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Perspectives #5/08: The divided ANC

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South African democracy at a brink

December 17, 2008

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Dear Reader

It seems inevitable that 2008 will prove itself to be a definitive year for South Africa’s young democracy. Exactly what kind of future trajectory it will deliver is to be seen – the current state of the nation is that of flux.

The year began with the dramatic election of Jacob Zuma as ANC president, was punctuated by the removal of state president Thabo Mbeki from his position, and will end with the launch of a new political party populated with members who defected from the ANC.

The months in between left little time for reflection: they were populated with events whose imprints will remain for years to come, with declarations whose echoes will continue reverberating. In this short year, South Africans awoke more than once to indications that the dream of the peaceful rainbow nation may be farther off than it was in 1994, to signals that their young democracy is on the verge of momentous renewal, and to undecipherable political spectacles unfolding at the pace of daily soap operas. Above all, South Africans awoke to evidence that the stakes of the political game have been significantly raised.

The opaque politics that characterised the ANC as a liberation movement have, in the time of democracy and independent media, transformed into ongoing sagas of ‘palace intrigue’ that keep the citizens guessing. Since the dramatic election of Jacob Zuma as party president in the Polokwane conference of December 2007, the secrecy that for many years enveloped the internal dynamics of the ruling party has been interrupted by an initial string of ‘redeployments’ which were later replaced by highly publicised resignations. The party’s failure to register candidates for the December 2008 byelections confirms that it is consumed by internal battles. It is the genealogy of this crisis that the Zwelethu Jolobe article included in this issue of Perspectives traces, uncovering the undercurrents that led to the momentous events of 2008, and which will likely influence political developments in 2009.

But the genealogy of the ANC’s crisis is one and the same as that of newly born political party Congress of the People (COPE). Populated by former ANC members, its name coinciding with that of the historic occasion that saw the ANC alongside other political groupings launch the ‘Freedom Charter’ in 1955, it is clear that COPE’s intention is that of constituting the long-hoped for viable alternative to the ANC.

Indeed, with the emergence of COPE, the fierce contestations previously confined to the darkest corners of the ruling party have spilled into the public sphere. As Jolobe observes, the ANC has finally produced its own opposition.

Like in every typical dominant party state, the dynamics of the ruling party can redraw the country’s political landscape. With the emergence of COPE, perhaps it is not only the stakes in the game that have shifted, but the game itself.

As the battle to define South Africa’s future unfolds, it must be asked: what exactly is at stake? In the second article included in this issue of Perspectives, Suren Pillay critically considers whether the culmination of the ‘Zuma – Mbeki war’ will present a fundamental change for South African politics, and if so how. In his reading, the trajectories born from the crisis in the ANC are primarily about the competing imperatives of development and democracy; the contestation for leadership change about shifting from the Mbeki administration’s focus on technical delivery to a mode of governance that promises to build consensus and listen to the downtrodden.

Whether a shift towards the ‘democratic imperative’ indeed materialises, what is also at stake is South Africa’s political culture. One of the more disturbing features of 2008 has been the growing use of militant and polarising political discourse, as well as numerous incidents of violence linked to political meetings. While to an extent this trend has been countered by growing civic activism around the protection of the South African constitution, it remains to be seen which impetus will prevail in the long run.

Dr Antonie Katharina Nord, Regional Director
Keren Ben-Zeev, Transparency & Participation Programme Manager