ANC in terminal trouble
I did warn last week that the ANC’s disciplinary action against youth league leaders has the potential of turning Julius Malema into a pre-Polokwane Jacob Zuma.
But not even I imagined that the situation could deteriorate so quickly into the kind of anarchy and violence we witnessed outside Luthuli House yesterday morning.
Scenes of youths, some barely in their teens, pelting police with stones and burning an ANC flag and T-shirts bearing Zuma’s face proved, beyond reasonable doubt, that the battle lines have been firmly drawn ahead of the ruling party’s elective conference in Mangaung, Free State, at the end of next year.
The songs and slogans chanted by the rowdy crowd, according to colleagues who were in the Johannesburg CBD when the violence started, were even more emphatic in their condemnation of the president, ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and South African Communist Party general secretary Blade Nzimande.
The protesters, many young enough to be required by African custom to refer to Zuma as “grandfather”, openly called him a “rapist” and other unprintable names.
Luthuli House has always been regarded as a sacred place by ANC members. In all the power struggles that have engulfed the party in recent years, never before has a group of members and supporters tried to storm the building.
When a mysterious fire destroyed a section of the building in August 2005, party members held an emotional vigil, saddened by what had befallen their “home”.
Days earlier, when the now-defunct Scorpions raided Zuma’s properties as part of their investigation into his alleged links to arms deal-related corruption and fraud, rumour started doing the rounds that Luthuli House, too, was to be raided.
Angry party loyalists reacted by rushing to Luthuli House to “defend” the headquarters against “the intruders”.
But the events of yesterday suggest that things are changing and that not even that building – a symbol of power and unity for ANC loyalists – is safe in this new battle for the soul of Africa’s oldest liberation movement.
Very few, however, will be shedding tears for Zuma and his national executive committee.
They are reaping, many of us would argue, what they sowed during his battle with former president Thabo Mbeki.
For yesterday was not the first time we saw mobs, acting in the name of an ANC leader, setting party symbols alight and hurling insults at the head of state.
Back then Zuma was warned that, by allowing his supporters to do so, not only was he setting a bad precedent, but he was eroding the public’s respect for the presidency of both the ANC and the country.
Now, the shoe is on the other foot, and it cannot be comfortable.
The same can be argued about the lethargic manner in which the ANC leadership has treated the “Malema problem” over the years.
As president of the ANC-aligned and funded Congress of South African Students, Malema led a chaotic protest through the Johannesburg CBD in 2002.
Had the ruling party taken strong action against him then, perhaps he would be a better leader today.
The ruling party also did little, if anything, to rein in Malema as he wreaked political havoc with his reckless rhetoric when he took charge of the youth league in 2008.
His inflammatory statements, most bordering on insult, were a useful weapon for party leaders, who effectively egged him on through their silence.
Now that they perceive him to be a monster with real potential to crush their ambitions of staying on at the helm of the party, these leaders want him politically terminated.
But we should not make the mistake of reducing yesterday’s events to a mere power struggle between Zuma and Malema.
What we see unfolding before our eyes is much bigger than the two individuals and has long-term implications for the ANC and the country.
Throughout its 99 years of existence, the ANC has had to rely on youth to rescue it from political obscurity, and even demise.
By the early 1940s, the ANC had become an irrelevant and ineffective political organisation that relied on outdated methods to be heard by the authorities. It took the likes of Ashby Peter Mda, Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Congress Mbatha and other young activists to turn the party into thevoice of the disenfranchised by the end of that decade.
In the 1970s, exile had turned the party into a shadow of its former self – its leaders having no real link with the population they sought to lead and influence.
The Soweto youth uprising of June 16 1976 changed all that.
Scores of youngsters who fled police brutality swelled the ranks of the ANC in neighbouring countries, injecting new blood into a liberation struggle that had seemed hopeless.
Who can deny the primary role played by ANC-aligned youth and student organisations in the 1980s?
But as the ANC approaches its hundredth year, few can confidently say the current generation of youth leaders is playing the same role.
In fact, yesterday’s mutiny in front of Luthuli House suggests that this generation will be responsible for the demise of the ANC we have come to know over the last century.
But they will not be the only ones responsible. Truth be told, the ANC’s decay began soon after it took over state power.
Many in the party thought Polokwane was the lowest point and that the party could only rise from that.
They were mistaken. The reality is that the party continues to sink and the current national executive committee has shown no capacity to rescue the ANC from apparent disaster.
There is no evidence that the next NEC, elected in Mangaung next year, will either.
It, too, will suffer the flaw that has crippled the current executive: It will be held hostage to the whims of a faction whose election slate will carry the day in Mangaung.
If the faction publicly represented by the youth league triumphs, it will mean the end of Zuma and the SACP’s influence over the ANC.
If that faction loses, it will be the demise of Malema and the senior politicians who are hiding behind him.
Whatever the outcome, one thing is for sure. The ANC will not be able to survive all of this for long. Yes, it will reach its centenary as the country’s most dominant party. But I doubt the party will reach 110.
S’Thembiso Msomi, Times SA