Former president Thabo Mbeki and President Jacob Zuma. Mbeki failed to groom a leader to look after the ANC and ensure that it succeeded after his tenure, a failure that, as some of his critics argue, gave birth to Zuma, says the writer. Picture: GCIS

In his January 8 statement, ANC president Jacob Zuma announced that the party had declared 2017 to be The Oliver Reginald Tambo Year under the theme “Let us Deepen Unity”.

Born in October 1917, Tambo, who is one of the ANC Youth League founders, would have turned 100 this year.

In 1960, a few days before its banning along with the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC), the ANC sent "OR", as Tambo was fondly known, abroad to set up an external mission to drum up international support against the apartheid system.

Following Albert Luthuli’s death in 1967, OR stepped in as acting ANC president. He led the exiled ANC during the most tempestuous times, characterised by a great deal of discontent with his leadership style, and kept it intact.

In his speech on “the dangers of whispering” at the Morogoro consultative conference to take stock of the party's state of affairs and to map a way forward, Tambo offered to resign as acting ANC president. However, the delegates rejected his offer, fearing that it would jeopardise the external mission.

In 1989, OR handed the soul of the ANC to Thabo Mbeki, who worked under his tutelage as political secretary.

“He then communicated the most challenging (assignment) since I first met him in Dar es Salaam 27 years earlier,” writes Mbeki in the book, Oliver Tambo Remembered, reflecting on his visit to OR in London, England, where he was recuperating from a stroke.

“Look after the ANC and make sure we succeed,” Mbeki says Tambo told him. “You will know what needs to be done.”

Tambo died a year and three days before the dawn of democracy. His Struggle story is similar to that of Moses - in the Bible - who took the Israelites out of Egypt, where they were slaves, through the Red Sea, but did not see the Promised Land.

Inescapably, the question comes to mind as to whether Mbeki discharged the mammoth responsibility that OR assigned to him. The answer to this question is ambivalent.

Mbeki also led the ANC during the most tempestuous times in post-colonial South Africa, characterised by a protracted case of corruption against Zuma, whom he fired as both deputy state president and a cabinet minister, degenerative factionalism ever more setting in, and a great deal of discontent with his leadership style, and kept it intact.

Despite these challenges, the ANC grew in every general election until 2009. Thereafter, it lost 4% in every general election.

Most importantly, the ANC did not have a splinter party under Mbeki. Since his tenure, it has had two major splinter parties - in Cope and the EFF - both of which have contributed to its electoral decline. Technically, as explained elsewhere, the ANC has already split in the run-up to its 54th national conference, further partitioned by North West and other provincial executive committees that have dissolved certain regional executive committees to consolidate their factional strongholds.

In contrast, Mbeki failed to groom a leader to look after the ANC and ensure that it succeeded after his tenure, a failure that, as some of his critics argue, gave birth to Zuma.

His critics, though, argue that had he not vied for a third term as ANC president, they would have thrown their weight behind someone else, not Zuma.

In contrast, Western Cape Premier and former DA leader Helen Zille has groomed Mmusi Maimane as DA leader and a future South African leader.

Post-Mbeki, the ANC is in a serious leadership crisis. He served as a centripetal force that kept it intact. Zuma is not that force, not by a long shot. Contrary to his exaltation as a ‘unifier’ in the run-up to the 52nd national conference, he is a centrifugal force.

In his closing address at the fifth ANC national policy conference, Zuma spoke at length about a putrefactive disease of factionalism within the party, but stopped short of placing himself right at the heart of it. The putrefactive disease churns itself out in a vicious cycle. At its 52nd national conference, for example, former AU chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma was on Mbeki’s factional slate and Kgalema Motlanthe on that of Zuma.

Five years later, Motlanthe extricated himself from the Zuma faction, which brought in Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president, and took him on for ANC president. Fast-forward, Ramaphosa has followed suit, pitting himself against Zuma's anointed successor, Dlamini Zuma.

In all fairness to Zuma, he is, as Professor Steven Friedman points out, not a problem but part of the leadership crisis facing both the ANC and the country. Even if Makhosi Khoza, Pravin Gordhan, Mondli Gungubeli and other ANC MPs vote in favour of a motion of no-confidence in him on August 8, the crisis would remain intact.

Despite Zuma having 783 charges of corruption hanging over his head, the ANC elected him, not once, but twice, as the president. Adding insult to injury, the ANC has thrown its weight behind him from one indefensible scandal to another, not to mention Nkandla. Some ANC MPs, such as Mathole Motshekga, of all people, who is a constitutional law expert, not only defended the Nkandla matter with their souls, but also failed to tell Zuma that the public protector’s remedial recommendations were binding. The matter should not have gone to the ConCourt because the law is clear that the public protector's findings are subject to court review.

Fast-forward, Motshekga wants Zuma to go. The same can be said about SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande. He also defended the Nkandla matter, claiming that it was the “white people’s lies”. They should take a collective responsibility, not apportion the blame single-handedly on Zuma for the crises in which both the ANC and the country find themselves.

Accountability does not start in Parliament with the opposition parties. Nor does it start after a damning court ruling, poor electoral performance, or when a prospect of losing power looms large. It starts within the party structures.

Collectively, the ANC has failed to hold Zuma to account on the Nkandla matter and other scandals. The entire national executive committee (NEC) should resign, as ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu has propounded. He should have led by example in this regard.

More so, the same NEC yet again fails to hold Zuma to account on a state capture matter. Former public protector Thuli Madonsela does not say, as Zuma claims, that Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng should appoint a commission of inquiry. She says he should choose a judge to chair the commission and Zuma should appoint it.

Zuma is using the same time-delaying tactics he used in the Nkandla matter. Come 2019, ANC leaders will make the same excuse, albeit on a different matter. They will argue that “the state capture matter could have been handled better”. After all, they are good with hindsight, which speaks volumes of the leadership crisis.

The ANC is making two mistakes. First, it thinks that it can address its challenges and those of the country by merely recycling failed leaders, including Ramaphosa and Dlamini Zuma. It will take more than a change of leadership to extricate itself from the multifaceted rot in which it finds itself and which has beset the country.

Second, the ANC benchmarks itself against the opposition parties to justify its failures to hold Zuma to account. It argues that the EFF has taken disciplinary action against its councillors who supported it in Mogale City to pass the so-called pro-poor budget. To start with, the EFF has an infinitesimal 6%.

Whether Speaker Baleka Mbete grants a secret ballot on August 8 or not, the ANC will emerge as the biggest loser, not the EFF and other opposition parties. As with Nkandla, the opposition parties do what the ANC fails to do. That is, hold Zuma to account within the party structures.

* Tshabalala is an independent political analyst.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.

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