Newly elected ANC chairman Oscar Mabuyane celebrates with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC's provincial conference in East London. Picture: SIBONGILE NGALWA
Newly elected ANC chairman Oscar Mabuyane celebrates with Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC's provincial conference in East London. Picture: SIBONGILE NGALWA

The most well-known quote of Italian left-wing political theorist Antonio Gramsci goes, "The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum, a great variety of morbid symptoms appears." The words have been applied and misapplied to many situations and periods of history. But it remains an interesting insight, rooted in the idea that there is a kind of twilight period in the process of social or political change during which the normal rules and conventions seem to bounce around without logic.

The chaotic ANC Eastern Cape conference falls squarely into this bracket. In some senses, the conference constitutes an important test for the organisation in which two major related questions were being asked: first, can the ANC bridge the gap between its different factions, and second, if it cannot, does that mean increasing factionalism within the party or worse, a split.

The issues are crucial for the obvious reason that they are possible forerunners of what will happen at the December conference. Failure here and an agreed outcome at the crucial elective conference becomes progressively more perilous.

The problem is that the overwhelming victory reflects the ousting of Masualle’s supporters, who left the conference rather than being associated with the victory of their opponent

In one sense, as chaotic as it may have been with supporters physically attacking each other, the conference organisers can claim that at least a result was recorded. The problem is that this result is so contested, legally and otherwise, a question mark will remain over the legitimacy of new provincial leadership.

At first blush, this might not seem the case. The conference set ANC deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa supporter Oscar Mabuyane up against outgoing chairman Phumulo Masualle. Mabuyane won, getting 935 votes against Masualle’s seven, with 950 of the region’s 1,700 delegates present. That seems pretty emphatic. The problem is that the overwhelming victory reflects the ousting of Masualle’s supporters, who left the conference rather than being associated with the victory of their opponent.

This is the strategy the Zuma camp has adopted time and again: conferences where they don’t or can’t win, they try to destroy. The Eastern Cape conference has been delayed countless times because Masualle feared for the worst, and his slate tried again this time, bringing a court action before the conference was even finished. The first leg of the court action went in favour of the Mabuyane slate, but on a technicality, since the application was to stop the conference and it was already complete by the time the action was heard. That court action was only the opening skirmish in what now looks certain to be a prolonged war.

It is an incredibly short-sighted, small-minded and destructive strategy. In fact, so small-minded, the only logical explanation is that Zuma supporters not only don’t want to accept failure, they cannot believe that failure exists.

All of this constitutes an echo of what happened in KwaZulu-Natal — with a twist. In that case, the anti-Zuma faction brought the case and won. Now party leaders are desperately trying to find a "political solution", which means an agreed truce in which positions are divided up. But increasingly, the problem is comparable to the prisoner’s dilemma: do you compromise and win half the prize or stick to your guns with the hope of winning it all. The fact that "political solutions" are proving so hard to find suggests the level of trust is hopelessly low, and that augurs badly for December.

That reflects a big problem within the party. These contested outcomes suggest the ANC’s internal dispute-resolution mechanisms are failing hopelessly, and that is ominous considering the stakes are about to get much, much higher.

In the meantime, look out for more morbid symptoms falling out of the sky.

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