The African National Congress: Is It Dead?

By Pinky Khoabane

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.

Fast forward to 2019 and it is clear that there will be no unity in the ANC. The division between former President Jacob Zuma’s faction and that of President Cyril Ramaphosa is wide open for everyone to see. Following a breakfast meeting with Goldman Sachs at which Ramaphosa assured investors the ruling party would handle land expropriation with sensitivity, ANC Secretary General Ace Magashule responded by saying that there were “dark forces” in the way of the ANC’s battle for economic empowerment and against white monopoly capital. He was obviously referring to Ramaphosa. He was speaking at the memorial lecture for the ANC’s stalwart Walter Sisulu. 

Writing on his Twitter account he went on: “The struggle for economic emancipation of our people is and must be unstoppable. We can no longer be slaves in our own nation. We can no longer be counted as the poorest of the poor, while those who hold our wealth through historic theft still enjoy it”

In Seme’s biography, “The Man Who Founded The ANC”, Zuma’s former spokesman Dr 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 has just won the 2019 elections 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.

The ANC faces major problems, 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 factional battles in the ANC have left it 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 Selope 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.

The battle lines have long been drawn between the two factions in the ANC of today. For those who thought a victory at Nasrec and in the elections for Ramaphosa would bridge the division, nothing of the sort is happening. What can be seen as a public attack by Magashule and the acrimony between the secretary general of the ANC and the president, emerged shortly after the Nasrec Conference at which Ramaphosa won by a small margin. 

In January last year, Magashule, at a rally in Kwazulu-Natal, made statements seen as a veiled attack on Ramaphosa’s ascendancy to the party’s helm:  “Stay focused, it is just a matter of five years. It’s a matter of five years. Conference happens after five years. Mayibuye i-ANC esiyaziyo. It’s a matter of five years comrades. So let’s work hard.”

The statements at the Walter Sisulu memorial are seen as an attack on the president. There’s no doubt that Ramaphosa faces a mutiny among the Zuma faction and the “cleaning” that he was expected to do won’t happen. 

Like Seme, whose election was dogged by divisions between the radicals and moderates, Ramaphosa’s election at Nasrec, where divisions were so dramatically displayed, will come to haunt his entire presidency. 

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