THE YEAR 2017 was dedicated by the ANC to celebrating the life of its longest-serving leader and one of the liberation movement’s greatest sons, Oliver Reginald Tambo.

Throughout this year, we were regaled with stories of OR Tambo’s deeds, values and leadership style, which helped the ANC to survive during its most difficult time and trying phase. 

As Africa’s oldest liberation movement holds its crucial elective conference starting tomorrow, it is perhaps apt to quote Tambo to try to understand how the ANC got to where it is now and its future prospects.

Twenty-seven years ago, on December 16, 1990, Tambo handed over the leadership of the ANC after leading the external mission for 30 years. In a speech, he said: “I devotedly watched over the organisation all these years. I now hand it over back to you, bigger, stronger – intact. Guard our precious movement.”
He went on to say: “As in the past, our cadres should be the first to rally to the defence of the people and the last to seek rewards.”

Tambo’s poignant words can be used today to raise important questions about the current leadership of the ANC under President Jacob Zuma. 
Have they devotedly watched over and guarded the precious organisation? And, are they handing it back to its members bigger, stronger and intact? Have they first rallied to the defence of the people and last sought rewards?

To understand the state in which Zuma, Gwede Mantashe, Zweli Mkhize, Baleka Mbete, Jessie Duarte and Cyril Ramaphosa are handing over the ANC to its members tomorrow, one has to go back to recent history.

The majority of these top six leaders were elected at a chaotic conference of the ANC in Polokwane in 2007. The conference, believed to have been a watershed by some, led to the recalling of former president Thabo Mbeki and the subsequent splitting of his supporters to form the Congress of the People.
The death of Cope is a matter of public record. The point is that Cope became the embodiment of how the ANC fractured after Polokwane due to factionalism.

From then on it became a free-for-all. Factionalism, rent seeking, corruption, arrogance and nepotism engulfed the ANC and ate it inside for years. As the ANC leaders lost touch with the people on the ground – with poverty, unemployment, inequality remaining the main features of society – they became even more arrogant and aloof.

The cancer of corruption and arrogance continued to erode the ANC’s moral fibre, values and principles, and crippled the movement’s ability to carry out its historical mission of creating a better life for all. The state is no longer an instrument to change the lives of the masses of the people, but a tool for self-enrichment for comrades and those close to them.

The decline of the ANC, precipitated by a loss of trust by the people, has led to electoral losses, the latest being the 2016 local elections during which the party lost key metros.

As the 2019 elections loom, the party is looking for answers regarding where it lost the plot. But to blame all the problems on the current leadership under Zuma would be disingenuous. At the same conference where he was ousted in 2007, Mbeki made mention of the problems that were creeping in – or were already rife – in the organisation.

In his political report to the Polokwane conference, Mbeki said since 1994 “certain negative and completely unacceptable tendencies have emerged within our movement, which threaten the very survival of the ANC as the trusted servant of the people it has been for 96 years”. He proceeded to quote the organisational report, written by then secretary-general, Kgalema Motlanthe, to the party’s 51st conference in 2002, in which he spoke about the challenges of being in power.

“We found that the issues dividing the leadership of some of our provinces are not of a political nature, but have mainly revolved around access to resources, positioning themselves or others to access resources, dispensing patronage and in the process using organisational structures to further these goals.
“This often lies at the heart of conflicts between (ANC) constitutional and governance structures, especially at local level and is reflected in contestation around lists, deployment and the internal elections process of the movement.”

Motlanthe said the practices tarnished the image and effectiveness of the movement. “The limited political consciousness (among some of our members) has impacted negatively on our capacity to root out corrupt and divisive elements among ourselves. For the movement to renew itself as a revolutionary movement, we have to develop specific political, organisational and administrative measures to deal with such destructive elements.”

Mbeki also quoted Nelson Mandela’s opening speech at the party 50th national conference in 1997. “One of these negative features is the emergence of careerism within our ranks. Many among our members see their membership of the ANC as a means to advance their personal ambitions to attain positions of power and access to resources for their own individual gratification. Accordingly, they work to manipulate the movement to create the conditions for their success.”

It appears since then that things have taken a turn for the worst under Zuma, Ramaphosa, Mbete, Mkhize, Duarte and Mantashe. Mantashe said in a report to the national policy conference in June that factionalism, corruption and general preoccupation with social upward mobility by leaders had further dented the image of the party.

The scandals that have come to be synonymous with Zuma have also played a significant role in weakening the ANC. The emergence of the Gupta e-mails and the subsequent parliamentary state capture inquiry underscore what Mandela and Mbeki failed to arrest from infesting the party – a cancer which is now threatening its death.

Can the party self-correct? Professor Somadoda Fikeni says Zuma has been the main stumbling block in the ANC’s path towards self-correction.
“The man at the top has to be the one who enables people to think freely and independently as they seek solutions to the problems facing the party. Now the challenge is that he has always viewed self-correction as an attack on him, hence the problems facing the party have deepened under his watch over the years,” Fikeni said.

He said there was little hope that the party would be able to address its internal woes in its national congress substantively, as the main preoccupation of delegates was factional loyalty, not the health of the party. “Factionalism is about aligning yourself with the leader that you want and there becomes little space for you to really focus on what is good for the party outside of the outcomes that you want,” he said.

Fikeni said one of the main problems with the current leadership was its inability to accept criticism, saying it was listening to respond. He says, going forward, the ANC’s fortunes could be improved by its further loss of power as this would dismantle the patronage system that sustains misguided loyalties within the party.

As the conference looks for enemies to blame for ANC failures, delegates will do well to appreciate that the ANC has been its worst enemy. The main question remains: Have Zuma, Mantashe, Mkhize, Mbete, Duarte and Ramaphosa devotedly watched over and guarded the precious organisation? And, are they handing it back to its members bigger, stronger and intact?

Just as was the case with the chaotic conference at Polokwane in 2007, these leaders hand over the organisation in a chaotic state – and, ironically, some of them are set to continue leading it. 

George Matlala is Independent Media’s political editor for Gauteng and Siviwe Feketha is a politics writer

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