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Breaking the silence on ANC factionalism for the benefit of posterity

An ANC supporter holds the party’s flag. File Picture: Phill Magakoe.

An ANC supporter holds the party’s flag. File Picture: Phill Magakoe.

Published Sep 26, 2021


By Dr Vusi Shongwe

“Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter” - Martin Luther King jr.

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“Those of us who are true liberators should not fight among themselves. Let us not allow the enemy’s dirty tricks to succeed in getting us to fight one another” - Oliver Reginald Tambo addressing a press conference in Lusaka in June 1985.

Oliver Reginald Tambo’s words as quoted above remain relevant today in the same way they were when first uttered in 1985. The only difference is that at the time of their first utterance the enemy was the notorious apartheid government with its askaris whereas today the enemy is, I would argue, money.

Thus, taking a cue from Tambo’s wise counsel to the effect that “those of us who are true liberators should not fight among themselves ... ” ANC leaders should instead be expending their energies strategising and coming up with innovative ways on how to expedite service as “there is a time to plant and a time to harvest” (Ecclesiastes 3:2).

This would in all likelihood improve the lives of the people, especially the poorest of the poor. The leaders would be well advised to take heed of Waldo Ralph Emerson’s advisory remarks to the effect that “things that matter most must not be at the mercy of things that matter least”.

What matters most is servicing the needs of the people, and certainly not the factional battles playing themselves out in the ANC.

One is not oblivious to the reality that factions and competitions in politics will always be there. This fact notwithstanding, my take is that these factions should not be meant to divide the party but should be used, on the contrary, to outshine one another in the quest of who can best serve the people if elected.

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Most importantly, once the elections are done and the leadership is elected, the competitors, not factions, should jettison the competing mindset and rally behind the elected leadership.

Henry Ford once said, “obstacles are those frightful things we see when we take our eyes off the goal”. The factional battles are nothing but obstacles that not only derail the implementation of projects like the National Development Plan, but also have taken the focus off the goal of serving and improving the lives of the people.

There is an urgency to attend to the raging factional battles, perceived or real, which have plunged the oldest liberation movement in Africa into a political abyss.

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The fast and ever widening gulf and profound differences among leaders entrusted with the responsibility of improving the lives of the embittered downtrodden not only spells disaster, but also portends gloom and doom for South Africa if it is not nipped in the bud.

It is against this backdrop, therefore, that I echo the sentiments expressed by former president Kgalema Motlanthe in his averment that the factional battles will destroy the ANC.

There is a conspicuous and profound feeling of disquiet, discomfort and palpable anger from the people, which was best exemplified by the unkind and unceremonious reception the leaders of the ruling party were welcomed with during their door to door campaigns for the upcoming local government elections.

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If the cold receptions are anything to go by, the ruling party is in for a big surprise come the day of the local government elections.

As the ANC braces itself for the local government elections, though late, there are, however, significant lessons to be learnt from the cold reception its leaders received when campaigning over the weekend.

They can only disregard the disturbing signs, exemplified by their unwelcome reception in some areas, at their own peril.

The current political uncertainty and unfriendly political climate that have been engendered by the factional battles in the ANC are an insult to the freedom fighters who spent years in prison and those who paid the ultimate price for South Africa’s freedom.

The words of the following poem by Winona Montgomery Gilliland reproduced hereunder are particularly timely in describing the political uncertainty as occasioned by the perceived or real factional battles playing themselves out in the ANC.

Our vision is dimmed; we tired

And long for ease.

We neglect our vital spark – That burning love for freedom

which once lit

Our blackest nights – and now we fumble

Confused and fearful, hearing our

Foundations crumble.

Craven, we seek a leader, who will raise

A torch and make our pathway smooth again,

Forgetting that within us sleeps a fire

Sufficient, in itself, to make us men.

Though Gilliland’s words were directed at the Americans’ political malaise, they resonate quite spectacularly with the ANC’s current political state of affairs save one aspect – the ANC does not “seek a leader who will raise a torch and make our pathway smooth again” as the ANC president, Cyril Matamela Ramaphosa, has the pedigree to steer the “ship” clear of the storm of factionalism.

Notably, it is not only President Cyril Ramaphosa alone, as leader of the ANC and the government, who should “raise the torch and make the pathway of the ANC smooth again".

Rather, it is a collective exercise of the entire ANC. The African proverb brilliantly captures the idea of collectivity perfectly when it says, “a single hand cannot cover the sky. It takes many hands to cover the sky".

The current and continuing political divisiveness and factionalism in the ANC are both an indictment of and a blot on its leaders.

Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Manto Msimang, Phila Ndwandwe, Winnie Mandela, Albertina Sisulu, Charlotte Mannya Maxeke, John Langalibalele Dube and Chris Hani, among a legion of others, must be turning in their graves.

Indeed, the factionalism speaks to the betrayal of the priceless legacy created through the ceaseless sacrifices made by countless freedom fighters.

The political insolvency that has replaced the robust intellectual and lively debates which once characterised the ANC, is indeed a blot on the image of the ANC; a party once widely acclaimed and renowned to be steeped in the tradition of vibrant intellectual discourses is now on the brink of the cesspit of the contrary.

The ANC is fast weaning its cornerstones and hallmarks. Robust intellectual combats are no longer relished anymore. People now engage in the “politics of personal destruction” whose aim is to harm those they disagree with.

In Chapter III of The Prince, Machiavelli observes that in politics, as in physical health, in the beginning illness is easy to cure but hard to recognise; if untreated, it becomes, in the fullness of time, easy to recognise but hard to cure.

Nothing better captures this observation than the factions that have polarised the once mighty ANC. At the core of these factions is the contest for power and resources.

In his celebrated book On War, Carl von Clausewitz posits that “politics” is a contest of power over control of governance and resources and not necessarily “governance” itself.

Politics tends to be about who controls power and not about how the political system operates successfully.

It is my view that the control of resources and lack of ethical virtue are the root causes of factionalism.

Reinhold Niebuhr, in his piece, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics, is of the view that, “politics will to the end of history be an area where conscience and power meet, where the ethical and coercive factors of human life will interpenetrate and work out their tentative and uneasy compromises”.

Unfortunately, the consciences of some of our leaders have been found wanting when it comes to money.

Teresa Nesbilt Cosby, in her piece, Picking the Supremes: The Impact of money, politics and influence in judicial elections, posits that “money, politics, and influence are just like water to the river – they belong to each other. Just as no man can control the forces of nature, no statute can control these forces in a purely political system.”

If there is one thing that would bring the ANC to its knees with the resultant precipitous decline of public support, it is the conspicuous immersion of its members in crass materialism.

The battle among competing factions might be characterised as the struggle for the “soul” of the party, which is exactly what is playing out in the ANC at present.

Sadly, in people’s minds factionalism implies conflict, disunity and a withdrawal of consent. In his essay Of Parties in General, Scottish philosopher David Hume observes, “factions subvert government, render laws impotent, and beget the fiercest animosities among men of the same nation; the ANC in this instance.

Frank P Belloni and Dennis C Beller note how factions are often credited with wreaking havoc in political systems where no partied have yet develop, or to be destructive forces where stable parties exist like it used to be in the ANC.

Not only does factional politics play a negative role in developing unity and responsible and effective government but it is also blamed for the spread of corruption inside the governing party.

There are systemic factors that need to be interrogated if the ANC is to curb the tide of factionalism. For example, the ANC needs to revisit the slate method or the “winners-take-all” approach when choosing its leaders.

The slate method should, if needs be, be done away with. Not only does it polarise the party, but it also robs it of capable and competent leaders.

Some people carry on with the competing factions’ mind-set even when there is a new leadership in place. The calibre of the cadre the ANC recruits and puts into a position of responsibility also needs to be revisited.

A question must be asked, does the recruitment of a multitude add value, or numbers to the ANC?

My take is that in some respect the present membership of the ANC leaves a lot to be desired. Some of the members hardly know the constitution of the ANC, let alone the culture and the dynamics of the ANC.

Never in the history of the ANC have people used guns and knives to drive their points home. The killing of ANC members by their own comrades for positions is also something new in this glorious movement. This is unheard of.

Perhaps in the process of recruiting membership the ANC opened its doors to hardened criminals and fraudsters. This calls for the ANC’s selection and recruitment policy to be seriously revisited by way of reintroducing, among other things, political education.

The ANC needs unity in action and not in mere rhetoric. It needs leaders who will not allow their personal egos and power struggles to impede their sense of belonging and commitment to our collective good.

Notably, the forebears of the ANC were driven by a mission and a shared vision to serve the aspirations of the people whose acts of courage, devotion and defiance have kept the ANC alive under harsh conditions.

This, in the words of President Igor Smirnov of Transnistria, near Ukraine, will be “important in saving the heritage of the senior generation” as “their feat will remain for centuries as a caution for our descendants, as a lesson of courage, of selfless service to the Fatherland, of fidelity to the ideals of good and justice”.

We need unity that will make our leaders stand together in joy and sorrow. This is the time to seize the moment and look to the future with a renewed sense of unity. This is the time for our leaders to reflect and rethink, learn and unlearn from their mistakes.

Gwilym Lloyd George, 1st Viscount Tenby, remarks scathingly that politicians are like monkeys in that “the higher they climb; the more revolting are the parts they expose”.

I certainly do not think our ANC leaders would relish the ignominy or opprobrium of being likened to monkeys. It therefore behoves them to begin conscientious attempts to end the factional battles lest they should be called monkeys.

The message is loud and clear. United the ANC stands; divided, the ANC would be evanescent and be consigned into the dustbin of political history.

The idea of unity should be embraced on a positive, progressive and pragmatic ground. What cannot be gainsaid is the fact that the ANC leadership is saddled with the responsibility of bringing back order in the party of the people, the ANC.

The ANC’s many political vicissitudes stand as a testament to the fact that often it is the internal implosions that have presented opportunities to rectify its past and resuscitate its future.

It is my humble submission that the gulfs that have been engendered by factionalism within the ANC are not unbridgeable. All they require is an honest leadership that will promote reconciliation.

The ANC needs to initiate a process to broker peace among its leaders. The purpose of doing so would be to provide a platform for comrades to apologise and forgive one another for the deep hurt and pain they have inflicted upon themselves. To paraphrase Martin Luther King Jj, let ANC leaders stop drinking from the cup of bitterness and hatred, but promote peace and unity.

Dr Grace Ritchie-England, who was president of Montreal Council of Women, once remarked: “the test for leadership are drastically severe. Knowledge, judgement, power of decision and strength of character are prerequisites for leadership to be equal not only to the affairs of every day but equal also to those unforeseen, unprecedented emergencies which the rapid movement of modern history flings before us.

Essential, too is self-reliant courage and placing the sanctities of conscience and reason above the clamour of the multitude.”

It is equally important that our politicians take heed of Marc Stears’ observation in his piece Post-democracy, democratic renewal and the recent history of British politics that voters from a wide range of backgrounds in modern democracies too often feel they are treated with disdain by professionalised politics and they feel it for the simple reason that, most of the time, they are so treated.

That, argues Stears, is the real essence of the danger of post-democracy. If that is right, posits Stears, the answer to the challenges we face do not lie straightforwardly in places that we tend to look: political processes, parties, elections and the inequalities which shape their outcomes.

Instead, we must look to the manifold ways that we can shift political attention away from the state and back to the everyday experiences that matter most to citizens.

Former president Motlanthe is correct when he says the factional battles will destroy the ANC. Most importantly, they will result in the citizenry losing trust in the ANC.

Trust and ethical values – nebulous as they are – are the bedrock of political power in a democracy. And the major parties have been systematically eroding it, by governing contrary to what people thought they were voting for.

In his 2016 book The Trust Deficit, Sam Crosby points out that voters who do not trust that governments will act in their interests will vote for non-incumbent and third-party candidates.

The, economist Joseph Stiglitz said something quite provocative: "We've been shaping our society to create people who are more selfish."

Is the ANC in the present political morass because of selfishness? As the lyrics of a popular song states it, “there are more questions than answers”.

Hegel would have called the era the ANC is going through as an age that is “suffering from indeterminacy”. Following Hegel, we could say that indeterminacy has gained ground, as trust in the public sphere has lost ground.

There is a Czech proverb that says “trust is like a sheet of paper. Once you crumple it, you can never smooth it perfectly”.

The British philosopher in his book Trust: Self Interest and the Common Good, says trust is “a kind of shorthand for a whole range of expectations and emotions about the content of our public life”. The ANC leaders have a responsibility, therefore, not to crumple the party of the people.

SD Morris and JL Klesner in their piece Trust deficit and anti-corruption initiatives, posit that a low level of trust breeds corruption. People seem very upset about what some consider as the shifting of responsibility by the administration in the fight against corruption.

Kerstin Lukner and Alexandra Sakaki in their piece Japan’s political trust deficit say that four components seem particularly vital in defining political trust. First, political trust is related to the perceived performance of political institutions as well as political leaders and their policymaking. Second, it reflects then people’s evaluative orientation towards this performance and – by extension – the political system as a whole.

Third, this evaluation is based on normative expectations held by the public. In other words, argue Lukner and Sakaki, political trust arises if people assess the government, its institutions, policy-making processes and political leaders as “promise keeping, efficient, fair and honest”, and view them as acting in society’s best interests.

According to Lukner and Sakaki, it is the judgement of the citizens that the system and its political incumbents are responsive and will do what is right even in the absence of constant scrutiny. Political trust can be seen as a proxy of political legitimacy, reflecting the level of popular support for the government, its agencies and for the implementation of its policies.

A government that loses the trust of its people will face difficulties when implementing policies, pursuing political reform, or calling for co-operation with authorities.

The scenario painted by Lukner and Sakaki is exactly what would happen to the ANC’s relations with the public if the factional battles are not nipped in the bud as a matter of urgency.

True, in a situation where the politicians’ fixations are state resources, instead of improving the lives of the people, public trust would be eroded and the failure of the political party in charge is not far off.

Thus, in light of the foregoing explication, one would venture to argue that even amidst times of turmoil and turbulence, amid the inevitable political vicissitudes and tidal waves, political cleavages and chasms, true leaders of the ANC worth their salt must rise up and show leadership.

This will have to be done with the view of helping arrest the downward slide to end what South African politics has become; a messy, deceitful, treacherous and murderous affair.

To paraphrase a now time-honoured aphorism, "with great freedom comes great responsibility”.

Sadly, this is something which our leaders are now failing to live up to. It is my wish that our ANC leaders be humbly reminded that the struggle to deliver the many people from the scourge of poverty and all its attendant ills, like inequality and unemployment, is far from over.

Delivering a speech at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts, April 7, 1961, Harold Macmillan, MP, Prime Minister of Great Britain remarked that: “There is always change and movement in our lives. History does not stand still. Unless we work for greater unity now, we shall slide into division. The time is short. Let there be no delay.”

The biggest mistake our politicians must avoid is to undermine the intelligence of the citizenry and the power it possesses.

This view is corroborated by Dafni Leef’s reflective statement to the effect that “that summer they woke up and refused to continue to go blind folded towards the precipice. That summer they opened their eyes; those eyes would not close again”.

Thus, our leaders will be well-advised to remember that the volatility of politics is a symptom of the anger and frustrations many voters have with the struggling economy. As argued by Paul Wellstone, “politics is not about big money or power games; it is about the improvement of people’s lives. Above all, service should, and must always remain the eloquent expression of our freedom” enjoyed under the tutelage of our commander-in-chief.

Again, Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi once remarked during the impeachment debate as it related to the then commander-in-chief that “the times are too dire, the challenges too great and the risks too frighteningly high for us to undermine the commander” and this remark, in my view, was meant to forge unity and co-operation among those who were seeing things differently in relation to issues of national interest.

Hence, as citizens we are called upon to embrace as an example the courageous stance adopted by South African elder statesman – Inkosi Mangosuthu Buthelezi – when he vouched and remarked during the state of the nation address in 2010: “I cannot afford to see the President and his government fail, I will not applaud and rejoice, but weep; for if they fail, our liberation fails. In this time of economic turbulence and enormous challenges, we are in this boat together and together we will either sail or sink…”.

So, in the words of the sagacious Oliver Reginald Tambo, “those of us who are true liberators should not fight among themselves. Let us not allow the enemy’s tricks to succeed in getting us to fight one another”.

| Dr Vusi Shongwe is the former head of the Department of the Royal Household and Chief Director in the KwaZulu-Natal Office of the Premier. He writes in his personal capacity.

NB: The piece is dedicated to my brother, an uMkhonto e Sizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) Cadre, whose incalculable contributions and ceaseless sacrifices, together with all the MK cadres, in the Struggle for liberation, is graciously acknowledged and unstintingly appreciated.

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