The Ushering in of an (Old) New Dawn

Picture: Phill Magakoe/African News Agency (ANA) Archives

The provincial conferences of Kwazulu Natal (KZN) and Gauteng (GTN) held earlier this year suggests the ushering in of an (old) new dawn for how ANC conferences are conducted. In both provinces the conferences had similarities with the outcome of the NASREC national conference. It was a mix of robust contestation, compromise, consensus, and inclusivity. Leaders of most of the caucuses were elected as office bearers (OB’s) of the Provincial Executive Committee’s (PEC’s). The rest of the PEC positions suggests a similar compromise. Equally most of those that contested for OB positions and lost were elected as additional members. This phenomenon known as the ‘’zebra approach’’ is not new in the ANC. Rather, it is the negative culture of the ‘’winner takes all’’ slate politics that is new.  

History indicates that prior to the mid 2000’s the so-called ‘’zebra approach’’ of inclusivity and compromise was the dominant culture in the ANC. It gained traction during the exile years with the election of President Tambo at the Morogoro and Kabwe conferences and only ended at the 2007 Polokwane Conference. The 1991 national conference remains one of the best-case studies  of how the ANC managed inclusivity of most sectors, individuals, perspectives, generational mix and the national question. During this period unity and cohesion was prioritised above all else whilst still maintaining a healthy mix of democracy. It seems that as we celebrate the centenary of President Mandela and Mama Sisulu the ANC may be coming full circle as  it begins to discard the ‘’demo-crazy’’ tendencies of the ‘’winner takes all’’ slate politics that emerged in the mid 2000’s.  

Another positive development was that in both provinces the position of the Chairperson was uncontested. This implied acceptance, tolerance and compromise from all the caucuses in the interests of unity. In GTN the contestation centered on the Deputy Chair and other OB positions with a focus on 2024, ensuring stability for the immediate future i.e. 2019. The uncontested chair is also not new and was used whenever the ANC cohesion was threatened since the Morogoro Conference in 1969. It filtered down to the provinces during the mid 90s whenever the ANC was experiencing serious divisions such as in KZN, Western Cape (WC) and GTN in the late 90’s.  Where  the ‘’zebra approach’’ was used the ANC emerged much more united and increased its electoral support in successive elections ultimately taking control of the provincial governments in the WC and KZN. It was only after the WC in 2005 and KZN in 2014 went for a ‘’winner takes all’’ slate approach that it’s electoral support declined.

The third trend that emerged in both Provincial Conferences is a quiet ‘’generational change’’ revolution emanating from the ground up. Of the ten OB’s in the two provinces only one is over the age of fifty. The trends were similar for additional members of the PECs in both provinces. Unsurprisingly, there is resistance amongst many of the older generations to this phenomena. They argue that the young are still suffering from political infantilism and are not ready to lead. Conversely, the young argue that the older generation are unwilling to hand over power and have failed to develop an implementable formulae for generational mix and change. Both arguments have merit but are equally myopic and  unfair.   

This trend of not wanting to willingly hand over power to younger generation seems to be a common phenomenon amongst former liberation movements across the world. In South Africa the last time an ANC generation willingly handed over power to the next generation was the Mandela generation in 1997.  Yet, despite the resistance to this phenomenon it is not necessarily un-ANC like. History indicates that the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) was in fact precisely established to seize power from an older generation that the young Mandela and his comrades correctly regarded as conservative, archaic and out of touch with the masses then. Thus, history suggests that for the sake of the continued survival of the ANC it may be better for the older generations to embrace this change to ensure a more orderly and smooth transition. 

The veterans need to stop distrusting the young but rather allow them to lead, learn and even fail and the young need to desist from disrespecting the veterans. Many of these veterans were also once upon a time young without any experience in leading both a governing party and state. Yet the generations before them i.e. the Mandela /Tambo generation allowed them to take over the baton , and to learn, lead and even fall. Our veterans should take a leaf from this generation who understood that the quickest path to an organization becoming irrelevant and moribund is when the old refuse to willingly hand over power in an organized, disciplined and managed manner. If the ANC wants to continue to attract the youth it needs a leadership that broadly reflects this sector given that currently the vast majority of ANC branch members, voters and potential voters are youth.  Doing so will also bring energy, vibrancy, militancy, boldness and innovation into the organisation which is required in a technologically savvy and fast-changing world.   

Equally, whilst we may require youthful change we also require continuity and the transferring of skills, experience and wisdom. The young must also acknowledge their lack of experience and impatience and must be willing to learn and cooperate with the generations before them. If the change is not managed correctly this revolution will be messy and it will in the short-term result in two (2) centers of power emerging. This in turn may result in negative consequences for governance and service delivery ultimately impacting negatively on the ANC’s electoral prospects and risking  its ability to retain power next year and beyond.  Thus, part of managing this change could include amongst others ensuring a quota for each generation to ensure generational mix and change for all leadership positions in the ANC and in government. 

Currently there is a consensus developing  in the ANCYL in which they are  suggesting a 40, 30, 20, 10 quota, commonly known as the 4, 3, 2, 1 formula for the leadership of the party and deployment as public representatives. That is – i.e. 40% of all positions to go to the under 40’s generation. 30% of all positions to go to the under 50’s (COSAS & ANCYL generation of the 90s). 20% of all positions to go to the under 60’s (SAYCO 80s generation) and 10% of all positions to go to the under 70s – (1976 generation). Whether this formulae will be accepted as is, across generations still needs to be negotiated. However, for it to work it should not only apply to the ANC but it should become a principle that applies across the entire youth strata  in the Alliance Structures and the Women’s League.

Taking the above into account it is time that all other provinces and regions who are preparing for ANC elective conferences to consider the inclusivity ‘’zebra option’’. Secondly, where the material conditions dictate they should work towards a consensus (unopposed ) chairperson . Finally, they must embrace the principle of generational change not just in theory but in practice as well if they want to avoid the scenario described by the Italian Communist Antonio Gramsci where he said:‘’The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.”

Zahir Amien is a social & political commentator, Muhammad Khalid Sayed is the Provincial Chairperson of the ANC Youth League in the Western Cape and Buyile Matiwane is the Chairperson of the South African Students Congress in the Western Cape