Succession wars are inevitable

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The power struggle in the ruling party is not unique to the ANC or to SA. It is actually fiercer in the DA. In his autobiography On the Contrary, Tony Leon dismissed Allister Sparks’s political predictions as pathetic. But Helen Zille once told me in 2009 to watch Sparks’s elections predictions as evidence that the DA ’s performance will improve. The Lindiwe Mazibuko-Athol Trollip contest for parliamentary leadership was a classic succession tug of war between Zille and the Trollip faction.

Internationally, succession battles can be ruthless, bitter and destructive.

The power struggle between French President Nicolas Sarkozy and former prime minister Dominique de Villepin – who were members of the UMP party and served in the same government – was so ferocious that De Villepin accused Sarkozy of using state institutions to charge him of corruption. Wait a minute… didn’t we hear such an accusation from President Jacob Zuma?

Succession was not handled any better across the English Channel. Former British prime minister Tony Blair, in his autobiography A Journey, referred to his somewhat successor Gordon Brown as “a disaster” who had zero emotional intelligence at the height of the ugliest succession battles in the Labour Party.

Let’s not forget the bitter rivalry between Ehud Olmert and Tzipi Livni for the soul and direction of the Kadima party in Israel. This led to Olmert quitting as prime minister. Interestingly, he resigned the same day as Thabo Mbeki – September 21, 2008.

The missives, accusations and pettiness associated with US primaries are a perfect script for a nasty succession soap opera. Actually, the ANC’s succession battles are (publicly at least) less hostile – until Julius Malema did the unthinkable last week at Wits and attacked a sitting ruling party president directly and openly.

However, the striking difference between the ANC’s succession wars and that of parties in developed democracies is that, in the latter, governance and public service are so professionalised that they are minimally disturbed by the partisan power struggle.

Our succession, on the other hand, takes the Russian cloak and dagger format, sucking in the security institutions. By the way, Zuma and Russian president-cum-prime-minister-turned-president Vladimir Putin were once superspies. Perhaps this is why state security institutions are the first casualty of succession. It is always unnerving when military men, spies and police are sucked into political and power battles. It is equally disturbing when the judiciary is affected by the succession chaos, shaking our democratic pillars.

Worryingly, the ANC’s succession destabilises the government as the executive, the legislature and, to some degree, the public service change after every party provincial and national conference. Politicians and public servants belonging to wrong factions get shuffled out, and along come the weak and (at times) the corrupt lot from the powerful faction. As I wrote last week, policy formulation is affected by discontinuity. The public service machinery grounds to a halt as new politicians are obsessed with the colour of their new high-performance cars, the size of the new state houses, while enjoying good wines and caviar at six-star hotels (with compliments from the taxpayers). The carnival could take months, followed by unnecessary international travels and endless parties.

Soon after the transition period, the clean-up follows as the new factions review and reverse their predecessors’ contracts in favour of the new tenderpreneurs. Third, the good public servants get gatvol, quit government and vow never to return, leaving the public service and the executive to be run by not-so-smart bureaucrats. Even though I believe the DA’s succession and internal politics are uglier because the party lacks a historical umbilical cord to hold together a diverse bunch from ideological extremes, the party has managed to portray a public image of a functional institution, and not a house asunder. This talks of the party leaders’ emotional intelligence and outward looking, nudging feuding parties to focus on the electoral ball, and not petty disputes.

On the other hand, there are very influential leaders who lack emotional intelligence at Luthuli House, and are not smart enough to understand the impact of their action on the party’s longevity and image. They don’t mind destroying their opponents at all costs.

How else do you explain Malema’s tantrum at Wits last week, openly insulting the party leader – the face of his party and the man who was elected by the majority of delegates in Polokwane. Sure, you can argue that the DA has its own Masizole Mnqasela, who accused Zille for running the DA like a spaza shop.

But how do you explain Mathews Phosa, the treasurer-general, appearing on the same hostile stage as Malema at what is supposed to be the celebration of the party’s centenary?

At least Kgalema Motlanthe used some obfuscation and sophistry to hide the party’s dirty linen, leaving it to the so-called observers to decode his meaning when he rebuked youth league members for wearing T-shirt declaring his candidacy for the party presidency.

Is Phosa not aware of the damage to the ANC brand? The very same people – bar Malema if expelled – will be begging voters to trust their party to govern for a fifth term in 2014.

At least Zuma has shown some maturity and emotional intelligence (this must not be confused with Prince Mashele’s intellectual threshold bar) on this one. Despite his ruthlessness and calculating character, he has so far appeared to have transcended – publicly, at least – the Malema provocation (except a slip at The New Age breakfast).

However, he has left the fight in the hands of people who are equally pathetic in damage control. Gwede Mantashe and his communications team – Jackson Mthembu et al – are hopeless in crisis management.

Actually, they have fuelled the succession conflagrations by taking a factional stance instead of protecting the party’s image. They may argue that they are politicians after all, and not bureaucrats. Mantashe is unfortunately fighting for his political survival, hence his inability to remain neutral and focused. But as chief administrative officer, Mantashe should try to maintain party cohesion and instruct Mthembu to stay out of the dogfight.

He must remember that the ANC constitution states that the secretary-general shall “in the absence of the president and the deputy president, the secretary-general shall assume the functions of the president”. Motlanthe played the game spectacularly towards the Polokwane conference, pretending to stay out of the shenanigans while eyeing the second top job.


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