to unseat Mbeki from the ANC presidency and government.
Mantashe said: “Our decision to recall President Mbeki was taken to unite two centres of power in the country and stabilise the party.”
But left in such enveloping terms, the very policy details that have come to define Mbeki’s presidency – and, therefore, opposition to his government – are disguised in a pointless power struggle within the ruling party.
On a more profound level, says Centre for Policy Studies political analyst Ebrahim Fakir, we could be witnessing a “vindication of the assumption that the ANC has outgrown its utility as a unified liberation movement, exemplified by conflicting class interests over the past decade and its increasing reliance during Mbeki’s presidency on authoritarianism as a means to diffuse leftwing opposition within the ranks of the tripartite alliance and placate external agencies”.
Assumptions of that kind function as much more than an answer to the query: Is there a likelihood of the emergence of a credible black-led opposition? It speaks to a more expansive question: Is there an ideological agenda? More acutely, are we now witnessing the revenge of Mbeki’s legacy – the forward march of market-led policies halted?
For its part the ANC is steadfast the party remains a “broad church” – certainly broad enough to accommodate the divergent interests swirling around in its ranks, says Mantashe. “We remain a liberation movement pulling together people from different class backgrounds.”
According to that logic, an accommodation of interests is possible without a radical overhaul of the existing policy framework. “Let me be clear – we’re not talking about a policy change,” says Mantashe. On the other hand “to infer that there will be no significant changes to economic policy is a bland statement. Continuity and change in terms of a variety of propoor emphases is what will define the new policy regime.”
Thus there may well be grounds to conclude that a clash of two centres of power has so far effectively muffled ideological differences, with Zuma acting as a kind of levelling influence.
Provisionally, the consensus in the ANC would appear to be to tone down the rhetoric of Zuma’s victimisation by Mbeki until the elections next year to keep the ebb flowing and curry favour with disaffected party members.
But beneath the veneer of rhet- oric is a clear lack of unanimity over continuing the ANC-led tripartite alliance on the same array of economic policies that Mbeki introduced during his tenure. The fallout of interests occurring within the ANC certainly raises questions about its suitability for such an accommodating role. To put that in perspective, the customary injunction in the alliance since 1994 has always been to “win the ANC government over to a more radical perspective by struggling to revive its putative working class bias”, a well-worn precept of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu.
A 1997 critique of the ANC’s 1996 The State and Social Transformation strategy by the SACP’s Jeremy Cronin and Blade Nzimande is emblematic. They noted in anguished tones “a radical and curious shift” from earlier ANC positions, bemoaning the ANC’s “slide into a technocratic, classneutral approach to politics” and accusing the then Government of “abandoning transformation of existing power realities and confining our democratic State to a regulatory role”.
Those perspectives weren’t periodic aberrations. They lay at the very heart of Mbeki’s attempt to insulate Government’s reform agenda from the disruptive influences of labour, starting in 1990 when the ANC set about dissembling and incorporating many organisations that had driven the protests of the previous decade. Typically, that perspective displayed a distrust of popular initiatives and grassroots democracy and a comparable veneration of the State.
That was glaringly evident, first in the Growth, Employment and Redistribution (Gear) macroeconomic plan, a strategy drawn up by a purportedly ideologically neutral team of economists and politically propelled by technocrats within the ANC Government and, by the late Nineties, in Mbeki’s push to transform the ANC from a liberation movement into a modern political party.
But while the post-1990 plethora of negotiating forums and the huge demand for policy proposals and action pushed to the fore those organisations capable of rendering technical services and enabling them to influence policies it also introduced new difficulties. One was the marginalisation of the constituencies those processes were supposed to serve.
By 2000 the party was already imploding. Mbeki was ever confident that the ANC had effectively quashed dissent. In fact, a new cult of cadres emerged as organs of State subsumed the party machinery. Deployments by Mbeki of ANC cadres into provisional and central government, institutions of the State and business automatically meant leadership by decree. For example, allegiance to the ANC “entailed the adoption of a singularised world view and political identity, purged of paradoxical or contradictory interests in its rank and file”, political analyst Hein Marais astutely observed in an earlier estimation of the trend towards what was later commonly known as an imperial presidency.
Other layers of difference – notably, class – were played down in less ambiguous ways in a developmental agenda built on the central theme of nationalism.
It was into that blind spot that Mbeki appears to have slid. The irony, as most liberation movements in other societies have discovered, is that a propensity for strictly technical solutions both depoliticised and repoliticises the problem at hand. Once decoded into purely rational terms, the resultant decisions, by overlooking those dynamics, reinforce and legitimise them. Differences – which Mbeki warned in his 1999 inaugural address to Parliament would “explode” if left unresolved – did indeed erupt to the surface in 2004 as community protests about service delivery gained ground.
In the years that followed there were certainly grounds for labour’s assertion that the traditional vision of the ANC had been lost to a newly emerging group of well-heeled businessmen and -women.
The question whether Mbeki’s removal was a result of a pressing need to “unite two poles in the ANC” – as Mantashe puts it – therefore betrays the misconception of two camps centred on the individual personalities of Mbeki and Zuma.
Fact is, the motive behind Mbeki’s removal and talk of a breakaway party isn’t simply to calculate a formula that can revive a ubiquitous “national democratic revolution”, as Mantashe clumsily puts it. It’s more likely a fundamental reconfiguration of a popular movement on the basis of an explicitly pro-poor perspective.
As Cosatu national spokesman Patrick Craven says: “Since the adoption of Gear in 1996 there’s been far too much reliance on market forces that have seen the wealthy get wealthier and the poor get poorer. We’d like to see a far greater role for the State and a reduction of market forces in the distribution of wealth.”
Fakir says if Cosatu is indeed an ascending force in the new ANC government, then talk of unity and the promise of macroeconomic continuity surely belie a party whose double-edged character raises a number of perplexing issues. “If events of the past week are essentially an attempt by Cosatu and the SACP to throw down the gauntlet to reclaim ownership of a party of the poor and historically disenfranchised, how and under what conditions will the new government maintain a relatively stable mix of marketfriendly and pro-poor policies?”
Those apparent dilemmas prompt controversial but challenging prognoses, one of which is an oppositional party with a pro-market agenda. Indeed, while the timing of Mbeki’s 1995 prognosis of the ANC’s dissolution may be off the mark, could there be a more propitious opportunity?
Inside the tripartite alliance is a ruling party assailed by internal disquiet: power struggles, ideological rifts, personal spats and a propensity to corrupt practices by party leaders. Outside the party’s perimeters, an incipient social movement: activist groupings that have opposed Mbeki’s stance on HIV/Aids to anti-privatisation and anti-eviction forums have threatened the legitimacy of the ANC’s policy position on a wide range of issues.
Coursing through the ANC’s ranks are burgeoning anti-market sentiments that, increasingly, are allied to an aversion towards dissent and heterodoxy, an antipathy now rationalised under the rhetoric of “stability” and “unity”.
“The difference under the new leadership,” says Fakir, “is that the party’s ideological agenda will shift towards the poor, with those supporting Mbeki on the margins – a complete reversal to what we saw during Mbeki’s presidency.”
Therein lies the rationale for a new party.
The implications, some commentators maintain, are serious. Political analyst William Gumede says if support for Mbeki at the party’s Polokwane conference was anything to go by, roughly 40% of the ANC’s support base could (in theory) constitute the axis of a viable opposition.
Yet, like the ebb and flow of tides, it’s not easy to discern where one ends and the other begins.
What’s clear is that the ANC itself is at a crossroad: not one that will necessarily occasion its sudden disintegration, as some mainstream pundits tirelessly predict, but one that will most certainly force it to acknowledge and respond to the overlapping interests and tendencies that cohabitate within it in the run-up to next year’s election.
For example, over the past nine months Zuma has stridently reassured business leaders he would follow in the market-friendly footsteps of his predecessors, despite his close ties to his leftwing allies in the ANC coalition.
However, it’s unlikely that Cosatu and the SACP will tolerate anything less than a dramatic policy shift. “We have a set of pro-poor demands that we’ll take to the next alliance summit in October – and we’ll settle for nothing less,” insists Craven.
Just how determined labour is to get its way was writ large earlier this year when Zuma was rapped over the knuckles by Cosatu chief Zwelinzima Vavi for his public gaffe in advocating labour market flexibility. Zuma backed off, promising never to advocate policies that harmed workers.
Perhaps the most significant feature of the unfolding drama is that it might well inevitably herald a political transition beyond an accommodation of interests. The paradox is obvious: The ANC is both the subject and object of change.