End of an era:The earlier ethos of the ANC, as defined by Nelson Mandela and his cohort, is reviled and senior leader Kgalema Motlanthe says ordinary members no longer have a say in running the party. On Tuesday, he announced to the BBC that the ANC had already died. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
End of an era:The earlier ethos of the ANC, as defined by Nelson Mandela and his cohort, is reviled and senior leader Kgalema Motlanthe says ordinary members no longer have a say in running the party. On Tuesday, he announced to the BBC that the ANC had already died. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

A decade of President Jacob Zuma’s leadership has brought the ANC to the point of no return: it is finished, and a better version can emerge only if it loses the 2019 election.

The ANC has undergone many transformations during its history, but few periods have seen changes as radical since Jacob Zuma became ANC president in December 2007. The only comparable period, in disruption, but not in content, was the Mandela-Sisulu revolution in the mid-1940s.

A decade is a long time, even for a body 105 years old — enough time to inflict permanent changes in its composition, nature, structure and function.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has been one of many ANC leaders calling for an end to factionalism, for unity and for renewal, but these amount to appeals that have no force or effect — the butt of jokes made by corrupt, cynical elements in the party.

Ramaphosa does not belong to the dominant faction in the ANC. The national executive committee (NEC) elected in Polokwane in December 2007 was chosen by branch members mobilised by the Zuma faction, which packed the branches to ensure Zuma’s slate was elected.

When Thabo Mbeki was recalled in September 2008, his friend and enforcer Essop Pahad was shocked. According to a report, he said: "Something has happened. I’m not sure what. But this NEC decision is not the NEC I know."

A purge of Mbeki-ites followed and those who remained were rendered impotent. The MPs chosen for election lists by the Zuma faction were perceived as pliable and obedient to his dictates. The ANC entered into an era in which patronage — until then regarded as a deviation — was the way of the party.

The ANC leadership that emerged after its unbanning in 1990 was an unwieldy conglomeration of exiles, United Democratic Front (UDF) activists and Robben Islanders. The former political prisoners took precedence, followed in the pecking order by the exiles and UDF activists. Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu set the moral tone and determined the political priorities, while Mbeki, Ramaphosa and their support bases vied for power.

Despite the power plays, they were largely in agreement about political and moral imperatives, although the UDF faction, Ramaphosa’s people, were disgruntled, a sentiment that afflicted Cosatu and South African Communist Party members after Mbeki took the reins.

When Mbalula was president, the youth league sold its soul to Brett Kebble. The death of the fake tycoon opened the way for replacement funders, and the Guptas soon appeared

The trajectory is more complex than this, and the ANC Youth League features heavily in this implosion. When Mandela, Sisulu and Oliver Tambo were the dominant forces in the league of the 1940s, they defined the ANC position for the next half-century.

By the early 1990s, the resuscitated league’s leaders began to redefine the nature of the ANC, with Peter Mokaba setting the tone for developments that would culminate in the leagues of Malusi Gigaba, Fikile Mbalula, Julius Malema and, most horrible of all, Collen Maine.

When Mbalula was president, the youth league sold its soul to Brett Kebble. The death of the fake tycoon opened the way for replacement funders, and the Guptas soon appeared.

Malema ensured Zuma’s dominance, and opponents were heckled, silenced and politically neutralised. The defence of Zuma during his rape trial, with its tribal mobilisation and contempt for inclusivity, redefined the ANC.

By 2007, the ANC and the tripartite alliance were well on their way to being captured by tenderpreneurs and the Guptas. Cosatu and the communist party willed Zuma on and gave the green light to state capture.

The Zuma purge saw the earlier ethos of the party reviled — senior leaders such as Kgalema Motlanthe, Joel Netshitenzhe and Pallo Jordan suffered the same fate as the National Development Plan. With them went statecraft, the wellbeing of the country and the ANC’s voters.

Motlanthe, determined to renew the ANC, wanted to start a political school to educate ANC youth and socialise them into the traditions of the movement. He never got the support to get this project off the ground. He might even have been prevented from putting together what would have been perceived as an ethical base to challenge the corrupt body.

The increasingly dysfunctional nature of the ANC can be seen in its priorities: "rebels" who uphold the Mandela line are castigated, reviled and ejected, while Cabinet ministers who fail to account to Parliament rise in stature. Crucial issues related to state capture are discussed reluctantly. When treason is not even recognised, the state has perhaps already withered away.

Last weekend, Netshitenzhe lamented that the ANC no longer constituted a centre of power. It could no longer instruct its deployees on the way forward. Instead, the courts, veterans and church leaders were trying in vain to get the body to self-correct — a reversal from when the ANC defined the agenda. If self-correction proved a failure, he said, "we will be known as the generation in whose hands the ANC died".

Efforts to save the ANC might already be too late. In 2008, The Economist reported: "Motlanthe warned a recent provincial conference in Limpopo that the party was in danger of following other liberation movements that lost their way after succumbing to ‘division, factionalism, stagnation and patronage’. If this scramble for office and its spoils turns uglier, the ANC’s popularity could dip."

On Tuesday, Motlanthe told the BBC that the ANC had already died. It needed, he said, to lose the 2019 election in order to be resurrected and become itself again, for that would be the only way the corrupt elements would slink away and leave the party to those interested in the wellbeing of the nation.

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