Is the fight for ANC’s ‘soul’ entering last gear?

Siyabonga Hadebe

Siyabonga Hadebe

Published Feb 8, 2024


Siyabonga Hadebe

The political landscape of South Africa has witnessed an unprecedented shift as former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma declared their non-participation in the ANC's campaign for the upcoming 2024 elections.

Zuma went a step further, announcing the formation of a new party, the MK Party, which aims to divert support from the ANC’s traditional voter base.

However, the MK Party is seen by many as a mere carbon copy of the ANC, both in appearance and substance.

The similarity in colour scheme and symbols, with the only exception being the wheel, led to a humorous social media joke about the ANC being left with just the wheel of a VW Polo, in reference to its log without a spear.

A document that is purported to be the new party’s constitution circulating on social networks revealed striking parallels with that of the ANC, dedicating minimal attention to substantive matters while extensively covering administrative details.

The ANC’s response to this development was dismissive, with secretary-general Fikile Mbalula asserting the name uMkhonto weSizwe “belonged to the ANC”, emphasising its esteemed legacy.

ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, when asked about Zuma's potential involvement in a new faction, responded with a calm tone, “Jacob Zuma has over time been making a number of announcements, so tomorrow he’ll make another announcement. We note that, but what else can I do?”

Some people in the party have called for the ANC to dismiss Jacob Zuma for his actions, but it appears that the ANC is still reeling from the shock of his recent actions.

On the other hand, Mbalula has threatened to take Zuma and the MK Party to court over the appropriation of the ANC symbols.

Many have questioned where the ANC will obtain funds since a recent court case against a small Newcastle-based printing company exposed its financial vulnerabilities.

Last month, the Supreme Court mandated that the ANC pay more than R100 million for banners used in the 2019 election.

For now, the new party seems poised to launch early next year, where its interim leadership is expected to be unveiled.

It remains unclear whether these two factions of the ANC will commemorate January 8 together or independently.

The MK Party represents a creative approach to internal realignment within the ANC but operates beyond the party’s direct control.

Except for Nelson Mandela, the last two presidents of democratic South Africa (Mbeki and Zuma) faced insurmountable opposition during their final terms.

The internal rebellion culminated in their premature removal from office, as their party decided to “recall” them from the Union Buildings.

Mbeki and Zuma completed two terms at the helm of the ANC but not their presidential terms.

In 2007, the ANC turned against Mbeki as he sought to secure a third term as party leader.

Mbeki’s attempt to retain the ANC presidency despite being constitutionally obliged to step down as South Africa’s president after two terms only reinforced the perception that he was “power-hungry”.

His former deputy, Zuma, defeated him in a shocking upset that many still find hard to believe.

Zuma then took over as ANC leader and served two full terms. However, he did not seek a third term.

In 2017, he was succeeded by his deputy Ramaphosa in what was arguably the most divisive ANC conference since 1994.

After months of wrangling between factions, particularly over Zuma’s ties to the controversial Gupta family, two rival factions supported Nkosazana Zuma and Ramaphosa.

The end of the “nine wasted years” under Zuma marked both the end and beginning of a very stormy season, not just for the ANC but for the country as well.

Ramaphosa emerged victorious at the 2017 elective conference and promptly assumed the ANC and Union Buildings leadership positions under the “new dawn” tag.

He inherited a fractured structure riddled with factional politics, and triumphalism took centre stage rather than mending fences.

Many observers believed that the ANC had reached its breaking point and that it would split. However, it did not.

Nonetheless, deep divisions within the party’s Top 6 and national executive committee left many wondering how decisions were made.

The cracks soon became apparent. The party suspended its secretary-general Ace Magashule, a close ally of Zuma.

Fractures deepened further after Ramaphosa’s re-election in December 2022.

The year 2023 was always going to be a watershed year for the ANC. And Zuma’s imprisonment for contempt of court hung over the party leadership like a millstone.

Although he was pardoned in August, the damage was already done. Magashule’s party membership was finally terminated, and DD Mabuza stepped down to pave the way for the newly elected leadership.

The post-2017 ANC was not always going to find things easy in both Luthuli House and the Union Buildings. So many questions remained unresolved in its affairs and how it approached many issues.

The ANC's membership openly expressed concern that they no longer had hope in Ramaphosa in how he handled his campaign sponsorship, dollars found on his farm, and load shedding.

Even some issues, including the ICC saga involving Vladimir Putin, exposed that the ANC’s centre was fragile.

The ANC’s body language was also very concerning, indicating that it was overwhelmed and could not hold on to power for a minute longer.

Signs began to appear in municipalities, where indifference began to take its toll as it lost grip on main economic centres like Jozi and Durban.

Its shenanigans regarding coalitions were another straw on the camel’s back -- service delivery fell to its lowest.

Basically, the ANC's refusal to take responsibility for its misdeeds creates room for new players to present themselves as viable alternatives.

To add to its troubles, the ANC leadership openly discussed the possibility of its support dipping below the 50% mark, opening the door for coalition negotiations after the 2024 elections.

For instance, ANC Veterans’ League convenor Snuki Zikalala suggested that the governing party should consider a grand coalition arrangement. This would entail the ANC collaborating with the DA instead of the EFF.

Meanwhile, the DA believes that it is highly probable that the ANC will secure less than 50% of the vote in the 2024 national election. The DA has not ruled out the possibility of working with the ANC.

The ANC openly frolicked with its preferred partner without the consent of its membership, not that it even considered its views in any way.

But the triumphant attitude was reaching the roof of the sky, making it think it could move on without anyone calling it to the ground.

Its current leadership appears to have forgotten that in Polokwane (2007) and Nasrec (2017), the ANC was self-correcting to ground the presidents who were seen to be flying solo or amassing too much power.

Both Mbeki and Zuma were stopped in their tracks, but following elective conferences. What is likely to happen is unprecedented: the change is “external” and seems to be overwhelming the ANC.

With the current ANC characterised by what appears to be unforgiving leadership, some disgruntled people within its ranks had to look for alternative ways to disrupt the party’s revelry.

They have gone outside to pull the plug to stop the music when the ANC and its sponsors least expected it to happen: load shedding is gripping Luthuli House.

There are way too many wounded hyenas that the ANC has created that now want to feed on its carcass – the ANC has disenchanted way too many people in the last 30 years. It is now likely to fall on its sword, or spear, carried by its once trusted soldiers.

The “Nkandla tea” a few years ago is emerging as the MK Party, which will likely work closely with Julius Malema and Magashule to take down the ANC.

In 2016, Malema declared: “We are eating this elephant bit by bit,” as a clear picture emerged that the ANC was losing support across the country.

But now it looks like the MK Party is accelerating the process, and the ANC could be forced out of power, not on its own terms.

It also appears that some within the party’s ranks sensed the danger, as it is reported that Mbalula had said it was time for the ANC to reconcile with Zuma.

However, this does not seem to have happened even after the unexpected Estcourt prison parole.

Mbalula tweeted in 2017, “Ace Magashule is a definite no-no-no. The man will finish what is remaining of our movement. He will kill it.”

In an unexpected turn of events, it appears that he will oversee the demise of the ANC.

On his part, Ramaphosa is likely to be deposed from outside the ANC and appears to have no response to this challenge. It is more than four months before the polls, and a lot can still happen.

Could the call to postpone the elections be something that we don’t know?

Hadebe is an independent commentator on socio-economic, political and global matters.

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