The African National Congress: Is It Dead?

By Pinky Khoabane


President Jacob Zuma

FACED with an open rebellion from his executive during his presidency, the founding father of the African National Congress (ANC), Pixley Ka Isaka Seme, responded with a sixteen page pamphlet titled: “The African National Congress: Is it Dead?” The reference to death was as a direct response to his critics who accused him of Killing the ANC.

In Seme’s biography, The Man Who Founded The ANC”, President Jacob Zuma’s spokesman Bongani Ngqulunga, writes: “As early as April 1930, an editorial in Umteteleli wa Bantu had posed the question ‘Should Congress Die?’ It followed with the same question, framed slightly differently, in an editorial of 20 May 1933: “Is Congress Dead?'”

The ANC turns 106 years old today and it is going through a difficult period perhaps only matched by the internal strife of the period in the 1930’s under the leadership of Seme and in the 1960s.

Speculation is running rife that Zuma’s critics in the National Executive Committee (NEC) would be calling for him to resign or push to have him recalled. Some in the ANC say he’s killing the ANC.

Former tourism minister Derek Hanekom and chairperson of the ANC’s National Disciplinary Committee it is said, would be tabling an internal motion of no confidence in Zuma. Hanekom was the first NEC to advance such a move when he tabled one in November 2016 in what was a public attack on the President. He failed. For his part, he has denied reports that he aims to table such a motion but has reiterated his wish that the President resign.

The ANC faces

Plagued by a litany of cases in the courts, scandals, allegations of state capture, many in the ANC and the broader public blame Zuma for SA’s economic woes which have seen the party’s inability to address the triple scourge of unemployment, inequality and poverty which primarily affect the Black majority, Africans in particular. The ANC faithful blame the President of the Republic for the demise of the party – the decline in membership including losing the three key Metropolitan municipalities – Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay – while others are in coalitions as in the cases of Ekurhuleni and Rustenburg. The ANC today is said to be in a state of paralysis – unable to respond to the growing impatience of the majority whose expectations of a better life have not been fully realised since the advent of democracy.

Seme’s leadership style, described as authoritarian and arrogant, together with a plethora of racist and oppressive laws which had been passed and to which he was accused of not responding, led his presidency to a state which his critics described as “culpable inertia”.

As in Seme’s time, the ANC today is in disarray, beset with factionalism, and internal fights, the distinguishing feature perhaps being that in those days, the divisions were among the leaders only, unlike today when the wedge between the ordinary members is too painful to watch. Ngqulunga puts the emergence of divisions between Seme and his executive to “a meeting of ANC leaders on 5 January 1931…..Most delegates wanted the meeting to be adjourned so that they could attend the Third Non-European Conference, which was taking place in Bloemfontein simultaneously”. Sensing that his leadership was under threat, Seme averted the standoff between delegates and himself but once the delegates had safely returned home, he decided he would remove some members of the executive and replace them with younger people.

By December of that year, the acrimony between Seme and his executive had reached unprecedented levels with accusations that he was trying to amend the ANC’s constitution in order to gain the power to solely appoint his executive. Led by Thema, who was among those he had planned to fire, Seme faced what Ngqalunga describes as an “extraordinary public attack on a sitting ANC president by a member of his executive”. The assault marked the beginning of an open civil war in the executive. By the following year, in April 26 1932, several senior members of the executive met in Johannesburg without informing Seme, to discuss the State of the ANC.

On Wednesday this week, the powerful ANC NEC will meet to discuss the state of the ANC and no doubt whether to keep Zuma until the end of his term or persuade him to leave now. His supporters have vowed to breakaway if the State President is recalled. Unlike the other ANC splinter groups which have failed to make major inroads politically, Zuma has shown himself to be political mastermind. He has managed to outfox former President Thabo Mbeki when he thought he could deny Zuma the presidency by running for a third time and now President Cyril Ramaphosa, who would have hoped for his entire slate in the Top 6. What he now has to preside over is a Top 6 which includes Zuma’s ardent supporters in Secretary General Ace Magashule, Deputy Secretary General Jesse Duarte and Deputy Chairperson David Mabuza, although some pundits are claiming he’s on Ramaphosa’s side these days.


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