Fresh phase: President Jacob Zuma has brought the ANC to the crossroads. To survive, the party, now under the leadership of new president Cyril Ramaphosa, will have to embark on a painful rebirthing process of rooting out corruption, healing internal rifts and recommitting itself to serving the country. Picture: REUTERS
Fresh phase: President Jacob Zuma has brought the ANC to the crossroads. To survive, the party, now under the leadership of new president Cyril Ramaphosa, will have to embark on a painful rebirthing process of rooting out corruption, healing internal rifts and recommitting itself to serving the country. Picture: REUTERS

When the Rev ZR Mahabane was elected ANC president in 1937, he took over from Pixley ka Isaka Seme, whose leadership antics had completely paralysed the organisation and robbed it of its strategic vision.

In the 106 years of its existence, no ANC president inherited the organisation in a worse state than Mahabane. How he dealt with it will provide beneficial lessons to newly elected ANC leader Cyril Ramaphosa.

When Seme was elected in 1930, the ANC was in its formative stages, having been launched 18 years earlier. He had an erratic leadership style and struggled to consolidate the party’s ideological outlook. Historian Peter Limb suggests that from 1930 to 1937, Seme almost sank the ANC ship.

Mahabane spearheaded the arduous task of rebuilding the organisation almost from scratch. He inherited an ANC with structures that were dysfunctional, provinces that were not properly co-ordinated and deep-seated ideological degeneration to the extent that the vision and character of the organisation had been distorted into some kind of "society".

He embarked on a tedious process of convening "revival meetings" in all provinces that discussed problems at branch level and the recruitment of members. At all those meetings, he urged for "complete reorganisation and stability".

Mahabane got the national executive committee functioning properly again, strengthened provinces and built ANC organisational capacity to co-ordinate African protests. Mahabane’s achievements over a very short period helped the ANC to recapture the wide public support it enjoyed previously.

Unlike Seme, whose leadership was marked by degenerative internal strife and a personality cult, Mahabane was a courageous and resolute leader who was firm on principle.

Addressing the national executive committee in 1939, he said that "congress is not going to die, it is moving ahead".

The renewal was not a matter of choice: the colonial government promulgated the Slums Act in 1934 that gave the authorities wide-ranging powers to expropriate, in the main, properties owned by black people that were deemed to present a health risk.

In 1936, the African franchise was abolished with the promulgation of the Native Representation Act. The collective effect of the two acts on black people was severe.

Mahabane’s courageous leadership style and commitment to principled renewal laid a strong foundation for his successor, Dr AB Xuma.

In 1940, Xuma inherited a better organised and functioning ANC. This gave him a good platform from which to promote new thinking. He improved the membership system, established the working committee and the ANC Youth League and re-established the ANC Women’s League.

The positive outlook in the ANC during the early stages of Xuma’s leadership emboldened the executive committee and sharpened its strategic focus.

Like Mahabane 80 years ago, Ramaphosa inherited a haemorrhaging governing party that is deeply fractured, with weak structures, massively shedding electoral support and with public confidence waning.

Its degeneration is a cumulative outcome of many years of tactical mishandling of internal contradictions, such as the failure to manage succession, weak responses to scandals, the disastrous HIV/AIDS denialism and weak deployments.

This resulted in the deterioration and impairment in the functioning, character and structures of the ANC. While the degeneration gradually set in over time, matters got worse after Polokwane.

Every member of the ANC yearns for organisational renewal to halt the degeneration. Hence, delegates at the December conference and the national executive committee’s first statement in 2018 call for organisational renewal to unite and restore the integrity of the ANC.

Delivering the keynote address at the ANC Northern Cape conference in May 2017, Ramaphosa drew striking parallels between the ANC’s renewal and the tale of rebirth by eagles.

According to this tale, when an eagle reaches a certain advanced age, it becomes weakened as its claws loose the flexibility to grab prey, its beak becomes bent and its wings become heavy and stick to its chest, making flight difficult.

The eagle is left with only two options: die or go through a very painful process of rebirth, which requires a retreat to its nest on a mountain top.

The rebirthing process is difficult: the eagle will knock off its beak and grow a new one, pluck out its claws so sharp, new ones can grow and pluck out its feathers so fresh ones can take root. Thus renewed, the eagle can take its "flight of rebirth".

In 2007, the ANC resolved to embark on a process of renewal to restore its revolutionary prestige and recapture the imaginations of the people of SA.

Unfortunately, more than a decade since this resolution was taken, the ANC finds itself in a more precarious position that threatens its control of state power. This was demonstrated by the dismal electoral performance in the 2016 local government elections and the decline in previous three elections.

To establish the cause of these misfortunes, the national executive committee commissioned its internal research unit to conduct a post-election survey among ANC supporters.

The survey’s outcomes highlighted 13 areas that were a great cause of discontent for ANC supporters. For more than 70% of respondents, the top three concerns were divisions in the organisation, corruption and political arrogance. The national executive committee’s recent statement eloquently responds to these three ills and makes a striking call for renewal
and reconnection with the ANC’s values.

There is an appreciation in the statement that the ANC is at a crossroads and left with only two options: die or renew. Like the rebirth of the fictional eagle, renewal in the ANC will require embarking on a very painful and protracted process to pluck out all the three ills.

This task demands a courageous and resolute leader who will not exchange principle for political expediency.

Tactical leadership over-consumed with politics of survival will be unable to take the ANC through a rigorous process of renewal. At this decisive moment of rebirth, the ANC requires a leadership whose conduct is steeped in the revolutionary values of honesty and hard work.

Due to poor and erratic leadership in the recent past, the three ills were allowed to fester within the ranks of the ANC. To pluck them out requires a leadership that walks the talk and is prepared to suffer a backlash.

Mahabane’s stance on renewal made him unpopular with certain groupings that derived benefits from the malfeasance and paralysis in the ANC. With his unwavering commitment to principle, he stood his ground and was prepared to pay the price, losing his position to the Xuma faction in 1940.

To renew the ANC will not be an easy matter as the beneficiaries of the malaise will generate a spirited fight and stir up a whirlwind to retain the status quo. To counter this would require a Mahabane style of leadership: courageous, resolute and firm on principle.

The first test of Ramaphosa’s leadership is to unflinchingly deal with the three ills. Confronting them is not only about tackling the pervasive perceptions of a divided and self-serving organisation, but it is for the ANC’s survival.

How the allegations of state capture threaten the very foundation of the ANC is astonishing. As part of the struggle to pluck out corruption, the ANC must support the efforts of law enforcement agencies to root out state capture.

For the promised renewal to take place, the ANC needs a president who will serve as a strong example of incorruptibility. Renewal of the ANC is not a matter of choice, but an imperative for its longevity.

Only a renewed ANC can lead the struggle for radical economic transformation to deal with SA’s embarrassingly high levels of poverty, unemployment and inequality.

Since the election of the ANC’s new national executive with Ramaphosa as party president, there is renewed hope in the country.

The new leader must seize the opportunity and painfully pluck out all the three ills to ensure the ANC does not die but takes the "flight of rebirth".

Dr Saul is the ANC’s Northern Cape chairman.

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