The ANC: Historical Irony on the Horizon? – By Derek Charles Catsam for ISN Insights

ANC leader Jacob Zuma/ISN Insight
Next year, the ANC will hold its national conference, and the question on everyone’s lips will be whether the party will forsake Zuma – just as it did Mbeki in 2007. If so, this maneuver would serve as another illustration of the intense personalization of South African politics.

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In December 2007 the African National Congress (ANC) met for its national conference in sleepy Polokwane in Limpopo province. Disenchanted with the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki, the party fired a shot across his bow at the meeting by electing Jacob Zuma as the ANC president. Given that the party president is also seen as the party’s chief political leader, this move set in motion the events that would lead to Mbeki’s resignation from office a few months later and Zuma’s eventual succession to the South African presidency after the country’s 2009 elections.

In 2012 the ANC will meet in Mangaung in the Free State and will choose the next party president. Is it possible that the ANC is on a collision course with déjà vu? Is the party already weary of Jacob Zuma, and prepared to send him the same message that was sent to Mbeki? What will happen if the party forsakes Zuma – and what will that say about the state of the ANC?

After the dust cleared in Polokwane back in 2007, Zuma – always a wily politician – was able to leverage discontent with his former ally, Mbeki, and put himself in an advantageous position. While Kgalema Motlanthe served as interim president after Mbeki stepped down, there was little doubt that the presidency would ultimately be Zuma’s.

Zuma enjoyed a brief honeymoon – if only because whoever he was, he was not Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki seemed irascible and distant to many South Africans, including fellow members of the ANC hierarchy. However, shortly after his election, Zuma himself soon proved to be a problematic figure.

Discontent and corruption

Indeed, Zuma was always an uncomfortable choice in some ANC circles. Accused of raping the daughter of a close family friend, he stood trial but was later acquitted. He also managed to walk away from a seemingly inescapable corruption scandal – giving him a Teflon sheen that, while bringing his supporters closer, repelled others.

Zuma has so far escaped taking personal responsibility for the scandals that have enveloped the country. Suspicions were initially raised after it was revealed that high-ranking members of the ANC had potentially accepted bribes from a defense conglomerate in return for a R30 billion contract for delivering military aircraft. Zuma’s former personal financial adviser and friend, Schabir Shaik, is the only figure so far to have been found guilty of corruption in connection with the arms deal, but charges against Zuma might be revived once he leaves office.

The fallout from the arms deal is only one issue in the fog of corruption swirling around Zuma’s administration. Bheki Cele, a Zuma ally and the chief of South Africa’s police, is also facing corruption charges; so is Cele’s accuser, alongside the police special investigator who helped bring the charges. This is indicative of the vicious cycle which prevails in the South African political sphere, one in which accusations meet counter-accusations, leaving justice uncertain. Nevertheless, allegations of corruption in South Africa always seem to lead back to Zuma, his allies, or acquaintances. It should be noted that the political is often a reflection of the personal in South African public life: Zuma is widely disliked on a personal level so there are therefore many who would be willing orchestrators of his political demise.

Sizing up Zuma’s competition

Corruption is not Zuma’s only problem. South Africa’s unions have been suffering through a winter of discontent, engaging in massive strike actions. South African unions almost always fall under the penumbra of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which makes up one third of the ruling alliance together with the ANC and the South African Communist Party. COSATU has felt constrained by the ANC over the years and may well be looking to place a stronger stamp on the coalition. The widely admired and respected COSATU General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi, has political ambitions, and successful labor agitation could well help those ambitions reach fruition.

The ANC Youth League is a den of political intrigue and potential competition for Zuma. Led by the charismatic and impetuous Julius Malema, the Youth League seems to fancy itself as the re-embodiment of the 1940s generation – the Youth League of Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, and Walter Sisulu – that took control of the ANC from more staid elders. Malema once infamously said that the Youth League would “kill for Zuma.” Now the political ambitions of the volatile Malema might well help to kill off Zuma’s chances for a second term.

Meanwhile Cyril Ramaphosa could be the ultimate game changer in South African politics: He proved to be a master negotiator during the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) discussions to end apartheid in the early 1990s, but by the mid-1990s had chosen the path of business instead of politics. Yet whispers, hints and yearnings that he will return to public life and enter the political fray have long circulated.

If Ramaphosa decides to run, the entire face of the ANC would likely change; Zuma’s status is precarious and Malema is bombastic; he has his fans but has earned at least as many detractors. Motlanthe, who ably served as interim president between Mbeki and Zuma’s terms, has waited patiently and quietly – perhaps too quietly for his own good. If Ramaphosa steps forward, he would likely instantly take the lead in the ANC political horse race.

This makes Ramaphosa’s recent foray into the debate over nationalizing South Africa’s mines so tantalizing: even when a lion purrs it can sound like a roar. While Malema has asserted that the mines ought to be nationalized, with Vavi moving in that direction as well, Ramaphosa has been able to espouse the virtues of all sides of the debate without sounding mealy-mouthed: he understands the push for nationalization even if he wants to stanch it. This deftness harkens back to his days as an astute CODESA negotiator, in which he was able to rise above the sound and fury to broker deals for the good of the country.

Politics and the personal

Though substantive ideological differences do exist in some political debates – like the one around mine nationalization – what stands out most is the politics of the personal. Zuma’s failings, real and perceived, much like Mbeki’s before him, have tended to become highly personalized: For all their successes in political life, many South Africans simply do not like these men.

The die is not yet cast for Zuma; that much is certain: He did not get to be the head of Africa’s most powerful country without knowing how to take a few blows and deliver counterpunches.

Yet, the ghosts of Polokwane seem to be stirring. It will be an irony of South African history if the beneficiary of the ANC’s mischief in 2007 ends up becoming its victim at the next gathering in Mangaung.

Dr Derek Charles Catsam is Associate Professor of History at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin, where he teaches Modern African history and Modern US history with an emphasis on race, politics and social movements. He is also a senior writer for the Foreign Policy Association’s Africa Blog and has lived, worked and travelled extensively throughout southern Africa.

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