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The State of the ANC in 2008: The Anatomy of a Political Crisis

Photo by David Harrison.

By Zwelethu Jolobe
By Zwelethu Jolobe

Introduction

2008 was a landmark in the history of the ANC. The major turning point was a Pietermaritzburg High Court judgment delivered on 12 September by Judge Chris Nicholson on a procedural matter in the corruption trial of ANC President Jacob Zuma. Judge Nicholson made inferences that State President (and former ANC President) Thabo Mbeki and senior members of his cabinet had interfered in the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) regarding the decision to prosecute Zuma. Nicholson’s judgment set into motion a chain of events that led to two developments. First, on 19 September, the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) passed a motion of no confidence in Mbeki and requested that he tender his resignation. To replace Mbeki, the ANC put Kgalema Motlanthe before the National Assembly. Second, on 08 October, former Defence Minister, Mosiuoa Lekota and his deputy, Mluleki George, both of whom had resigned with Mbeki, announced they were ‘serving divorce papers’ to the ANC leadership due to irreconcilable differences. Lekota, George, and other senior leaders in Mbeki’s administration, subsequently held a national convention, whose declaration became the nucleus of a new political party, the Congress of the People (COPE). With the COPE being able to register well-over 150,000 people in less than a month, and a staged and well-publicised strategy of receiving defected ANC personnel, the ANC leadership has panicked and been unable to devise a coherent strategy to manage the new challenge.

This paper will investigate the roots and significance of this crisis in the ANC. It will argue that the evolution of this crisis should be understood as the coalescing of two parallel political processes in South African politics: the irreconcilable differences the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) had with Mbeki’s administration; and a profound fall-out in South Africa’s ruling political establishment over the spoils of a defence procurement package that led to the rise of a Zuma lobby in the presidential succession race.

The paper will first discuss the central dispute between the SACP/COSATU and the Mbeki grouping that eventually formed the COPE. The paper will then discuss the rise of the Zuma lobby, showing how it emerged from the politics of armaments procurement; the manner in which it began to permeate the inner-workings of the ruling political establishment and the state; and how it became ingrained in the conflict between SACP/COSATU and the Mbeki grouping.

The ANC and the SACP: From Comrade to Betrayal to Comrade

The ANC and the SACP have a long history of association and developed a relationship from as far back as the 1920s. This association has not always been harmonious: some members of the ANC have at times grown wary of the SACP, and given its multiracial membership and ideological outlook, feared that these would unduly influence the direction of the ANC as the premier vehicle for African nationalist expression.

The most significant tensions in this relationship emerged in the 1990s, first in the SACP, and then between a dominant grouping in the ANC led by former SACP members and the remaining SACP leadership. The collapse of the Soviet Union produced a profound sense of insecurity in the SACP and a deep need for self-reflection. As part of these developments, a significant number of senior SACP members, notably Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma, abandoned their SACP membership in favour of the ANC.* Since SACP members were of the highest intellectual calibre, many were inducted into the new ANC government into strategic state positions, and many others joined the new Black Economic Empowerment (BEE)** project. When these former SACP members became the dominant grouping in the ANC under Mbeki, the tensions solidified and manifested institutionally as SACP versus ANC.

Details of the nature of this dispute are found in a flurry of communications between the SACP, the ANC and COSATU, at the height of the tripartite alliance conflict in 2006. In a special edition of the party’s magazine, Bua Komanisi, the SACP accused the ANC under Mbeki of betraying the ideals of national liberation, central to which was the achievement of a socialist society. The SACP argued that the central project of Mbeki’s administration was to ‘drive a process of restoration of capitalist accumulation’. The Mbeki administration devised a three-staged project: the building of a strong presidential centre, the modernisation of the ANC into an electoral party, and the creation of a black capitalist class through BEE. This, the SACP argued, was a deviation from the socialist path forged during the days of struggle.

Spearheaded by Mbeki in three articles in his weekly column, ANC Today, the ANC’s response was hostile. Mbeki argued that the SACP was driven by an obsession to transform the ANC into a socialist party in order to use it as a vehicle to pursue its own agenda.  But the ANC is not a socialist party and any attempt to transform the ANC in that regard will destroy it. Mbeki repeated the same argument in later papers  and defended black capitalists as a strategic social stratum, necessary for the success of a post-apartheid democratic state, and for the sustainability of the multi-class character of the ANC.

COSATU entered the fray on the eve of its 9th National Congress in September 2006. The political resolutions of the COSATU Congress resolved that their members must ensure the activities of ANC structures are dominated by worker issues, must contest for leading positions of the ANC, and must ‘reclaim the ownership of the ANC so that it becomes the real instrument of people’s power’. Most importantly, the national congress passed a special resolution on Zuma, identifying the prosecution of Zuma as a political conspiracy, calling ‘for the immediate reinstatement of […] Jacob Zuma to the position of Deputy President of South Africa’. 

Based on these resolutions, the COSATU/SACP alliance confirmed their vested interest in who leads the ANC, what policy direction the ANC should develop in pursuance of its mission, and actively campaigned to influence the outcome of the ANC's 52nd national conference (held in December 2007 in Polokwane, Limpopo Province). Having identified their interests in the ANC, they achieved three main tasks. First, they developed a strategic framework based on their current role in the alliance. Second, they identified an ANC leadership which could best pursue its programme. And third, they succeeded in getting all (except Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) elected as ANC office bearers at the Polokwane Conference.

The significance of their strategy for the consequences of their victory at Polokwane was the interaction this process had with another set of developments within Mbeki’s administration; developments that centred on the personality of Jacob Zuma and his alleged role in an armaments procurement package.

The Zuma Wars and the Politics of Conspiracy

The Arms Deal Fall-Out
In 1998, the South African Parliament approved a South African Defence Review, which set the policy guidelines for a defence procurement package, and whose contracts were signed in 1999 at a cost of R30 billion. The Auditor-General had identified this procurement a high-risk area and subsequently conducted a forensic investigation between the Auditor-General, the Public Protector and the NPA after shortcomings were identified in the process. 

In 2002 it was reported that the Directorate of Special Operations  was investigating allegations against Zuma regarding a bribe relating to this arms deal.  In 2003, the then National Director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, issued a press statement that formed the basis of the political conspiracy theory against Zuma. Ngcuka stated that ‘whilst there is a prima facie case of corruption against [Jacob Zuma], [the Scorpions’] prospects of success are not strong enough’.*** 

Instead Zuma’s financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was charged with corruption. The overview of the state’s charge sheet included a breakdown of all payments Shaik made on Zuma’s behalf while the latter was the provincial minister for Economic Affairs and Tourism in KwaZulu-Natal, and later as deputy president. The charge alleged that Zuma received R1.161 million from Shaik and his companies between 1995 and 2002. During this time Zuma’s duties included promoting the interests of business impartially as a provincial minister, and as deputy president of the ANC and later attending national cabinet meetings related to the arms deal.

In response to Ngcuka’s statement, Zuma lodged a formal complaint with the Public Protector in regard to the manner in which the investigation was conducted. Zuma argued that as a provincial minister in KwaZulu-Natal, he was marginal to the procurement process, that Ngcuka’s announcement on the status of a prosecution against him violated his civil rights, and that this was ‘part of a campaign aimed at destroying [his] reputation and to perpetuate mysterious agendas, rather than to further the course of justice’.  

The Public Protector found in favour of Zuma and ruled that he was improperly prejudiced by Ngcuka’s statements. While the Public Protector stopped short of making a finding in regard to the claimed impropriety of continuing with a criminal investigation, his conclusions hardened the attitudes of Zuma’s supporters who began to see actions of the NPA, and the lack of inclination of Mbeki to protect him, as part of a political conspiracy.

The Dismissal of Zuma
On 02 June 2005, Judge Hillary Squires found Schabir Shaik guilty on two charges of corruption and one charge of fraud. Significantly, the judgement directly implicated Zuma.  Shaik’s guilty verdict placed an enormous amount of pressure on the ANC leadership, and following an extended meeting of the ANC National Working Committee (NWC) President Mbeki addressed a joint sitting of the houses of parliament and dismissed Zuma as Deputy President.  Zuma was subsequently advised by the new National Director of Public Prosecutions, Vusi Pikoli, that the NPA would be bringing charges against him. The then ANC Secretary General (and now Deputy ANC President and President of South Africa) Kgalema Motlanthe subsequently requested that Zuma withdraw from participating in all ANC structures.

Two weeks later, the ANC held its National General Council (NGC) and it was widely expected the NGC would endorse Mbeki’s handling of Zuma, given the support the NEC and NWC had given to Mbeki. Motlanthe went as far as ‘[asking] the [NGC] to accept Zuma’s firing as Mbeki’s constitutional right, agree not to discuss Zuma’s pending trial as it was sub judice, and to mandate the Mbeki controlled NWC to interact with Zuma as it saw fit’.

This strategy backfired horribly. The delegates delivered a stunning victory for Zuma when they rejected his request to stand down from all party duties. Zuma would not only continue fully in his role as the deputy president of the organisation; the NEC also had to find ways of supporting him materially. While the President’s decision effectively isolated Zuma within the state political establishment, the NGC not only brought him back into party political contention; it solidified and united a disorganised constituency within the ANC that had always been at the receiving end of an increasingly powerful Mbeki presidency. The disaffected sympathised and rallied around the personality of Zuma as a victim and openly stated that he was their choice to succeed Mbeki as ANC President in 2007.

The storm was yet to subside when Mbeki, in an interview with the SABC television the same night, openly stated that he would not refuse nomination for a third term at the helm of the ruling party. The NGC declared Mbeki and Zuma the frontrunners for the position of president in the run-up to the December 2007 Polokwane congress.

The Corruption Trial
Zuma’s corruption trial got to a start in September 2006 but soon suffered a hitch: the state, after a year, was still not ready to prosecute, and, through it’s chief Scorpions investigator, Johan Du Plooy, applied for a postponement, arguing that they needed more time for further investigation. In response to this, Zuma’s legal team launched a counter application for the matter to be struck off the court roll. The significance of these events was that it was the first time Zuma revealed the alleged political nature of his prosecution.

Zuma argued that the investigation by the Scorpions into his alleged involvement in the arms deal was designed solely to destroy his reputation and political role-playing ability in the ANC succession competition.  He stated that from when he assumed his duties as South Africa’s deputy president, he had been touted as a potential presidential candidate after the completion of Mbeki’s second term and many people within Mbeki’s administration sought to prevent that. In this regard, the charges were ‘fuelled by a conspiracy’ to prevent him from succeeding Mbeki. He fingered ex-Director of Public Prosecutions Ngcuka as chief conspirator and also accused Thabo Mbeki, indirectly, as accomplice.  Ngcuka denied the existence of any conspiracy, stating that these were all mere rumours ‘started and fuelled by Zuma and his supporters in an attempt to deflect [attention] from the seriousness of the charges which he is facing’. 

On 20 September 2006, Judge Heribert Msimang struck the case off the court roll. Thousands of Zuma supporters who had gathered outside the court in support of Zuma erupted into cheers and jubilation. Msimang said that Zuma had suffered prejudice which ‘closely resembled punishment that should be handed to a convicted person’ and said that the decision to prosecute Zuma was ‘anchored’ in unsound principles. 

It was clear is that two factions had emerged with vested interests in the ANC succession competition. At the centre of the dispute was the allegation that one faction, led by Mbeki, was blocking the ascension of another faction, led by Zuma, using the criminal justice system as an instrument. During a subsequent political dispute between and within South Africa’s intelligence services  - also referred to as the ‘ANC hoax e-mail saga’ - it became even clearer the groups could no longer coexist in one organisation.

These events and the growing factionalism in the ANC had a profound impact on the party as it prepared for the December 2007 Polokwane Conference. The candidate nomination process publicly exposed two contending factions, and two competing lists, one led by Mbeki and one by Zuma. Both groups lobbied extensively in ANC branches for support of these lists, with the active participation of members of the NEC.

The Polokwane Conference and Beyond

The Mbeki grouping suffered a significant defeat at the Polokwane conference. Not only were they completely removed from the senior executive bodies of the ANC; the purge extended to the public service, both at the national, provincial and local levels. The significance of the dispute between the SACP/COSATU and Mbeki, and the Zuma Wars, began to take its toll. The Zuma corruption trial continued to be the arena of struggle but with one difference: Zuma and the SACP/COSATU controlled the ANC. It took the Nicholson judgment for the Zuma lobby and their allies in the SACP/COSATU to deliver the final ‘coup de grace’: the recall and resignation of Mbeki as State President. Not only did this event signify that there could be no reconciliation between the two groups. Most importantly, it was a realisation for the Mbeki supporters that the only way in which they could regroup and recover their political influence in South Africa was by completely withdrawing from the ANC and forming a new political organisation – which is now known as the Congress of the People (COPE).

As the COPE is yet to be officially launched at the time of writing and thus to define its policies, it is difficult to assess the real impact it will have on the party system. But from this analysis, one can reach four main conclusions about its likely direction.

First, the Mbeki grouping who forms part of its inner core will simply apply the project they had for the ANC into the formation of the new political organisation. From this perspective, the COPE will become the modern and urban-based electoral party the ANC would have evolved into had Mbeki won a third term as ANC president. Mbeki’s attempt to steer the ANC away from the grip of the SACP and COSATU will be realised through the COPE; it has not aligned itself with a left political alliance, which could give it a considerable amount of flexibility.

Second, the majority of COPE members come from the ANC. This is a strength, in that they have a history in political activism. However, it is also an important weakness; organisationally, they will struggle to construct an identity outside of the ANC family which will have negative implications in terms of voter preferences during elections; i.e. voters may see it as another variation of the ANC.

Third, because the COPE’s leaders have close ties to the Mbeki administration, their ideas are nothing new in South African politics and thus do not necessarily serve as an alternative. While the organisation is new, its political leaders were at the helm of South African politics for over a decade and were thus, in part, responsible for the very shortcomings that they accuse the ANC of committing under Zuma. Their most significant challenge will be finding a way to break-free from the chains of the Mbeki legacy.

Finally, flowing from this, the COPE’s success at the polls is dependent on their ability to break completely from the ANC. In this regard, their elections manifesto will be the key variable. As of writing, the COPE has not introduced any new policy ideas into the South African public discourse, apart from the need for electoral reform. Unless they do this, they would have simply turned the world upside down but failed to change it. Nonetheless, the COPE does represent a crisis in the ANC; for the first time since 1994, the ANC has created its own opposition party.

Zwelethu Jolobe is a lecturer and course convenor in Comparative and International Politics in the Department of Political Studies at the University of Cape Town (UCT). He is a regular political commentator on South African and African politics. Zwelethu holds a Masters Degree in International Relations and is currently a PhD candidate at UCT. His doctoral dissertation is building a theory of Bargaining and Political Negotiation using Rational Choice Theory.

Notes:
* In South African liberation politics, there was a considerable amount of overlap in membership between members of the ANC and SACP.
** Black Economic Empowerment is a South African government program that aims to redress the inequalities of Apartheid by giving previously disadvantaged groups preferred economic opportunities.
*** DSO, in South Africa commonly referred to as the ‘Scorpions’, a special agency set up to investigate organised crime and corruption.

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