Post-Polokwane Challenges for the New ANC Leadership
By Jan Hofmeyr
If one were to write a script documenting Thabo Mbeki’s dramatic rise and fall from the presidency of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) in December 2007, it would arguably have begun with the following caution: "One temptation of a leader elected unopposed is that he may use that powerful position to settle scores with his detractors, marginalise them and surround himself with yes-men and –women … a leader must keep the forces together but you cannot do that unless you allow dissent."
The wise counsel came ten years earlier in the sweltering heat of the Northwest Province town, Mafikeng, at the ANC’s 50th National conference from none other than the then outgoing president, Nelson Mandela . Whether the party’s iconic leader was simply handing down party wisdom from one generation to another, or whether he sensed something about the inclinations of his deputy’s leadership style at the time is uncertain. It is, however, common cause today that it has been Mbeki’s failure to sufficiently heed the advice of his predecessor that has placed him in his current predicament.
To be sure, steering a country through a critical transitional period, as Mbeki had to do, required steely nerve and decisive leadership. While Mandela reigned over democratic South Africa’s first five ‘rainbow years’, playing a unifying (and endearing) role after decades of legislated racial segregation, Mbeki had to preside over the difficult period where strong medicine had to be administered to undo the structural legacy of apartheid. This not only related to the dismantling of discriminatory legislation, but also required the painful integration of an inward-looking and debt-ridden domestic economy into the global economy – a project that had already begun with the Growth Employment and Redistribution (GEAR) Strategy during his deputy presidency. His success in the latter regard has probably been one of his greatest achievements. Together with a strong Treasury under Trevor Manuel (in concert with Pravin Gordhan’s highly efficient SA Revenue Service), his legacy will be an economy with its fundamentals in place, an extended period of robust growth, and a surplus budget containing very low debt service costs. In addition the South African state is able today to provide various forms of social welfare to an unprecedented 12 million South Africans.
But the process of cementing the country’s economic fundamentals came at a cost to Mbeki. The implementation of market friendly policies required belt tightening, which included considerable reductions in the budget deficit that negatively affected social spending; privatisation – or ‘restructuring of state assets’ as government euphemistically referred to it – that saw the shedding of millions of jobs; and the relaxation of import duties and other external barriers, which suffocated certain labour intensive, but uncompetitive industries. Because it was clear from the outset that the ANC’s alliance partners to the left, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), would interpret it as a betrayal of the alliance’s economic direction at the time, Mbeki and his confidantes effectively sidelined them from all related planning and policy-making processes. Several alliance meetings to discuss the economy were called off at the last minute, and only resumed with grand promises of concessions in the run-up to critical elections. As far as influence within the ANC’s most powerful structures, the National Executive Committee (NEC) (1) and the National Working Committee (NWC), is concerned, Mbeki’s centrists also had the upper hand. Mbeki, who increasingly appeared to have more time for his panels of national and international business advisors than for his comrades in the alliance, fell out of favour with the left.
Central to his political governance strategy was the centralisation of power within the Presidency, which grew exponentially in its staff compliment, and ultimately resulted in the decline of the political influence of national parliament and the provincial legislatures. All director-generals of government departments are today appointed by the president and are in most instances political deployments with strong loyalty to the ruling party. Policy is crafted in the executive arm of government, and ANC-dominated legislatures have, with few exceptions, become the rubber stamps that ensure the passage of policy into law. The fact that all members of the national and provincial legislatures are appointed by their parties on the basis of a party list proportional representation electoral system, and ANC provincial premiers are imposed on provinces by the president himself, serves as disincentives for ANC public representatives to stray from party line. Those like former ANC MP, Andrew Feinstein, who have dared to do so in relation to the country’s highly controversial arms deal (2), incurred the wrath of the party, as he accounts in his recently released book, After the Party.
Strong arm tactics were also used against those who were perceived to pose a threat to Mbeki’s firm grip on the party. In 2001 the late Minster for Safety and Security, Steve Tshwete, stunned the nation when he linked prominent ANC businessmen Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Matthew Phosa (at the time regarded as three potential threats to Mbeki’s reign over the party) to a plot aiming to oust the president. The allegation proved to be based on the word of a highly unreliable party source, but the episode gave rise to the first speculation that, when pressed, Mbeki might resort to the use of state apparatus to settle party scores. Shortly thereafter Jacob Zuma, inexplicably, addressed a press conference to announce that he does not have presidential ambitions.
When Zuma, now an emerging presidential contender, was eventually charged with rape and corruption (2005), the incident described above became a key point of reference for accusations that he was yet another victim of a state funded party vendetta by Mbeki to eliminate his opponents. Of course, as we now know, these events set in motion a bitter polarising battle for control of the ANC with supporters of Zuma on the one side, and those of Mbeki on the other.
It is important to understand that this constellation of a very strong presidency, weak opposition parties, meek legislatures, loyal political deployments in the civil service (not least the intelligence and law enforcement agencies) and marginalised alliance partners vested considerable power in the hands of the president. It is the sheer magnitude of this power that allowed Mbeki to confuse South Africans with his unscientific views on HIV/AIDS, and retain the services of a highly ineffective Minister of Health (3), simply because she shared these views. It is this power that has run roughshod over the outcomes of public consultation processes, and that removed him so far from the lived reality of ordinary South Africans to state that the seriousness of crime in this country is a matter of perception rather than reality. Most significantly though, it is this very same power constellation that now has to be shared, and in less than one and a half years be transferred in its entirety to a new guard under Jacob Zuma. This is not to imply that the new leadership will overstep its power, but the apparatus and infrastructure to do so will certainly remain at its disposal.
It might be too early to predict what an ANC under Zuma would look like. This would probably also be the biggest challenge for the ANC in months to come – to create certainty and confidence amongst citizens and investors about the direction the country will be taking under the new leadership. The party is acutely aware of this. Prior to his election as ANC president, Zuma undertook a whistle-stop tour of North America, Europe, and Asia to ensure business leaders that under him there will be no major changes in economic policy and no populist politics of the kind that his detractors have warned about. Cosatu and SACP leaders have also been at pains to explain that they will not put undue pressure on Zuma to make radical interventions in the economy, despite their significant contribution to his election victory.
One should also be careful not to overstate the potential influence of the alliance partners on future party policy. Obviously there will be rewards for their support, but the current structure of the global economy will make it extremely difficult to venture too far astray from South Africa’s current policies. The re-election of Trevor Manuel (4) (probably the one person apart from Mbeki who incurred the most scorn from the left) onto the NEC provides the most vivid illustration of how the market has forced itself on the Zuma lobby at the conference.
The key resolutions - some of them not so new - that were taken at the National Conference included amongst other things, the provision of free education to the poor up to undergraduate level; expanding "no-fee" schools to 60 percent (of all schools) by 2009; extending child support grants from 14 to 18 years; and the provision of anti-retroviral Aids treatment at all health facilities. While this can hardly be interpreted as a drastic swing to the left, all these proposals have cost implications. Their proponents suggest that for a country with a budget surplus, the cost should not be an issue. As clouds are gathering on the international economic front, such analyses will probably be reviewed.
The challenge of creating political certainty, it therefore appears, will not be as much a matter of the policy content, as it will be the ability to retain continuity in the interpretation and implementation of existing policy. A glance at the new enlarged NEC makes it obviously clear that, with the exception of Joel Netshitenzhe and Manuel, the body has been culled from most Mbeki loyalists. The new NWC, which is responsible for the day-to-day running of the party, contains only 7 out the 26 members that sat on the previous NWC. Given the large number of new faces one cannot help but conclude that a new government in 2009 will look markedly different from the one that South Africa has today. This has probably been most evident in the election of the NWC with its operational mandate. Until December 2007 this body, with the exception of the top six in the party’s leadership structure, was almost entirely populated by senior cabinet ministers. This provided a direct policy link between the party and its representatives in the executive. It is unthinkable that this link would be severed or weakened by the new guard.
Apart from new faces in government, Mbeki’s appointments in the civil service will probably also be reviewed. While a full-scale purge is unlikely, it is possible that the contracts of key civil servants will not be renewed. From a government efficiency perspective, the spectre of either a new minister or a new director-general or both will undoubtedly have significant implications for policy implementation and continuity.
While the ANC has already started to rearrange its parliamentary party caucus to bring it in line with the new leadership, such major developments will in all likelihood only materialise in 2009 when the new leadership moves into government positions. But it might be earlier, should the current “two centres of power scenario” (Zuma in charge of the party and Mbeki in charge of government) become an untenable arrangement for the party. Already the signs are ominous. Despite calls by the new party leadership not to confirm nominations for the new SABC board (5), Mbeki has gone ahead and signed it into power. His absence from the first meeting of the new NEC and the 96th birthday celebrations of the ANC has also not gone by unnoticed. Zuma in return has warned that if government fails to implement the party’s conference resolutions, means will be found to ensure that it does comply.
Even if it should happen that Mbeki is toppled by a vote of no confidence in Parliament – which at this stage seems unlikely – the problem of disunity will remain, and hence the healing of these rifts in the party will become one of its greatest challenges in the year leading up to the next general election in 2009. Although the Mbeki lobby received around 40 per cent of the vote at the 2007 ANC conference in Polokwane, its representation in both the NEC and NWC is far below this margin. Ways will have to be found to ensure their constructive participation in the party, and by implication also the governance of the country. Although a split in the party looks improbable at this stage, it would however be wise for Zuma and his leadership collective to reflect on Mandela’s counsel to Mbeki a decade ago.
Probably the greatest political uncertainty centres around Zuma’s impending prosecution by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) on several corruption-related charges, for which a court date in August 2008 has already been set. As could be expected Zuma and his supporters have questioned the timing of the announcement (right after the national conference) and the political motive behind it. Against this background the Polokwane conference resolution to disband the Scorpions (6) that investigates his case, should not come as a surprise. It is however very disturbing to note the tone that members of the new party leadership have taken towards the independence of the judiciary in this matter. One can only hope that sanity will prevail.
In Zuma’s defence it has to be said that the NPA’s conduct in recent years has done little to allay suspicion that he is indeed a political target. It was after all their overzealous approach that led to the dismissal of his first corruption case on technicalities. Yet, whether targeted or not, the pronouncement of the Durban High Court that a highly questionable financial relationship existed between Zuma and his former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, still stands. The High Court’s conviction of Shaik has subsequently also been confirmed by the Supreme Court of Appeal in Bloemfontein and the Constitutional Court, and failure to pursue this finding may further create the perception of political interference. This is something that the country can least afford at this point in time. Given the National Intelligence Agency’s (NIA) embroilment last year in the Mbeki/Zuma leadership contest and the damaging current stand-off between the NPA and the SA Police Service, South African law enforcement agencies will have to restore public faith in their ability to protect citizens instead of fighting factional party battles.
It is still unclear at this stage what the ANC’s strategy would be, should the case or its findings make it untenable for Zuma to remain in his current position. Already the name of the party’s deputy president, Kgalema Mothlanthe, has been mentioned as a possible replacement. A mild-mannered former trade unionist and, up to December, Secretary General of the ANC, Mothlanthe has earlier indicated that he is not interested in running for the position. This may yet change. Should he be called to duty, this party loyalist will find it hard to decline. Asked about this on national television, his response was: “We will cross that bridge when we get there”. Interestingly, this has also become a stock phrase since for party representatives to respond to several of the uncertainties mentioned above. It should however be asked how constructive this is for allying investor fears.
What can we learn from the tumultuous two years behind us? Firstly, ordinary people still matter and political leaders ignore them at their peril, as so vividly illustrated on the first day of the Polokwane conference. This should be a lesson for the ANC as a party, but also for the ANC as a custodian of government. Its decision at the conference to scrap floor crossing (7) is a very important recognition of this problem, as is the resolution to allow its provincial premiers to be nominated by the provincial executive committees and not the president of the party. Yet, this needs to go further. The country has to rethink its current electoral system that does not encourage transparency and accountability of elected representatives. The Slabbert Commission has already done such a review for government, but it has since been gathering dust in the Home Affairs Department. Directly elected representatives in a hybrid system will arguably make our legislatures far more responsive to the needs of ordinary constituents.
In my opinion, however, the biggest weakness that has been exposed by the ANC’s power struggle in the run-up to Polokwane, is the flawed relationship that has developed between state and party. The ANC policy of making strategic deployments to leadership positions in the civil service and various other spheres of society appears to have backfired. Some of these deployments have extremely close relations, forged by shared struggle, to the party and to individuals within it. It was inevitable therefore, as the party divided into two camps, that strategically placed ANC cadres in the civil service would take sides. When the crunch came, it now appears, these close ties made it relatively easy for key state agencies such as the South African Police Service, National Prosecuting Authority, National Intelligence Authority to be drawn into, and employed by some of the main protagonists in the party. If this analysis is correct, it not only amounts to an abuse of state resources, but also to a prioritisation of party interests over state security. The lines have simply become too blurred.
While the ANC may still govern for years to come, its exposed fragility of the past year suggest that it might not be ‘until Jesus Christ returns’, as Zuma once famously predicted. For the present it has been entrusted with the custodianship of the state, but it may not lose sight of the fact that ownership resides with the people of South Africa. As before, citizens expect of the ruling party to nurture and vigilantly protect the state and its institutions for generations to come – regardless of who its custodian in future might be. It will ignore this at its own peril, and regrettably also, as the continuing controversy around the country’s law enforcement agencies demonstrates that of the state.
Jan Hofmeyr is the acting Programme Manager of the Political Analysis Programme of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, a Cape Town-based non-profit organisation that works in the field of transitional justice in several African states. He is principal analyst of the Institute’s annual national public opinion survey, and editor of its quarterly publication, the SA Reconciliation Barometer. Hofmeyr holds post-graduate degrees in Political Management and Journalism from the University of Stellenbosch.
(1) The members of ANC National Executive Committee (currently 80 members) are elected at ANC national conferences. The NEC is the highest decision-¬making body between conferences. The NEC then elects its National Working Committee (NWC, currently 28 members). The NWC meets twice a month and is usually seen as playing a very active role in current party affairs.
(2) The South African ANC Govermnent finalised the purchase of weaponry in a US$ 4,8 billion deal in 1999. The whole process was allegedly heavily tainted by corruption and has become known as the infamous “Arms Deal”.
(3) Manto Tshabalala-Msimang has served as South Africa’s health minister in Mbeki’s cabinet since 1999. She has repeatedly been the focus of strong international criticism as a result of her remarks on treating HIV/AIDS with vegetables such as garlic and beetroot.
(4) Trevor Manuel has been South Africa’s finance minister under Mandela and Mbeki since 1996. He is regarded as one of the key architects of government’s GEAR macroeconomic policy, which has been the target of vicious criticism by the ANC’s alliance partners on the left.
(5) SABC is the state-owned broadcater, the South African Broadcasting Corporation. In the past, it has been repeatedly criticised for self-censorship and lack of objectivity. The members of the SABC Board, who “manages the macro interests of the SABC” are appointed by the President of South Africa.
(6) The “Scorpions” (officially the “Directorate of Special Operations”) are an elite unit of the NPA that investigates corruption and organised crime. The unit was set up in 1999 under the Mbeki government.
(7) The name refers to so called “floor-crossing” periods (two weeks, twice in an electoral term). During these periods, Members of Parliament, Provincial Parliaments and Local Government councilors could change political parties (or form a new party) and retain their seats. The first floor crossing window was in 2005, and the last in 2007. Analysts have argued that the floor crossing system alienates voters, since it allows elected politicians to effectively 'reallocate' votes. Some critiques have also argued that it had opened the door to corruption and intimidation.