Come what may, National Conference must go on

Supporters of South Africa's President Jacob Zuma's ruling African National Congress (ANC) cheer during their party's final election rally in Soweto, May 4, 2014. South Africa goes to the polls on Wednesday in elections which are expected to keep the ANC in power. REUTERS/Mike Hutchings (SOUTH AFRICA - Tags: POLITICS ELECTIONS)

As the African National Congress (ANC) puts everything in place to ensure a smooth, incident-free and successful 54th National Conference this weekend, media hounds like myself will continue watching how intact this once proud liberation movement cum political party emerges post-December 20.

Considering the numerous court challenges to branch, regional and provincial conferences, speculation is rife that we may see another splinter breaking away from the mother body should one faction not win the popular vote.

There is no question that the ANC is very divided.

Voting at disputed elective conferences is an example of these deep fissures.

When current KwaZulu-Natal chairperson, Sihle Zikalala was elected in November 2015, just over a hundred votes separated him and former chair, Senzo Mchunu.

It was that close!

Outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court in August and September this year when arguments and judgment was delivered on the legality of that November 2015 conference, again we were witness to two very entrenched camps.

We then recently saw the infamous chair-flying conference in the Eastern Cape in September where Oscar Mbuyane was elected chairperson.

The ‘losers’ challenged Mabuyane’s win but lost in a Grahamstown court.

They are now intent on approaching the Constitutional Court for relief.

In the lead-up to National Conference, we have had similar other examples in ANC provinces such as the Free State, Mpumalanga and North West.

These cases prove again that ANC is deeply conflicted. It is a party at war with itself.

And if it does not get its house in order so to speak, that splinter might just happen sooner than we all think.

A clear manifestation of this was the launch of the African Democratic Change or ADeC by former ANC Member of Parliament, Dr Makhosi Khoza.

But Dr Khoza’s ‘divorcing’ the ANC was made for other reasons.

Why are there such divisions in this once glorious movement?

We almost seem to have selective amnesia.

Yes, the ANC used to be a liberation movement; it is now a bona fide political party commanding political authority in Africa’s most industrialised economy.

This in itself will tell how high the financial stakes really are.

When ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, presented his Diagnostics Report to the June 2017 Policy Conference, there were gasps from all quarters.

Some provinces were not at all happy with the diagnosis; some even wanted it stopped from being tabled.

It was eventually leaked to the media. Mantashe confirmed this. In his wide-ranging dissection of the party’s ills, Mantashe rightfully pinned the problems within the ANC to its branches, the very basic unit of the party.

Branches constitute regions and regions make up provinces.

But if elements of gate-keeping, undue influence and intimidation are happening here, what hope is there then of things in the upper rungs of the party being any better?

And these allegations of the rot at the very basic level of the ANC are not part of anyone’s very active imagination, it is real. It exists.

This was corroborated by several witnesses to the Moerane Commission – which is sitting to probe the high level of political murders in KwaZulu-Natal.

Senzo Mchunu, for example, gave a chilling account of what actually happens at branch meetings.

The former premier went into gritty detail of the naked intimidation that happens at branch meetings. Some even carry guns to silence other comrades.

The South African Communist Party (SACP) in the province confirmed such incidences, telling the commission how branch meetings were deliberately engineered to achieve desired political outcomes.

If you’re elected to a senior position within a branch or even a region, your chances of being elected or deployed to local government as a councillor are amplified.

In some cases, you may even become a mayor.

If you’re voted in as a regional chairperson, your mayoral ambitions coupled with a lucrative salary and all the other bells and whistles of such office kick into gear.

eThekwini’s regional chair Zandile Gumede is one such example. Since being elected to helm the ANC’s biggest region, she has been elevated to executive mayor of one of the party’s best performing metropolitan municipalities.

In the end, it is about access to resources, access to power and access to influence.

This is why the stakes are so high, starting from branch right up to provincial level.

If you make it to the provincial executive committee of the ANC, your chances of landing an MEC (Member of Executive Council) post are even higher.

And if you’re elected in the powerful post of provincial chair or secretary, you have unfettered powers in terms of deciding who sits in what job across any part of that province.

This is why we are seeing the fierce battles the media show us daily.

It is about money, tenders, influence and power – scarce political resources.

You need just look at the spate of political murders across KwaZulu-Natal to find illustrations of this reality.

The ANC since it’s unbanning in 1990 has become a vehicle for instant enrichment to many thousands who queue to join the party daily.

Mantashe even lamented this fact: that the party has been reduced to a ‘free for all’.

In his Diagnostics Report, he detailed the extent to which so-called new members do not read and acquaint themselves with what the ANC is about.

And because these ‘new members’ are not ideologically indoctrinated in the ANC’s policies at that very branch level, factional behaviour begins to take root immediately.

It becomes less about discussing and debating on ANC policies but more about how this comrade can help me advance within the structures of this cash machine.

If this means me supporting a divisive leader to advance my interests, then so be it.

What needs to happen as a matter of urgency at National Conference?

For the ANC to survive this weekend’s 54th National Conference, a re-connection has to be made with those very units that permit the party to exist – the branch.

Although the highly influential Through the Eye of the Needle document finds nothing wrong with branches influencing others at conference, it is high time regional and provincial voting blocs stop their bullying tactics.

Provincial leaders too need to take the lead in allowing branches to be more vocal vigorous and vehement in thrashing out ANC policies instead of merely relying on them as ‘voting fodder’ for factional leadership elections.

Provincial delegations need to stamp out the mentality that if I bring in a bigger delegation to conference, I am more entitled than you to decide who my leadership should be.

This is exactly what is happening at the 54th National Conference, like it happened in 2007 and 2012: bigger provinces are throwing their weight around based simply on their allocated delegate numbers.

And this has emboldened provincial leaders more.

A leader such as Mpumalanga provincial chairperson David Mabuza knows that he holds the key to whoever finally gets elected into that top six.

It should never be only about the numbers.

Not only are you likely to get the wrong people elected into powerful positions of authority, you’re also very likely to stir the tribal and ethnic pot.

The party will eventually be reduced to a tribalistic party, stoking even further chasms for the party’s longevity.

Ronesh Dhawraj

A Specialist Political Researcher with the SABC News Research Policy & Analysis unit. He is currently completing a PhD in political and government communication, focusing on the ANC and DA’s 2016 election campaigns.

Source: SABC News