Let this be a warning& |ANC Limpopo conference delegates sing and make gestures calling for a leadership change on the first day of the conference at the University of Limpopo. Mangaung delegates need to heed the lessons of the last national conference and get to work now, says Zweli Mkhize. Picture: Jennifer Bruce

As we prepare for the ANC conference in earnest, there are several lessons to be learnt from the 52nd national conference in Polokwane, especially for the ANC and the media.

Looking back at the ANC’s conference in 2007, after all tempers had cooled, it became clear we had trodden a forbidden path.

For the ANC members who were devastated by the outcome of the presidential elections, it was honestly understandable.

The ANC had allowed the anger of its members to rise to unacceptably high levels on a matter that is part of the organisational culture, such as leadership changes.

The underlying tension had not been addressed in time.

Conflict needs resolution before the conference starts. A conference that begins with division soon produces factional frays that are difficult to resolve. It creates a situation of winners and losers and acrimony.

The pre-Polokwane divisions were immeasurably wide, the leadership contest was fierce and the scars deep.

The top leaders had lost the capacity to intervene. There was no more civility in internal engagements and nobody had the courage to plug the haemorrhaging artery of organisational values.

Cope was conceived of long before the conference and the recall of Thabo Mbeki as president of the country.

The ANC must take the necessary precautions to avoid that route in future.

Leadership was paralysed as the different groups slugged it out in private as well as under the full gaze of the public, who watched in disbelief and astonishment as this beloved movement devoured itself.

The whole saga traumatised and embarrassed all South Africans – supporters and non-supporters.

For the ANC, the lesson is that our conduct on the road to Polokwane is a forbidden path to self-destruction.

In Zulu, the expression “indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili”, simply translated, is “to find the way, ask those who have travelled on that path”. That the ANC even survived the tumult that unfolded is remarkable.

The ANC leaders must never allow a situation again where so much anger and trauma prevails among its membership.

Next time, the ANC might not recover, despite its impeccable record as the courageous leader of our struggle and the selfless champion of the working class and the poor.

This time, in the run-up to Mangaung, whether people realise it or not, there is a lot less anger.

There is a lot more willingness to engage with different schools of thought.

When they sit down and talk, they discover they are all plagued by the same concerns about the future of the ANC and the country.

All that needs to be done is to encourage more widespread engagement, a lot of which is happening – and this is, in any event, the culture of the ANC.

There are a few, though, who are clearly driven by self-interest and wish to exploit the atmosphere of conflict for personal gain.

In the final analysis, these people are doomed to failure, as they will slowly realise as the conference approaches.

There are also lessons for the media from Polokwane.

Fortunately, unlike in 2007, this time the effort of many media houses has moved a little further to sample the internal debates and leadership preferences, which in the past didn’t reach the glare of the media, for good reasons.

Many of us in the country are suffering from a preoccupation with “short-termism” in our approach to issues that affect us, Mangaung included.

One bad experience poisons our minds and we cannot imagine that anything good ever happened in South Africa.

Our high expectations of ourselves sometimes make us condemn ourselves as failures even when we have achieved successes in other fields.

The level of pessimism could condemn Mangaung to an apocalypse.

Few journalists are confident enough to find a positive side to this very important ANC conference.

Journalist Karima Brown seems to be one of the few brave reporters to have bucked the trend. Her recent article in the Sunday Independent about the trends in ANC structures was correct, but it swam against the dominant trend in most media.

The reliance on internal ANC sources who themselves have personal interests might damage the image of reputable media brands if care is not taken to reach unbiased conclusions, independent of the power of the influence some party lobbyists have over sections or individuals in the media.

For some who peruse the newspapers, it raises concerns that clear lobby lines are appearing unadulterated in media columns that should be respected for their objectivity.

This trend suggests that ground is being prepared for public disappointment with the re-election of President Jacob Zuma, whereas the democracy we know must force us all to respect the processes of democracy and accept its products.

The outcomes of democratic processes are not predetermined. Because South African democracy is based on proportional representation, the public’s interest in the outcomes of the ruling party’s national conference is understandable.

The rules of democratic engagement can’t be bent because some foresee an outcome they least expected.

Watched from machinations inside party structures and the terraces of membership concerns, views about and aspirations for our country, it was disappointing to see the views that failed to muster majority support inside party structures reappear as opinion pieces and editorial commentary in 2007.

When I approached the media stands on the sidelines of the 52nd conference in 2007, I was cautioned by two journalists that the media marquee was “in mourning” as a consequence of the conference election results.

The level of attachment of some journalists to the ANC internal processes and dynamics has gone too deep for an institution that needs to exercise a professional and unbiased evaluation of facts and fiction around a political organisation.

We should all heed the lessons of 2007.

What should be remembered is that there is a lot more work for the Mangaung delegates than the election of leadership, which is the current preoccupation of media columnists and lobby groups.

l Mkhize is the ANC KZN provincial chairman, a member of the ANC national executive committee and premier of KZN.