Supporters of the ANC “rebels” in celebratory mood outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court on Tuesday following the ruling that the 2015 ANC provincial conference was unlawful and invalid. Picture: Sbonelo Ngcobo/ANA

A very popular Swahili proverb warns that when elephants jostle, what gets hurt is the grass.

There are apparently many versions of this proverb in other African languages, but they all have the same essential message – the utter hopelessness and powerlessness felt in the midst of larger forces.

This often manifests itself in situations in which leaders become involved in disputes which end up hurting innocent and powerless people.

Nowhere is this better illustrated in South Africa than in the bitter factional battles being fought out for leadership in the ruling ANC nationally as well as in the turbulent power struggles taking place in KwaZulu-Natal.

With barely three months to go before the ANC’s national elective conference in December, the battle lines have been clearly drawn.

The campaigns have already been mired in smear scandals, death threats and allegations of interference by state security institutions as well as members of the murky underworld.

In KZN – the epicentre of political violence for many years – the situation is even worse.

Recent weeks have seen a troubling upsurge in politically-inspired violence, the most recent casualty being Sindiso Magaqa, a former ANC Youth League secretary-general.

He was the 11th person to be killed in political violence in the province just this year.

And with yesterday’s dramatic high court ruling rendering the party’s 2015 provincial elective conference unlawful and invalid, the strains and tensions may have been exacerbated.

Members of the provincial executive committee (PEC) intend taking the case on appeal, which is their legal right, and that’s where the matter should rest until a higher court makes a ruling.

It is at times like these that our leaders should follow the example set by the founding fathers of the liberation movement who, even though they took an unwavering and principled stand against injustice and oppression, consistently preached the gospel of peace and political tolerance among all sections of the community.

If we are to be a true democracy, we cannot allow a climate of fear, intimidation and political thuggery to prevail on our political terrain.

South Africans need to recognise that one of the central tenets of a liberal democracy is a willingness to accept the individual rights and freedoms of all people, even those whose views we may not share.

This is a time for cool heads to prevail so that our leaders can deliberate rationally to deliver peace, stability and prosperity to our land.

If there are elections to be held, they must always be free and fair. Polls should be open contests in which candidates can compete in democratic debates on issues that affect the nation.

Leaders need to realise that their role is to serve the people they purport to represent, not their own selfish and personal interests.

If we can honour and live by the values and principles handed down to us by leaders such as Chief Albert Luthuli, Nelson Mandela and Walter Sisulu, among others, people need not fear being trampled on when elephants jostle.