ANC wins time to face challenges

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The more comfortable the ANC’s leaders feel about the outcome of its Mangaung conference, the more difficult is life likely to become for them and for the governing party.

On the surface, Mangaung was a success for the ANC – far more so that might have been expected. In the run-up to the conference it seemed unlikely that the ANC would be able to hold a contested election at Mangaung because it seemed certain to dissolve, like other ANC events during the year, into bickering which would make it impossible for the conference to complete its work.

But it managed a contested election without serious disruption.

The large majority secured by the winning slate seems to give it a firm mandate to lead the movement. It may also have delayed a split.

Before Mangaung, it seemed likely that the conference would not deliver a clear victory for either of the ANC’s key factions.

This would almost surely have meant another five years of jockeying for position ending in a showdown in 2017 which would have split the organisation. That seems less likely now that one of the factions has won only a quarter of the vote.

The claim that the ANC Youth League are “king makers” has been finally exposed as the myth it has been for the past 20 years – the slate backed by the ANCYL lost badly.

There are already signs that this will reduce tension between the league’s current leaders and the national leadership. The league has, since 1990, been a loyal servant of senior leaders – and, over the past few years, of a particular faction – rather than a force in its own right.

But a quieter ANCYL will reduce conflict within the ANC.

So a surface calm may be restored to the governing party, for a while. But if the ANC assumes that Mangaung fixed its problems, it may be in for a rude awakening.

The internal problems which afflict the ANC, so clearly spelled out in many of its documents, are still there. Many within the party see posts as a key to the middle-class lifestyle which society’s inequalities would otherwise deny them, while others see it as a route to privilege. And so the contest for positions will continue; it takes more than a speech at Mangaung to ensure that this competition is free and fair.

There was no sign at Mangaung of a plan to fix the ANC’s broken election process.

The activists and branches in Free State, North West, Western Cape and Limpopo who challenged the fairness of the process have not gone away and so more challenges may lie ahead.

Even if no public challenges surface, it is hard to believe that everyone on the losing side at Mangaung believes that they lost fairly.

The resentments caused by the contest may disappear from view but they will be there nonetheless and they may cause new tensions.

An election system which encourages slate voting will also heighten potential for conflict by excluding the losers from decision-making despite the fact they enjoy significant support.

The losing faction may have suffered a setback but this does not mean it will disappear.

Political history is littered with cases in which heavy losers turned into winners. It is highly possible that the losers at Mangaung will begin positioning themselves to compete again in 2017.

Mangaung may have bought the ANC some time to fix its internal problems but if it does not use that time to recognise that competition for posts is a legitimate activity, to develop ways of handling this competition which ensure that everyone accepts that elections are fair, and to mend relations between those who win elections and those who lose, then any gains it might have made will disappear fast. A key test will be how ANC leaders handle debate and dissent. If some of the noises heard before Mangaung – that alliance partners who differ or members who challenge election processes are a problem – continue and become louder because leaders believe that they now have a firm mandate to impose their will, the ANC will soon face a fresh bout of conflict.

Whatever the ANC does about its internal problems, it also needs to give far more attention to its relationship with its voters.

The Mangaung delegates represented the 1,2 million people who belong to the ANC.

But millions more citizens vote for the party and most of them were not represented.

The ANC therefore has no guarantee that its voters are as enthusiastic about its leaders as the conference delegates were.

In fact, much of the evidence before Mangaung showed exactly the opposite – that ANC voters are not at all happy: this was the message sent by voters in by-elections in Marikana and Nkandla. It is far too early to tell what this may mean for the 2014 elections but it seems safe to assume that the ANC has an uphill battle ahead to restore the confidence of its voters.

This will not be achieved by shows of unity at conferences but by concrete steps which show voters that the governing party cares more about the people who vote for it than for the insiders who belong to it. If anything, conference unity may make it harder for it to do this because it creates an illusion of power and unity which means it is less likely problems will be fixed.

The difference between the ANC before Mangaung and after it is not nearly as great as some who attended the conference or watched it unfold might believe.

If their conference victory prompts its leaders to ignore its problems, Mangaung could end up taking the ANC backwards.

  • Steven Friedman is the director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg and Rhodes University. This article was published on The New Age.