Will ANC conference herald a new beginning?

This picture shows a general view of the NASREC Expo Centre in Johannesburg on December 14, 2017, prior to the 54th National Conference of the South Africa's ruling African National Congress (ANC) party. Photo: Wikus De Wet / AFP

by Mcebisi Ndletyana

As the 54th Conference of the ANC sits today, it’s worth recalling both the proceedings and discussions of the recent Policy Conference. They were unprecedented. The opening two days were dedicated to discussing the party’s organizational state. Similarly unusual was the title and content of the ANC's Strategy and Tactics Document. Its theme was ‘Organisational renewal’ - an extraordinary departure from a broader focus on strategic and conceptual issues to guide the organisation. Both these instances denoted the gravity of organizational problems that confront the ANC, as well as the urgency for remedial measures. 

Thus it is worth asking: Will this conference deliver on its promise to herald a new beginning for the organisation? Recent events don’t inspire confidence that it will. Two elective provincial conferences – one in the Eastern Cape and another in the Free State – are ample illustrations.

In the instance of the Eastern Cape, the party’s National Executive Committee (NEC) flouted its own rules. They overruled a report submitted by their own deployees about the conference held in September 2017. The break-out of violence and subsequent exodus of some members had raised questions over the legitimacy of the new provincial leadership that was elected there. Those who walked-out, led by Andile Lungisa, complained of irregularities and asserted that their absence rendered the conference illegitimate. In their report to the NEC, the deployees disagreed with the protestors. They disputed that there were any irregularities and maintained that the walkout did not make the conference inquorate. For these reasons, the NEC deployees declared the proceedings of that conference legitimate.

However, the NEC didn’t accept the conclusions of its own deployees. Rather, they opted to institute a probe into the claims made by Lungisa’s group. This was not only a deviation from the rules but also cast aspersions on the integrity of the NEC deployees. Their comrades did not trust their word. Most in the NEC clearly did not like the outcome of the conference, and thus decided to ignore their own rules.

Whilst Eastern Cape shows a flagrant disregard for rules, Free State demonstrates that irregularities are not just a rare occurrence in the organisation. They’re a manifestation of a culture and one that is deeply ingrained. The Free State High Court has just nullified the party’s Provincial Executive Committee (PEC). What is even worse is that the conference that elected them was a second attempt. The court stopped the initial attempt in October 2017, after complaints that some of the branch meetings towards the conference were improperly constituted. They were ordered to rectify those irregularities. Promising to do things properly, the PEC finally convened the conference early this month. But, it didn’t’ rectify its initial infractions. It committed them again. Now the Free State is without a PEC.

And, it’s not the first time that Free State has had its PEC dissolved by court just before an elective conference. It happened in 2012, under the same leader, Ace Magashule, for similar infractions. This suggests that impropriety is not a rarity in the organisation. It's habitual, and a substantial number of members don’t frown upon it. Magushule, the serial delinquent, is one of the nominees for the position of secretary-general. You’d think that his serial misconduct would disqualify him for such an elevated position, especially for an organisation that’s crying out for a renewal. Some members clearly don’t think so. Instead, they want to reward Magashule with a higher office.

One can’t be faulted, therefore, for doubting that this conference will trigger a renewal of the ANC. Some of its leaders are just too desperate to remain in office. That desperation has just been raised by the loss of delegates arising from the string of court verdicts. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has just lost approximately hundred delegates. With an ally like Magashule, a serial delinquent, it is not far-fetched to imagine that they might resort to some tricks. That’s what Magashule does in such situations.

For this reason, expect sharp disagreements over credentials. They’ll be attempts to either sneak in bogus candidates or cut down delegates of the other side on spurious grounds. One would be surprised if scheduled activities are all concluded today. An early indication of how things pan-out today, will be how the NEC, which has scheduled a special meeting this morning, conducts its business. That will set the tone for the rest of the conference.  

Is there a possibility that the conference may be collapsed? It’s highly unlikely. That will create even bigger problems for the ANC. Collapsing this conference means the ANC will not have a legitimate leadership. The term of this leadership ends today. Another implication of a collapsed conference is the admission that the differences within are irreconcilable. Irreconcilable differences trigger a split. None wants a split, especially so close a national election.

This conference will certainly be turbulent but will conclude its business. Everyone is determined to keep the ANC alive, however, handicapped!     

* Mcebisi Ndletyana is associate professor of politics at the University of Johannesburg.

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