Inside the battle for the soul of the ANC

ANC members at the 55th National Conference at Nasrec. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

ANC members at the 55th National Conference at Nasrec. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA)

Published Sep 20, 2023


Siyabonga Hadebe

Pretoria - There are events happening in South African politics that are quite difficult to explain but point to a specific direction nonetheless.

These do not involve a single individual or one political party, but several actors appear to be in cahoots towards a particular goal. The national discourse is smoothing divisions between political parties and favours a specific discourse, meaning that the ideological distance between the PAC and the Freedom Front Plus is not as wide as it is often portrayed, in practice at least.

Neo-liberalism ideology has always been associated with whites in South Africa and blacks with mainly left-leaning ideas for historical reasons. However, there is now a very rehearsed script to create a liberal party in South Africa, transcending the racial divide and maybe recreating the face of South African politics.

At the end of 2018, DA MP Toby Chance introduced this idea by painting a likely or desired future scenario of South African politics through an article in November 2018. According to him, a coalition between moderates within the ANC and the DA that would stave off tyranny was preferred, “if the country is to avoid a descent into despotism”. He added that the ANC would need to split.

Of course, this was a year after the ANC failed to split in 2017, when Cyril Ramaphosa defeated Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma in a tight race to become president. Since then, data surfaced that, had Ramaphosa failed to win, a new party was going to be formed. In July 2019, the leader of the EFF, Julius Malema, told crowds packed outside the Gauteng High Court, Pretoria, that his party worked with SACP’s Solly Mapaila and Derek Hanekom to oust former president Jacob Zuma.

This revelation did not come as a surprise since many people long suspected that a powerful clique within the ANC was well behind the formation of the EFF to destabilise the Zuma presidency. Malema explained that Hanekom had told the EFF that if the Dlamini Zuma camp had won the ANC leadership battle, a new political party was going to be formed.

However, evidence suggests the plan was much broader than just an ANC split. The DA and smaller parties in Parliament, including the EFF, worked in unison in their gallant fight to remove Zuma. For a few years, Parliament simply stopped performing its duties while these parties were disrupting activities in the house through public stunts, interjections and litigation. However, the EFF appears to have fallen by the wayside since Zuma left, in public at least. The new DA leader announced after his election that his party will work with the ANC.

The suggestion by Toby Chance was that the breakaway rational constitutionalists within the ANC would form a coalition with the DA and other like-minded smaller parties. And the ANC’s radical left would presumably join forces with the EFF, Andile Mngxithama’s BLF and similar forces. Chance’s ideas correspond with those advanced in Leon Schreiber’s book, Coalition Country: South Africa after the ANC. Schreiber argues that coalitions could become “the norm in South Africa, although they are not the only possibilities”. But Chance went further, suggesting a split of the ANC.

The DA started to clean its ranks by quickly removing its leader, Mmusi Maimane, under the pretext that he was responsible for the party’s poor showing in the national elections in May 2019. He was also accused of taking the party in an undesired direction.

The party brought back Helen Zille to preside over the ‘renewal’ process, and this led to the resignation of Herman Mashaba as mayor of Johannesburg. One cannot divorce the resignation of Stevens Mokgalapa in 2020 as mayor of Tshwane. Mokgalapa was said to be very close to Maimane in a party where the black voice was gaining strength under the “black caucus”.

Maimane’s strategy was obviously not what his bosses had in mind. His successor, John Steenhuisen, told a group in Durban that Maimane “had focused too much on criticising the ANC and not enough effort on presenting solutions”.

This has infuriated Maimane, who then blasted Steenhuisen as Judas (who betrayed Jesus in the Bible) for his comments. According to Maimane, there was nothing untoward, because “all opposition parties were critical of the ANC under Zuma”.

The fallout between Maimane and Steenhuisen explains what the new DA leadership is trying to do: To get closer to the present ANC leadership, which is suddenly faultless in its eyes.

When Chance wrote his article, he was worried about agitations for land reform in South Africa and other resolutions that were taken by the ANC’s elective conference at the end of 2017. In advancing his argument, Chance referred to the push for change in South Africa as constituting an “outdated ideology,” which would lead to paralysis. Outdated ideology, for him, refers to the ANC’s resolutions regarding the nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank as well as land expropriation without compensation.

According to Chance, the ANC’s current posture has “EFF-leanings”. He then predicted that this would result in mayhem – reduced investment, higher unemployment, more government debt, existential threats to our financial system, etc. Mashaba and many black leaders in the DA were seen as not helpful in the party’s new approach after the 2017 ANC elective conference.

Maimane’s insistence on exposing acts of money laundering at the conference caused irreparable damage between him and party bosses. The DA has largely remained mum on the millions of rand spent on the conference since their horse triumphed.

Perhaps some people might question why one has to be concerned with what the DA thinks, since the ANC preaches “unity” at every opportunity, and therefore, a talk of split should perhaps not be entertained. Well, the contestation of ideas in the ANC has been there for quite a long time.

Mervin Gumede calls it “the battle for the soul of the ANC”. Thus, the tug-of-war over the direction that the ANC should take going forward has not been as pronounced as it is now.

Not discounting the battles over the soul that started in the 1940s – that eventually led to the formation of the PAC – the present struggle is even more significant in that it goes beyond the ANC.

It extends to include the unlikely players like other political parties, churches, media, businesses and NGOs. This means the country has to take a keen interest, too, not just the ANC members. The present battle for the soul of the ANC also implies that the form and shape of the organisation that was forged over five decades ago, when an alliance was formed by white-dominated SACP at the time, will drastically change.

The DA appears to be standing on the pulpit delivering a sermon they think is key to dismantling “the broad church”. It is likely that the DA is not acting alone, but its sentiments are shared by many inside the governing party. For example, Veterans League’s Snuki Zikalala said in April 2023 that DA was “a better partner for the ANC”.

Even if one were to consider the DA motion in Parliament to impeach Busisiwe Mkhwebane as the public protector, it demonstrated renewed confidence that the ANC in Parliament would support it. Indeed, two-thirds of MPs voted to remove Mkhwebane from office. The DA understands its interests overlap with those of the liberal group within the ANC. It expressed its gratitude to ANC MPs for the impeachment vote.

The ideological divide within the ANC seems to be more visible from space than the Chinese Wall.

It would be quite disingenuous for anyone to deny that, even Isaac Newton could battle to pinpoint the direction of forces in the ideology of the ANC. Led by the likes of Tito Mboweni, Pravin Gordhan, and Enoch Godongwana, the ANC liberal lobby continuously seeks sympathy from the public and openly challenges the party resolutions. The moderates see the ‘radicals’ within and without the ANC, e.g. the EFF and BLF and others, as threats to South Africa.

Not that the anti-liberal lobby inside the ANC is not fighting back. The likes of Tony Yengeni and ex-Ekurhuleni mayor Mzwandile Masina openly aired their views on their dissatisfaction with the direction the party appears to be taking. They called for the removal of Gordhan as public enterprises minister, for example. In addition, the fired former Secretary-General, Ace Magashule, constantly criticised policy dissidents for not toeing the line. He told the ANC MPs that there was no way that they could back the DA-sponsored motion aimed at removing Mkhwebane as the public protector.

The squabbles within the ANC have the potential to shape the leadership battles going forward. The SOEs are one area which exposes the fractiousness of the differences, not just in organisational direction and succession but also in key economic policies. Appointments of CEOs and boards, as well as certain key decisions in Eskom, Transnet, Denel, the PIC and other state companies have been opposed in many quarters as undermining transformation and economic inclusion of blacks. The ANCYL and ANC secretary-general Fikile Mbalula have openly voiced their discontent.

At the centre of it all is the control of the country’s resources and the economy. This is all taking place right before the voter who remains illiterate when it comes to national issues: NHI, education, public procurement, education, energy, economic policy and legislative development.

The 2024 national elections are likely to produce another solid two-thirds majority of convenience under the liberal party.

Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters.

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