African National Congress (ANC) politics was not always consumed by personalities or fortunes of individuals, leading to discussions over how this or that person would fare in striving for a position or whether an individual would derive material benefits. Without romanticising the past, anyone who thinks of the liberation-related politics of the 1980s will remember many debates. That was a period when there were many arguments over the direction that the struggle should take, both then and in the future. They raged between the ANC and other organisations, but also within each component of the ANC-led alliance. These were discussions waged at home in townships and rural villages and in exile, like the MK camps in Lusaka. Sometimes a debate would start in Lusaka, pass on to Angola or some other place of exile and migrate into South Africa itself.
From the 1969 Morogoro conference right into the 1990s there was extensive debate over ideas generated by the ANC and its allies.
Individuals did seek leadership, but they were also identified with distinct political positions. People supported Chris Hani or Thabo Mbeki for political reasons, related to strategies and vision. Likewise, when the first ANC elections were held inside the country delegates had a fairly good idea of who supported various positions. There were few people who could be identified with any business venture, as far as was known, though some may have secretly planned their personal enrichment.
In more recent times depoliticisation has set in. At the same time there is fierce contestation over positions and preoccupation with personalities and personal fortunes.
There is – understandably – much speculation over what will happen when Jacob Zuma leaves the presidency of the ANC and the country. Many hope that problems that beset the country, including the corruption, lawlessness and violence currently experienced, will abate with his departure and that the constitutional fabric of post-apartheid democracy will be restored.
Some have in mind Cyril Ramaphosa as the obvious replacement. He is painted as an efficient leader who “gets things done”. He has been attributed with qualities that could neutralise or even eliminate some of the wrongs of the Zuma era, whether perceived or actual. The focus on Ramaphosa is not based on political considerations, rather as an individual with personal attributes, real or imagined.
But it is by no means certain that Zuma is about to leave. He need not necessarily serve only two terms as ANC president, while constitutionally he is barred from a third term as president of the country. If he were to remain ANC president it is possible that he could from that position exercise influence over what is done in the state presidency, depending on who holds that office and the relative balance of power that is established between state and party. It may also be that much of what he has put in place – his ”legacy” of enrichment and lawlessness – may remain intact even if he holds neither position. Part of the contestation that is in progress within the ANC relates to ensuring that this “legacy” is in fact secured.
The power that Luthuli House wields over ministers and other officers of state may be exaggerated. In reality, many of the policies developed for government departments have been introduced without any contribution from the organisation, relying mainly on technocratic input. That is how the Growth, Employment and Redistribution programme (GEAR) was introduced. The National Development Plan, whatever its strengths and limitations, did not derive from discussions within the organisation. Its status derived in the first place from the specialised recommendations of the National Planning Commission, which was adopted by the government as a necessary intervention. Only later, in both cases, did these become ANC policy.
The power of the ANC becomes important when there is a conflict between what the organisation believes should be done and what the state president wishes to do. The presence of a state president who no longer enjoys the support of the organisation can lead to conflict and the type of situation that resulted in the recall of Mbeki.
Because of the need for smooth relations between the ANC and the state, in the event of Zuma continuing to hold the top job in the former it becomes important for him and his supporters that the person who becomes state president is someone on whom they can “rely”. It becomes even more important if he vacates both positions.
Many argue that the potential presidency of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma – which is so far being supported by the thus far demonstrable power, albeit in limited contests, of the “Premier League”, is important. They argue if she were to become president it is likely that the relationship between the ANC and state presidencies will be smooth. Everyone would be allowed to get on with their own business without anyone coming up with ideas about “resolving” problematic areas that Zuma and the Premier League would rather see left sleeping. What is often not discussed is whether Dlamini-Zuma is a leader in her own right and what political changes she may bring to the country.
The Premier League, whose existence is denied by the North-West premier, is said to comprise the premiers of North-West, Mpumalanga and Free State. That leaves aside KwaZulu-Natal, which has the largest ANC membership in the country. There are divisions in that province, evident in repeated postponements of eThekwini’s regional elections. But it is unlikely that these divisions, even if partly related to support for individuals who may or may not support Zuma, can make a substantial dent in the support that Zuma enjoys in the province.
It may well be that Ramaphosa has done nothing that offends the Premier League or President Zuma. But there seems no doubt, despite his continual efforts to please Zuma (and simultaneously demonstrate his capacity to fix problems) that he does not enjoy the same degree of confidence possessed by Dlamini-Zuma. There are some relationships that are obviously important to Zuma and those who support him, who may also be vulnerable if legal processes were reinstituted against Zuma after his departure. It may be that Dlamini-Zuma is considered more likely to avert this.
It is not clear that Ramaphosa is as efficient and effective as is claimed by some of his media and business supporters. There are as yet few demonstrable results that can be attributed to his role. But it is more important to ask why there should be a common assumption that Ramaphosa is the heir apparent, and whether he can draw on an organised support base.
It may be that the Gauteng ANC, possibly the most politically mature province in the country, will support him. But this is a time when politics counts for little compared with contacts that may be lucrative. In any case, Gauteng is a minority within the organisation as a whole. So it is doubtful that Ramaphosa enjoys sufficient support to defeat any candidate who enjoys the backing of the provinces that currently support Zuma and may also be rallied by the Premier League. But Gauteng may still convince other provinces on the basis of ANC “tradition”, that the deputy is assumed to succeed the president.
But beyond contestation over the succession, since some are hoping for change and have vested that hope in the departure of Zuma, it is important to unpack this idea. Does so much depend on the departure of Zuma that the mire in which the ANC is currently enveloped will be cleared with his departure?
There is no doubt that Zuma has brought special qualities of decay into governance with his shameless enrichment and imperviousness to legality, high levels of corruption and extensive violence.
Yet we need to understand that whether Zuma stays on for a longer or shorter period the problems of the ANC are not problems of Zuma alone. The ANC is not Zuma and Zuma is not the ANC.
Many who were involved in the struggle are alarmed at the lack of political vision, and the miring of the organisation in continued scandal. That does not necessarily translate into electoral dangers. We need to analyse how our democracy is functioning, why it can be that members of the ANC and those who vote for it may one day protest against it but at the same time still prefer it to anywhere else they could put their cross.
It needs to be understood that the ANC, despite all its flaws as a government, has still delivered substantially and is identified with transformation in a way that no other organisation can possibly be. Whatever the corruption, the unsustainable and unfinished projects, there are very many people who are living far better lives today than they did under apartheid. They have access to water, electricity, housing, healthcare, social grants and other basic needs that were not met under apartheid.
This has been uneven and it is well known that some of the inadequacies relate to patronage and corruption. But there is still little faith that an alternative party, like the Democratic Alliance or the Economic Freedom Fighters, will seriously undertake the transformation of people’s lives. This is not a residual romanticism about the ANC’s role in the struggle but the actual result of improvements that people have experienced in their lives – inadequate as they may be, less than they could have been, they are nevertheless transformations.
For us as citizens, it is important to refocus the debate from personality driven politics. This is the only way we can change the course of South African history and find ways of realising the country’s potential. We need to restore clean government under the constitution. That may only happen through a combination of concerned citizens from all walks of life, determined to recover the democratic promise of 1994. This means putting personalities in perspective and moving away from the Messiah syndrome. Of course, leaders and leadership are important in any society. But they must be anchored in political vision that takes South Africa forward. If the ANC wants to remain in power it will have to read the mood in the country, restore politics into its ranks and leadership contests.
Raymond Suttner is a professor attached to Rhodes University and UNISA. He is a former ANC underground operative and served over 11 years as a political prisoner and under house arrest. He writes contributions and is interviewed regularly on Creamer Media’s website Polity.org.za. He has authored or co-authored The Freedom Charter-the People’s Charter in the Nineteen-Eighties (UCT, 1984) 30 Years of the Freedom Charter (Ravan Press, 1986), Inside Apartheid’s Prison (UKZN Press, 2001), 50 Years of the Freedom Charter (UNISA Press, 2006), The ANC Underground (Jacana Media, 2008) and Recovering Democracy in South Africa (Jacana Media, 2015). His twitter handle is: @raymondsuttner and he blogs at raymondsuttner.com.