The decades-old rulebook of the African National Congress was no match for the songs composed on the spot by the party’s rank and file.
During the party’s elective congress this week, this was one of many moments that displayed the divides tearing at Africa’s oldest liberation. The most obvious was the factional divide within the party, but there is also the growing distance between the leadership and the members—split by history, class and age. As the party of Nelson Mandela fights to maintain its place among South Africans, the dissonance within the party shows why the liberation movement is becoming its own cautionary tale in the 21st century.
In that particular moment, the nearly 5,000 delegates were trying to decide just how they were going to vote for the party’s so-called Top Six, which includes the position of president, and the 80 members who make up the National Executive Committee. The debate dragged on as ordinary members took their turn at the mic to make suggestions on behalf of their local branch, a rare chance to be heard at the national stage even if they had nothing new to add.
Gwede Mantashe, who went from Secretary General to National Chairman at this conference, tried to intervene, clutching the party’s rule book and reading out the relevant passages. Then another, younger member stepped up: Tony Yengeni, known for his love of luxury, a stint in jail over corruption and almost ironically, at one time the head of the party’s political school.
“No rule can be forced on the conference,” Yengeni said to roaring crowds. Despite the ANC’s insistence that it is a broad movement, these are one of the few times that branch members from provinces around the country, have the opportunity to communicate with the leadership in Johannesburg, says political analyst Lebohang Pheko.
The delegates themselves didn’t seem to be quite aware of the party’s rules and basic housekeeping, but it shows that the power of the organization is held by a few, says Pheko. If they were active cadres, they would be the people shaping the vision of the party, informed by their experience on the ground, rather than “voting chattle.”
It reflects how voting works in general election, and how much faith was placed in liberation movements. In order to appease a divided system, South Africa selected an electoral system in which citizens vote for the party, not the individual. The winners are then handed a proportion of seats in parliament. In South Africa, it essentially means that fewer than 5,000 people got to choose who the next president will be, and even those people seem to have no real power beyond the ballot.
There is also a class divide evident in other liberation movements that perpetuates the narrative that voters were “saved” by their leaders in the liberation. The leadership were often educated in mission schools, or abroad, and either came from the elite or were elevated because of their education.
“Many of the leadership don’t necessarily care much about their members and they view them with disdainful or distant tolerance,” said Pheko. “The first educated people were catapulted to the front…the ones who could articulate themselves in different languages, in the language of the oppressor particularly.”
Members, and citizens, then found themselves ceding their “voice, power and trust” to the ones “ba satshabeng makhoa—the ones who aren’t afraid of the white people,” she explained, using a seSotho phrase.
It’s a model that has been found throughout postcolonial Africa, especially in east and southern Africa. In Botswana, the Botswana Democratic Party has ruled since 1966, when independence leader and local chief, Seretse Khama came to power. His son, Ian Khama, current president continued the family’s legacy.
The Kenya African National Union ruled for forty years on the legacy of their liberation credentials, only allowing multiparty democracy in 1992. The party may have lost power, but the Kenyatta legacy continues with current president Uhuru Kenyatta, son of the first leader Jomo. In Zimbabwe, Zanu-PF took over in 1980 after a bush war and remains in power even after Robert Mugabe was finally removed just a few weeks ago, only after he tried to anoint his wife Grace Mugabe as his successor, who was resisted in part because she was not part of the liberation movement.
Now, however, a new generation is emerging who find themselves in prevailing poverty and inequality, but who do not fear the oppressor or revere their elders. They are the generation who make up #FeesMustFall, who brought down colonialist Cecil Rhodes’ statue at the University of Cape Town and who used WhatsApp to mobilize against an ageing autocrat in Zimbabwe, and how #KOT (Kenyans On Twitter) have taken to the digital streets, fed up of being sidelined by the elite. With the ever-increasing age gap between leaders and the average voter, the liberation movement will have to reinvent itself.
Cyril Ramaphosa, a former union leader turned millionaire business man, was welcomed by the markets with a rise in valuation for the South African rand—but he outlined a far more populist view than expected. The decision to amend South Africa’s constitution to allow for the *expropriation of land without compensation* seemed to be a compromise to appease delegates calling for more a more radical, pro-poor economic policy.
It’s a move that echoes the position of the opposition Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), the four-year old party led by firebrand, Julius Malema, which has succeeding in attracting many of the country’s frustrated youth. It also taps into a growing refrain among the South African public of “Give back the land,”—the idea that like the economy, much of the country’s arable land is owned by the white minority. At its worst, it’s a policy that sparks fears of a repeat of Zimbabwe’s land grabs and led to the economy collapsing. At its heart, it shows a party trying to remain relevant among a fed-up electorate.
Yet, the conference failed to produce leaders who were representative of the electorate they are trying to woo in 2019. The executive is mostly male and middle-aged, which may further isolate younger voters, says Pheko. The inevitable outcome of liberation movements that have not evolved beyond war-time thinking is to turn to the strongman model, which will only erode the hard won democracy liberation movements fought for.
The only real solution would be to cede power to a new generation, or as the ANC conference proved, the new generation will grab it—at the expense of the party.