A winter’s tale we’d do well to remember
This need not be a cautionary tale, but perhaps it is worth retelling, if only to remind compatriots of our recent history. It may not be true that history repeats itself, but it is always a wise thing to try to learn from it. The story starts at the end of a dramatic June in 2005. SA’s president had just sacked his deputy after a court judgment heavily implicated the latter in acts of corruption. Now members of the ruling party’s national executive committee (NEC) were demanding that the former deputy president also step aside from the deputy presidency position he held in the party.
By the end of that month, an announcement had been made that Jacob Zuma had “voluntarily” stepped down as ANC deputy president and would be focusing on efforts “to clear his name” as the National Prosecuting Authority was planning to charge him.
A few days later, thousands of party activists, deployees and veterans gathered at the University of Pretoria for the start of the ANC’s national general council (NGC). In terms of ANC rules, the NGC is a gathering of delegates from across the country some 30 months after the last national conference; their main job is to assess progress made since the start of the NEC’s five-year term. The NGC has no elective powers and cannot take real policy decisions.
Yet from the very first day of its sitting, trouble was in the air. The majority of delegates were not happy that Zuma had stepped down, blaming president Thabo Mbeki for the move even though the party leadership insisted that Zuma had done so voluntarily.
By the end of July 1, media outlets were reporting that Zuma had been reinstated to party activities and structures.
“Delegates to the NGC felt very strongly that the deputy president should be active and not withdraw from party structures,” said then ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama.
And so began the Zuma clawback that eventually landed him in the Union Buildings as head of state for nine years.
The 2005 gathering also marked the unofficial adoption of the “innocent until proven guilty” mantra, to the detriment, in the long run, of both party and country.
It is this mantra, abused so often in order to protect the corrupt within party ranks, that the current NEC is trying to do away with, in its insistence that those who are criminally charged should “step aside” from their positions in the party.
This can’t be said enough: Ace Magashule, the ANC secretary-general, is no Jacob Zuma. But even he must be looking at the upcoming NGC, which some think might happen virtually towards the end of August, and fancying his chances of having the step-aside rule set aside by delegates — paving the way for a spectacular comeback.
The last couple of NEC meetings have shown us, without doubt, that President Cyril Ramaphosa is firmly in charge of the party’s decisionmaking structures. In the past year or so, he has won virtually every battle he has waged against his detractors within the party. That ought not to be a surprise to anyone, really, as every ANC president tends to enjoy overwhelming support in the NEC while in office. After all, in their other role as head of state, they tend to pick most of their cabinet from the NEC. And, as we all know, it is really not an easy thing to stand up against one’s employer.
But is the backing for Ramaphosa that we see at NEC level a reflection of the support he enjoys among ANC branches?
It is at the upcoming NGC, if it does happen, where this question will be put to the test. The 2005 NGC taught us that it was not enough for a president to have the backing of his party’s NEC and the general public in acting against those who are accused of corruption and other wrongdoing; he needs the support of the ANC’s lower structures too.
The chattering classes and the rest of us can lampoon Magashule as much as we like for his tree-planting ceremonies in Soweto and other publicity-seeking stunts he’ll be pulling elsewhere in the coming weeks, but we should remember that there is a precedent — a man who seemed to be spending every weekend in 2005 attending funerals ended up turning the branches against the party leader.
Is Ramaphosa doing enough groundwork in the lower structures of the party to keep branches on his side as he goes on his current crusade? The NGC will answer that question, if it happens.