The ANC’s elective conference in December will be a watershed for SA — if it happens. That there is uncertainty whether the conference will even be held reveals the depth of the structural crisis the governing alliance finds itself in. And yet the country’s leadership keeps its head firmly buried in the sand regarding the scale of the problems the country and, indeed, the ANC are facing.

Not even the office of the secretary-general, whose primary duty is to ensure the integrity of organisational administration, can irrefutably confirm the true state of ANC membership. Membership lists are in tatters. Contests over credentials have become the norm at every significant conference. Delegates are known to pay their way — or be paid — to attend decision-making events. And the fact that ghost members now run ghost branches is perhaps apposite for what increasingly looks like a zombie political party.

The courts are increasingly dragged into the fracas to resolve internal party disputes — such as in the Eastern Cape, after delegates hurled furniture across a hall at each other, providing another fitting metaphor for a political party that is systematically destroying itself.

There’s a very strong perception that the ANC has become little more than a vehicle for thieves and looters, with only their self-interests at heart. They have truly captured the organisation and left many of its tried and tested cadres — once proud revolutionaries — as a hand-wringing lobby on the margins.

The thieves are nothing if not single-minded. They believe that holding a position in the ANC is worthwhile only because of the proximity it provides to government resources, and to private business linked to the state.

They try to extort money in the ANC’s name from businesses, desperate to secure contracts from the government. The once proud ANC name is used and abused without hindrance because the party has little or no control over these rogues.

This is not the ANC I know.

It is certainly not the ANC that Bram Fischer and others of his generation knew. And more of us are starting to ask ourselves whether we will ever again see the ANC in which we grew up, to which we devoted our lives, and for which we sacrificed so much.

Is the ANC capable of correcting itself? Can it retrace its steps? Can it rediscover itself?

Painfully, I doubt it. I honestly do.

In times of such intractable crises, the ANC would ordinarily convene a consultative conference to take counsel from loyal cadres, supporters and strategic friends, in an unthreatening environment. But Zuma’s leadership has emphatically rejected such calls from its own heroes and veterans, choosing instead to ridicule their attempts to return the movement to its historically progressive and democratic values.

There’s a very strong perception that the ANC has become little more than a vehicle for thieves and looters, with only their self-interests at heart

 They have chosen to harass and hound those who try to return it to the right path. They employ goon squads in the form of unrecognisable ANC youth and women’s leagues and the so-called Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association, an increasingly thuggish group of brown-shirt vigilantes.

Many see the December conference as the final throw of the dice for the ANC. Many presume the same holds true for the progressive, democratic vision that inspired so many of us.

We should not be surprised at the possibility that the conference itself may very well end up being a gathering of powerful pawns of interests that are external to the ANC; interests that may well be agnostic to the preservation of the movement or, even more importantly, the survival of SA’s democratic project.

Nonetheless, December will be a crucial moment for SA’s democracy. Many true patriots believe an emphatic rejection of Zuma and his clique, and the elevation to office of a candidate who embraces good governance and probity, could spark the beginning of a political turnaround, which in turn could trigger an economic resurgence.

Equally, however, there is the risk that Zuma’s faction could consolidate power. They are not going down without a fight — this week’s impulsive cabinet reshuffle is a clear indication of that, if any was needed.

Judging from the nominations doing the rounds, and the national executive committee (NEC) slates of the respective candidates, what will be coming out of December is less of a revolution and more of an accommodation, bound to reproduce varying shades of the same leadership that has plunged the organisation into its worst crisis in its history.

By rejecting previous calls for the resignation of the NEC and the convening of a consultative conference, the ANC has instead chosen the path of a revolution from the top — a fight to the finish among factions, or a false truce, built on an unprincipled "unity pact" that will perpetuate the life of the various divisive factions. That is why I’m sceptical about December being a moment of introspection that could ultimately lead to the ANC’s rehabilitation. The ANC had the opportunity to introspect with the parliamentary vote of no confidence on August 8, but was tone deaf to the will of the people.

August 8 was an opportunity, similar to the one faced by Bram Fischer in his youth, for real ANC members to break ranks in large numbers. Fischer explained his decision to leave Afrikanerdom and join the banned ANC as follows: "I engaged upon these activities because I believed that, in the dangerous circumstances that have been created in SA, it was my duty to do so."

So is the December conference another "Bram Fischer moment"? I believe it is, and that the situation in the ANC-led alliance calls upon true and honest cadres to take a hard look around and accept there are many among them who are perpetuating this toxic status quo.

They must also accept that no price is too high to pay to be isolated and exorcised from the ranks of this great movement. That is why we must resist calls for unity at all costs, as it might come at a very high price.

In any event, in the ANC I know, unity has always been based on values and principles, not personalities. If the forces of state capture succeed in cementing their takeover of the ANC in December, which is a realistic possibility, genuine cadres will have their next Bram Fischer moment. And it will be a very personal one, too.

Just like Fischer, they will have to honour the truth, follow their conscience and join the many in society who have been relentlessly waging war against these dark elements.

A failure to do so will legitimate these forces and make them accomplices to the abominable crime of selling out our democracy, as well as our sovereignty.

• Pityana is convener of the Save SA campaign. This is an edited extract from the Bram Fischer memorial lecture he delivered at Oxford University on October 19.

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