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Is the Battle for the ANC's 'Soul' Reaching Its Climax?

Is the Battle for the ANC's 'Soul' Reaching Its Climax?

The political landscape of South Africa underwent an unprecedented shift as former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma declared their non-participation in the ANC's campaign for the upcoming 2024 elections. Zuma went a step further, announcing the formation of a new party, the MK Party, which aims to divert support from the ANC’s traditional voter base.

However, the MK Party is widely regarded as a mere replica of the ANC, both in appearance and substance. The similarity in color scheme and symbols, with the exception of the wheel, led to a humorous social media joke about the ANC being left with just the wheel of a VW Polo, referencing its logo without a spear. A document purported to be the new party’s constitution circulating on social networks revealed striking parallels with the ANC, focusing minimally on substantive matters while extensively covering administrative details.

The ANC’s response to this development was dismissive, with secretary-general Fikile Mbalula asserting that the name uMkhonto weSizwe 'belonged to the ANC,' emphasizing its esteemed legacy. ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, when asked about Zuma's potential involvement in a new faction, responded calmly, “Jacob Zuma, who is going to make an announcement, he has overtime been making a number of announcements, so tomorrow he’ll make another announcement. We note that, but what else can I do?”

Some within the party have called for the ANC to dismiss Jacob Zuma for his actions, but it appears that the ANC is still reeling from the shock of his recent actions. Conversely, Mbalula has threatened to take legal action against Zuma and the MK Party for appropriating ANC symbols. Many have questioned where the ANC will obtain funds, as a recent court case against a small printing company in Newcastle exposed its financial vulnerabilities. Last month, the Supreme Court mandated that the ANC pay over R100 million for banners used in the 2019 election.

Currently, the new party seems poised to launch early next year, with its interim leadership expected to be unveiled. It remains unclear whether these two factions of the ANC will commemorate January 8 together or separately.

The MK Party represents a creative approach to internal realignment within the ANC but operates beyond the party’s direct control. Except for Nelson Mandela, the last two presidents of democratic South Africa (Mbeki and Zuma) faced insurmountable opposition during their final terms. This internal rebellion culminated in their premature removal from office, as their party decided to ‘recall’ them from the Union Buildings.

Mbeki and Zuma completed two terms at the helm of the ANC but not their presidential terms. In 2007, the ANC turned against Mbeki as he sought to secure a third term as party leader. Mbeki’s attempt to retain the ANC presidency despite being constitutionally obligated to step down as South Africa’s president after two terms only reinforced the perception that he was “power-hungry”. His former deputy, Zuma, defeated him in a shocking upset that many still find hard to believe.

Zuma then took over as ANC leader and served two full terms. However, he did not seek a third term. In 2017, he was succeeded by his deputy Ramaphosa in what was arguably the most divisive ANC conference since 1994. After months of wrangling between factions, particularly over Zuma’s ties to the controversial Gupta family, two rival factions supported Nkosazana Zuma and Ramaphosa. The end of the ‘nine wasted years’ under Zuma marked both the end and beginning of a very stormy season, not just for the ANC but for the country as well.

Ramaphosa emerged victorious at the 2017 elective conference and promptly assumed the ANC and Union Buildings leadership positions under the ‘new dawn’ tag. He inherited a fractured structure riddled with factional politics, and triumphalism took center stage rather than mending fences. Many observers believed that the ANC had reached its breaking point and that it would split. However, it did not. Nonetheless, deep divisions within the party’s Top 6 and national executive committee left many wondering how decisions were made.

The cracks soon became apparent. The party suspended its secretary-general Ace Magashule, a close ally of Zuma. Fractures deepened further after Ramaphosa’s re-election in December 2022. This year was always going to be a watershed year for the ANC. And Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court hung over the party leadership like a millstone. Although he was pardoned in August, the damage was already done. Magashule’s party membership was finally terminated, and DD Mabuza stepped down to pave the way for the newly elected leadership.

The post-2017 ANC was not always going to find things easy in both Luthuli House and the Union Buildings. So many questions remained unresolved in its affairs and how it approached many issues. The ANC's membership openly expressed concern that they no longer had hope in Ramaphosa in how he handled his campaign sponsorship, dollars found on his farm, and load-shedding. Even some issues, including the ICC saga involving Vladimir Putin, exposed that the ANC’s center was fragile.

The ANC’s body language was also very concerning, indicating that it was overwhelmed and could not hold onto power for a minute longer. Signs began to appear in municipalities, where indifference began to take its toll as it lost grip on main economic centers like Jozi and Durban. Its shenanigans regarding coalitions were a hard straw on the camel’s back - service delivery fell to its lowest. Basically, the ANC's refusal to take responsibility for its misdeeds creates room for new players to present themselves as viable alternatives.

To add to its troubles, the ANC leadership openly discussed the possibility of its support dipping below the 50% mark, opening the door for coalition negotiations after the 2024 elections. For instance, ANC Veterans’ League convenor Snuki Zikalala suggested that the governing party should consider a grand coalition arrangement. This would entail the ANC collaborating with the DA instead of the EFF. Meanwhile, the DA believes that it is highly probable that the ANC will secure less than 50% of the vote in the 2024 national election. The DA has not ruled out the possibility of working with the ANC.

The ANC openly associated itself with its preferred partner without considering the views of its membership. But the triumphant attitude was reaching unprecedented heights, making it believe it could move on without being grounded. Its current leadership appears to have forgotten that in Polokwane (2007) and Nasrec (2017), the ANC was self-correcting by grounding the presidents who were seen to be amassing too much power. Both Mbeki and Zuma were stopped in their tracks, but following elective conferences. What is likely to happen is unprecedented: the change is ‘external’ and seems to be overwhelming the ANC.

With the current ANC characterized by what seems to be unforgiving leadership, some disgruntled people within its ranks sought alternative ways to disrupt the party’s momentum. They have gone outside to pull the plug and stop the music when the ANC and its sponsors least expected it: load-shedding is gripping Luthuli House. There are too many wounded hyenas that the ANC has created, now wanting to feed on its carcass – the ANC has disenchanted too many people in the last 30 years. It is now likely to fall on its own sword, or spear, carried by its once trusted soldiers.

The ‘Nkandla tea’ from a few years ago is emerging as the MK Party, which will likely work closely with Julius Malema and Magashule to challenge the ANC. In 2016, Malema declared: “We are eating this elephant bit by bit,” illustrating the ANC's decreasing support across the country. But now it seems the MK Party is accelerating the process, potentially forcing the ANC out of power against its own terms. It also appears that some within the party’s ranks sensed the danger, as it is reported that Mbalula had mentioned it was time for the ANC to reconcile with Zuma. However, this reconciliation does not seem to have happened even after the unexpected Estcourt prison parole.

Mbalula tweeted in 2017, “Ace Magashule is a definite no-no-no. The man will finish what is remaining of our movement. He will destroy it.” In an unexpected turn of events, it appears that he will oversee the demise of the ANC. On his part, Ramaphosa is likely to be ousted from outside the ANC and appears to have no response to this challenge. It is more than four months before the polls, and much could still happen.

Could the call to postpone next year’s election be signaling something we don’t know?

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Siyabonga Hadebe

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