African National Congress facing split

The oldest party on the African continent, the African National Congress is facing its biggest crisis in 50 years

The oldest party on the African continent, the African National Congress is facing its biggest crisis in 50 years

The beginning of November marked a decisive moment in the history of post-apartheid South Africa, with the governing African National Congress (ANC) on the verge of a split. Dissidents led by the former Defence Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, and former premier of the region around Johannesburg Mbhazima Shilowa, broke away from the ANC and called a national convention of all like-minded South Africans in Johannesburg. They intend to set up an opposition party to challenge the hegemony of the ruling ANC in elections early next year.

In the 18 years since Nelson Mandela was released from jail the ANC has moved from one of the most successful and respected liberation movements in the world to a deeply divided organisation, led by Jacob Zuma, a man who is facing charges of corruption and racketeering, and has previously been charged with rape, although he has since been acquitted of the crime.

Addressing more than 6,000 delegates, including all of the current opposition parties, Mr Lekota accused the ANC of abusing its power. He asserted that it had lost the values it had cherished under Nelson Mandela, and he proclaimed that a new party was needed to prevent the country from returning to apartheid-style rule.

Mr Lekota said the “dominant political forces” in the country – the leaders of the ANC – were “determined to abuse their power to advance their personal interests” as white minority government had done during apartheid. “The threat the nation faces is that we will see the reaffirmation of important elements of that terrible legacy under our new masters”, he added. “Shall we keep quiet and do nothing as we see the open betrayal of everything people saw as their hope for their future?” he asked to cries of “No!”.

Helen Zille, winner of the world’s best mayor award for her work in Cape Town and head of the current opposition party the ‘Democratic Alliance’, said the convention could be a “turning point” for democracy in South Africa. “The ANC should be very afraid,” she warned. Mr Shilowa announced that the launch of the party will take place on December 16th and it is expected that it will be called the South African Democratic Congress (SADC)

A key moment in the development of this breakaway party came during last year’s ANC conference in Polokwane, when then President Thabo Mbeki lost his fight with Mr Zuma to remain party president. Mr. Zuma’s supporters went on to force Mbeki loyalists out of key positions of power, and Mr Mbeki was forced to step down as president in September. Trevor Manuel, South Africa’s hugely respected finance minister, resigned in protest, although he agreed to return to the position shortly afterwards. Furious at losing influence, Mr Mbeki’s allies have since turned on their former comrades.
Among their accusations were that the pro-Zuma faction would lead South Africa into an economic shift to the left by affording the ANC’s allies in the South African Communist party (SACP) and the unions too much power. Mr Lekota wrote that it was unprecedented for the SACP to hold the most senior offices within the ANC.

“The ANC is NOT the SACP,” Mr Lekota wrote, “and the SACP is NOT the ANC.” The dissidents maintained that they are true to the ideals of the ANC as they have been in the past.

Mr Zuma said he was not surprised by the resignation of his former comrades, saying it had been in the air for quite a while. “It is just disappointing that people who have been in the leadership, who have been leading people within the ANC, are not able to show leadership when they come across difficulties,” he said. Others went further, accusing the defectors of preparing to ditch the ANC because it is questioning the conservative economic policies adopted under Mr Mbeki.

The trade union movement, Cosatu, called Mr Shilowa a “whisky-drinking egotist”, and a black sheep who had betrayed the movement. “He changed from being a darling of workers to a member of expensive, elitist, whisky-drinking and cigar-smoking clubs,” said Cosatu.

From this perspective the division in the ANC is a left-right split, with Zuma supporters on the left and Lekota supporters on the right. In reality, the situation is more complex, with some alleging that tribal differences are at least in part responsible for the divisions. Xhosas, used to holding influence under Mr Mbeki, are said to be angry at being sidelined under Mr Zuma, who is a Zulu. However these are inflammatory statements, more often spoken behind closed doors than openly aired.

In the wake of their breakaway and in preparation for the party’s launch, rallies have taken place around the country, at which supporters of the new party have torn up or burnt their ANC membership cards.

Mr Lekota has spoken at these meetings, where his supporters wore yellow and white T-shirts carrying his image. But the rallies have been countered by demonstrations by ANC loyalists, some of whom chanted “Kill Shilowa, kill Lekota”. Some meetings have been attacked, and only police intervention has prevented Lekota supporters from being injured.

The organisers of the new party complain that venues they wanted to book have been denied them. The ANC has condemned the violence and called for calm. But the party has also accused the dissidents of intolerance for burning ANC emblems. “The ANC has noted with utter disgust the rising levels of political intolerance in the country by supporters of the group,” it said.

The violence that has greeted some of the rebels meetings has lead to fears particularly in white communities that the split in the party may lead to serious violence similar to that of Zimbabwe from ANC supporters unwilling to see a wane in their party’s power. Yet if the split is peaceful, as is largely expected, a credible opposition will provide the current government with the impetus to attack the problems facing the country, especially the still huge number of people in poverty and shockingly high crime rate.

The rebels have a very promising constituency in the black middle and upper class that expanded under Mr Mbeki. They do not appear to be short of cash but they are short of time if they want to mount a credible challenge to the ANC at next year’s poll. The ruling party could even opt for an early ballot to complicate such plans. Even if all goes well, the new party will struggle to secure a mass defection of ordinary voters, who still view the ANC as the party that best represents their interests, and would not expect to win.

However, the rebels could potentially dent the ANC vote, taking the ruling party below the critical two-thirds threshold in parliament; and if the gains were more significant, they could potentially become a significant player in the medium term.

The political schism does however mark a dramatic shake-up in a country where the ANC has dominated political life since the end of white-minority rule in 1994, and after 14 years of ANC rule there is now a palpable wind of change in the air.