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Can the ANC afford to ditch Number 1?

Published Jan 5, 2014


Will 2014 go down in the annals of political history as the year in which last-minute and daring interventions were made to reclaim the ANC and recast it in the image of Nelson Mandela? Or are South Africans set to enter another five-year period of cover-ups of leadership adventures with public funds?

Five more years of leadership in the style that South Africans (and the ANC, in particular) have just survived could push the ANC to a point of fragility that even the DA can barely dream of.

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The hour glass is pretty close to empty when it comes to time left for strategic interventions. Will such decisions be made in time to capture voter enthusiasm for an ANC that has become famous for reinventing itself?

The ANC still has a small window of opportunity to turn the vessel around, away from the current trajectory of leaders who are seen to damage the reputation of government and the party.

This damage is also tangible when it comes to the ANC’s stature ahead of this year’s elections; a Jacob Zuma-less ANC is predicted to enjoy better electoral fortunes than one under the captaincy of “Number One” himself.

Turning around the top leadership of the ANC within the next few weeks will give the party a fighting chance of achieving a proud election victory, one without evidence of noxious slippage. It will signal that the ANC is serious about regenerating its power. It will build prospects of stable and focused government in the next five years.

Leadership decisions are tough, and they can come only from within the ANC. They will demand of ANC cadres and Zuma loyalists, notably in KwaZulu-Natal, that they put the interests of the ANC first… that they choose the 102-year-old movement over designs of provincial domination or personal enrichment, courtesy of holding the hand of a president whose stature is lower than that of the organisation he leads.

Without action now there is likely to be another five years of focus on sheltering the president and his circle of sycophants.

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Recent political history has taught us that interventions do not come from starting alternative parties to challenge the ANC. Rescue operations must come from within. It is only through steering, controlling and managing the ANC itself that the ANC will be “rescued from itself”.

There are signs in the ANC of budding moves to replace top leadership (at this early stage it is difficult to be certain about their momentum and traction).

The national executive committee (NEC) is divided, torn between sticking to a Mangaung endorsement that has gone wrong and intervening to redirect the party’s masochistic tendencies.

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We are receiving reports of debate deep in the ANC on having Madiba’s face on the 2014 ballot paper instead of Zuma (electoral law requires the face of the party leader). Recent party political research, informally relayed, tells us that the ANC would do about seven percentage points better without Zuma than with him as the leader (62 percent versus 55 percent).

More reports follow on small groupings of high-level ANC leaders deliberating the option of impeachment of the president, given the flagrant (and transparent to the electorate) manipulation of the Nkandla indulgences.

Other research shows that ANC supporters are scathing about their president and the government associated with him, yet continue to embrace the ANC and will in all likelihood continue to vote ANC, in large numbers.

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This type of knowledge makes it close to inconceivable (and certainly unpalatable) that wise men and women in the top echelons will not intervene. Yet time is short. Will they muster sufficient persuasive power to persuade loyalists who are pursuing personal returns rather than the organisational good?

The research also sheds light on particular forms of electoral rationality. It shows how voters disavow ANC leaders yet largely remain tied to the ANC. It highlights how voters want to reward the ANC for work done in the first two decades of democracy. It profiles how the citizens still relive the moment of liberation when it comes to national electoral choice.

In this context, loyalty to the ANC is something that is substantially bigger than the inefficiencies and corruption of some of its current leaders.

South Africans with an ANC association see the party as akin to a permanent home, and they are the collective owners. The current regime and leaders are temporary residents in this bigger vessel.

The ANC leaders who know about the current popular disdain for the party’s top leadership must also know that it is longer-term suicide to run with top leaders who damage the body of the ANC, even if not obliterating the party’s next election victory.

A decision to intervene and redirect the ANC leadership becomes even more difficult for the party to take if one considers that ANC popular allegiance remains a two-track affair. Much of the discontent, dissidence and protest common in the periods between elections still do not automatically translate into voting against the ANC.

Some pro-ANC voices and loyal citizens recorded in the Freedom House research project pondered “how it happened” that they got their current leadership. They long for “Mandela democracy”, a time when questions about how much the leaders cared about people never popped into their heads (or that is how they recall the era).

South African voters, including ANC supporters, are painfully aware that they are living in a time of corruption in government and among public representatives. For them, no one symbolises the malaise quite as vividly as Zuma.

Whichever level of public representatives and bureaucrats citizens in the research refer to, voters across the party-political divides agonise about corruption and lack of accountability.

The temptation for the ANC not to act on the leadership issues is strong, with decision-makers knowing that voters, fierce as they are in their criticisms, are far from ready to switch their loyalty en masse to the DA or other new opposition arrangements such as the Economic Freedom Fighters, Agang SA or the absurd Patriotic Alliance.

A few may do it in an attempt to scare the ANC, and to extract better accountability, but when push comes to shove they still celebrate racial liberation and are willing to reward the ANC (not government and party leaders) for 20 years of progress with transformation.

It is particularly notable that the DA at this stage of the political game just does not graduate into capturing the slack that arises from ANC failures. Hence, the enticement to keep the Zuma face on election posters.

These are the debates that have started permeating top political circles. Vacillation still accompanies fear of political humiliation, should the voices of reason fail to capture the heart of the NEC.

Yet, the time for turnaround is now, and no one can claim not to have known the price of equivocation.


- Booysen is a professor at Wits University and author of The ANC and the Regeneration of Political Power. Parts of this analysis draw on her report, ‘20 years of South African democracy: citizen views of human rights, governance and the political system”.

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