The cancer of factionalism

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Divisions in the ANC have not healed since the 2007 ANC Polokwane conference, says the writer.

The 2007 Polokwane conference, which saw the accession to power of former President Jacob Zuma,  in the wake of the recall of former president Thabo Mbeki, divisions opened up in the ANC which today it is clear, have not only not healed, but have deepened. The Polokwane conference was followed by the resignation of a number cabinet ministers and the ANC’s biggest split in its history.

Out of that split emerged the Congress of the People which contested the 2009 elections. Although as a party of less than 12 months old, its performance in the elections was significant, its approximately 1.2m votes made very little difference to the ANC’s electoral standing. Cope’s subsequent ignominious disintegration was understandably interpreted as a historical vindication of the ANC’s standing in the eyes of the masses as the party of liberation and the peoples chosen party of governance.

Hopes that this split was cathartic and would result in a renewal of the ANC’s vision and mission and organizational unity have proven to be misplaced. It was followed by the emergence of the EFF whose birth, though not a case of history repeating itself in the same way as the events that led to the birth of Cope was, in truth a split – the second in five years – that have had far more significant consequences for the ANC than those that followed in the wake of Cope’s birth.

The EFF has of course made a spectacular entrance onto the parliamentary plane and played an important role in influence developments both in the country and in the ANC itself. They have been able to claim ownership of what in fact are ANC policies and given policies such as Expropriation of Land without Compensation and the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank a sharper character and public profile. In the minds of the electorate the impression has arisen that the EFF is in fact driving the ANC back to its radical roots. At the same time, the EFF has been an undeniable factor in the political and ideological polarisation within the ANC itself portraying the ANC as a reluctant adherent of its own policies.

Despite this, the EFF has not been able to fulfill its claims that it stood ready to replace the ANC. Despite their spectacular parliamentary performance, their electoral performance has been exaggerated. It emerged in political circumstances which, by comparison to those that obtained at the time of Cope’s emergence far more favourable so far as the internal situation in the ANC is concerned. Yet its total vote, 1.2-3m only barely matched those of Cope. Even more significantly, despite bold promises that they would take control of at least one metro and a more municipalities in 2016, they proved unable to build on the 2014 momentum barely matching their 2014 tally. Even worse, the EFF has made the fatal mistake of elevating the DA into office in Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay and Joburg.

These developments – the disintegration of Cope and the stalling of the EFF – could and should have been capitalised upon by the ANC to reestablish its political authority and electoral dominance. This has not happened. Instead, the process of decline of ANC electoral support has continued most notably with the loss of three metros in 2016. This reflected a continuation of the loss of electoral support already in evidence in 2014 especially. The ANC’s fortunes have declined to the point where it now enjoys the active electoral support of only 34% of the eligible voting population.

In conditions where the number of service delivery protests and workers strikes have reached record levels, the attribution of the ever lower levels of electoral participation to the “maturing” of democracy is academic mumbo-jumbo and can only induce further complacency. The ANC does not have a God-given right to rule. The declining levels of electoral participation is an expression of disillusionment with the ANC. The 2016 outcomes, whatever the numbers say (an 8% reduction from 2014 to 54% nationally in 2016), represent a defeat for the ANC.

It is where the pendulum is pointing towards that is decisive. The ANC now faces the prospect of falling below the 50% mark and unable to form a government on its own in 2019. Even if the ANC retains a majority, it is likely to be by a lower majority compared to 2014. It will be politically weakened. If it fails to obtain a majority, it will be catastrophic. There is no comfort in the likelihood that it will be the biggest party nonetheless. It will have lost control of the “right to rule” on its own and forced into a coalition with its avowed political and ideological enemies. There is no guarantee that the ANC would recover from such a development. This is an historical crisis. It poses the question of the very future of the ANC.

Far more than the performance of the opposition, it is the disastrous material conditions of the masses that lie at the root of these developments. Even more embarrassing the main opposition parties, the DA and EFF are heading towards a crisis of their own and are not seen as an alternative. It is against this background that the factional divisions in the ANC must be seen. A survey of the condition of the ANC across the country is to say the least dispiriting.

The State Capture Inquiry (amongst others) is supposed to be an attempt by the ANC to recover its electoral standing and its renewed commitment to clean government – a mea culpa to the populace. But it is clear that it is mutating into potential new factional battleground. Whatever the veracity of media claims of a fightback by those opposed to the aims of the Commission, there is a perception that it is not being embraced with unified enthusiasm by all factions. Perceptions, whatever their relationship with reality, matter in politics.

President Ramaphosa came to power with a razor-thin majority. Despite the fact that all factions have sung from the hymn book of unity since Nasrec, it is clear that that the pre-Nasrec divisions have not only been overcome, they have become more inflamed. Resentment about the Nasrec outcome has given rise to accusations of a purge of the vanquished by the victors.

New political formations have arisen that are feeding into perceptions that the unity of the ANC is being subordinated to factional interests.  There have even been threats of campaigning against the ANC! Nothing can more disloyal. That these factional actions will be damaging to the ANC as a whole and thus place factional interests beyond realization appears to be beyond the understanding of these leaders. The ANC will either swim together or sink together.

Andile Lungisa is a former Deputy President of the ANC Youth League.