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The constitution alone will not determine the democratic future of South Africa. Various factors including regional tensions and antagonistic forces led by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Peter Mokaba, Jacob Zuma and SACP trade unionists will influence the ANC at their 50th national conference. Macroeconomic policy and the government’s adoption of the controversial Growth Economic and Redistribution program (GEAR) provide the backdrop for which the conference proceedings will unfold. (dkc)

vol 13 no 1

Besieged in Mafeking: The ANC Congress
Tom Lodge

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Southern Africa Report

SAR. Vol 13 No 1, November 1997
Page 3
"South Africa Now"



Tom Lodge is Professor and Chair of the department of Political Science at the University of the Witwatersrand.

South Africa's best prospects for democracy probably depend as much on the ANC's internal vitality as on any of the carefully scripted clauses of its hundred page liberal constitution. So, for African democracy watchers, the ANC's 50th national conference in Mafeking in mid-December should prove to be a compelling spectacle. Certainly, the 3,000 delegates will have plenty to argue about.

For a start, this is the first general meeting of the ANC that can deliver a rank and file verdict on the government's performance over the last three years. The 49th conference, held in Bloemfontein in December 1994, took place too soon after the April elections; on that occasion the participants voted for a series of fairly anodyne resolutions giving the leadership liberal discretion over the adoption of policy and only showed their mettle when confronting a clumsy attempt to impose a quota system on the national executive elections.

Next month should be different. Certainly, the government can claim considerable achievements: a primary health care program that has already significantly reduced infant mortality, three million people supplied with piped water, half a million electrical connections a year, the significant spread of home ownership among the relatively poor, and wage rises that have beaten the (declining) inflation rate. But unless people are the direct beneficiaries of such gains, the greatest visibility of such gains is in official statistics and, in any event, they are regionally concentrated.


More visible is the fact that the assembly is being held against an historical backdrop that includes the government's adoption of the Growth Economic and Redistribution programme (GEAR). This programme, to many people, implies a prioritization of growth before redistribution, and is seen to include a suspect mix of tariff reductions, public expenditure cut-backs to reduce the deficit, privatization of parastatals, and the acceptance of a stratified labour market. GEAR was written in secret and was presented to a discomfited ANC national executive as "non-negotiable" in June last year.

An outraged COSATU promptly produced its own "Programme for the Alliance" and threatened to make its acceptance a condition of the federation's support in the 1999 election. Indeed, NUMSA militants actually favoured a more immediate rupture, a course narrowly averted as a consequence of a more cautious stand taken by the National Union of Mineworkers, customarily more loyal to ANC leadership. In any case, COSATU's alternative, Keynesian programme advocates an expansion of the social wage through mass state housing financed through public borrowing, a national health programme, all-embracing social security and public job creation, as well as an enlarged public sector.

Still, the debate on macroeconomic policy will only be one of the hot topics likely to be broached at the Congress. The ANC has held a series of workshops and seminars on range of issues, generating a succession of "discussion papers," and encouraging various notables to staked out positions in speeches and statements. For example, the current National Executive will probably support a set of constitutional revisions that call for a longer term for executive members and seek to strengthen leadership authority by prohibiting ANC members from contesting public office and internal organizational elections without official sponsorship.

Notwithstanding Kader Asmal's protestations that this restriction is merely to ensure procedural orderliness, many delegates will probably interpret the measure as a high-handed effort by leadership to ensure positions are held by cooperative functionaries. Such delegates will certainly note that this move comes after a bruising provincial election in Gauteng when so-called "Africanist" Mathole Motshekga triumphed in the poll for regional chairman (and implicitly premier) over Frank Chikane, an associate of Thabo Mbeki!

Regional tensions

Regional tensions are also evident in Northern Provincial premier Ngoaka Ramatholdi's recommendations for a non-partisan civil service. Ironically, his complaints do not arise from the behaviour of left-over conservatives from the old bureaucracy but rather the partisan - and in the case of his province, often mutinous - disposition of ANC political appointees to the administration. The government's habit of "redeploying" inconvenient people across positions in the political organization, legislatures, public service and parastatals has also raised hackles: victims of this strategy included Terror Lekota who was moved out of the Free State premiership after he attempted to clean up corruption in his administration, and a sequence of ambassadorial appointments which have taken some of the most effective left-wingers out of parliament and the ANC's own bureaucracy.

Feelings will be running particularly high amongst Mpumalanga delegates who have witnessed an unseemly bit of bullying from the presidential office compelling provincial premier Matthews Phosa to stand down from the race for the deputy presidency to allow Natal ANC chairman Jacob Zuma a clear run against Winnie Madikezela-Mandela. Phosa has barely concealed his resentment and a bitter speech this month attacked the ANC's leaders for failing to keep in touch with the organization's social base.

Phosa will have plenty of sympathy: Jacob Zuma's ascendancy within the hierarchy confirms the continuing predisposition at the top towards a pecking order based on generational seniority and an exile track record. Zuma is almost invisible publicly; highly reticent, he has hardly appeared on television and does little to court public opinion. Insiders suggest he is man of high integrity with good negotiation skills, and an impressive liberation pedigree.

But that may not be good enough. As ANC members showed in the Gauteng provincial elections, "struggle records" seem to matter less and less nowadays. Motshekga's membership of the ANC dates only from 1991; before then his public life was mainly confined to running legal aid clinics in Pretoria. His popularity stems from assiduous networking among ANC local councils (he heads the local government portfolio committee in the Gauteng legislature), from the resentment among East Rand and Pretoria branches at what they view as Soweto dominance of the regional executive, and from his strong line in tough street-wise rhetoric, evident for example in his calls for a revival of "people's courts" to deal with neighbourhood crime.

The Winnie Factor

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela can take heart from Motshekga's elevation, for she too is busy mobilizing grass roots disaffection, with contemptuous utterances about her husband's niggardliness over her divorce settlement (she jetted off to the United States the day it was meant to be negotiated), condemnations of GEAR, and a call for a referendum on the death penalty - in which she has joined forces with the community vigilante group PAGAD and the National Party's unappetizing new leader, Marthinus van Schalkwyk.

Not that all the populists at the ANC conference will line up with Madikizela-Mandela and the left against GEAR, however. Peter Mokaba, the former Youth League president who used to delight audiences at ANC rallies with his rendering of the Umkhonto anthem, "kill the settlers, kill the boers," has, since his appointment to the deputy ministry of tourism, become almost sedate. Not quite, though. His contribution to the internal ANC policy debate is embodied in a discussion paper that calls for the NEC to be broadened to include all members of the cabinet as well as their deputies; reminds the ANC about what he believes to be the organization's historical commitment to the values of free market capitalism (Mokaba himself is no slouch in this regard; in four years he became a millionaire through his ownership of a string of hairdressing salons); and attacks COSATU for its "left-wing childishness" in discussing the possible formation of a left-wing party. Mokaba is also sharply critical of the Communist Party, complaining of the propensity of its leaders to agree to one course of action in ANC executive meetings and then subsequently criticize ANC policies when wearing their central committee hats.

Here Mokaba has touched a raw nerve. While not all ANC principals will share his ideological antipathy to the Communist Party, there is plenty of evident irritation about the way in which SACP, notwithstanding the presence of many of its members in government and ANC leadership, has distanced itself from government policies. To be fair, SACP trade unionists have worked hard to keep COSATU within the Alliance fold, and while its ideologues are corrosively dismissive of recent ANC formulations about the "golden triangle" of labour, state and capital, they themselves have tended to adopt a middle position between COSATU's advocacy of a full blown welfare state and the government's fiscal conservatism. The SACP Central Committee's list of "strategic priorities" includes intricately qualified language about the need to retain the sympathies of a "patriotic black bourgeoisie" which otherwise might be lost to a new ruling bloc of local monopolists acting in conjunction with international capital, as well as the need for a "developmental state" adopting some of the liberal precepts of "good governance."

At the conference

How will all these currents play themselves out at the conference? The Youth League used to be considered a king-maker and agenda setter, but its leadership seems closely aligned with the deputy-president's office, the main centre of ANC and government decision-making. The League was persuaded to switch its support for Mbeki's successor from Phosa to Zuma, and there have been few expressions of dissent from this quarter over GEAR. Its personable president, Malusi Giqaba, with his master's qualification in public policy from Durban-Westville exemplifies the new "African Renaissance" technocratic elite which an ANC under Thabo Mbeki can be expected to promote [see following story]. Meanwhile, the Women's League, torn apart by allegations and counter accusations over the misappropriation of funds, is set to back its president, Madikizela-Mandela, who can summon an impressive bloc of delegate support from the Guateng squatter camps whenever her ascendancy over the League is threatened.

Still, the most important delegate battalions will be from the ANC's provincial organizations, and of these the most powerful are those of the Eastern Cape (703 delegates) and the Northern Province (408). Notwithstanding advance resolutions indicating support for Zuma, the electoral ballots will be secret and the simmering anger of delegates from these two poorest and worst governed provinces may boil over, not just in expressions of support for Madikizela-Mandela (highly popular in the old Transkei) but also in bitter antipathy to government "right-sizing" that has trimmed tens of thousands of jobs off the public payroll in these regions. Moreover, executive's dispatch of members of the parliamentary caucus to their assigned "constituencies" to bring the branches into line may not be the most effective discipline. MPs themselves are demoralized by overbearing ministers in portfolio committees and an executive intolerance of any expression of back-bencher independence.

Predicting the outcome to any contests at Mafeking is at best an uncertain undertaking and there is plenty of evidence of ANC principals hedging their bets: the resurfacing of the ANC's visceral anti-Americanism in the recent spat over the Libyan state visit was a case in point. But if the awkward combination of the labour left and the street populists make inroads into the ANC executive, as seems quite likely, than we should expect a swift declutching on the government's commitment to GEAR macroeconomics. That will be good news for the promoters of the new "non racial" Holomisa/Meyer UDM consortium for they can expect to pick up support from the one group which is least likely to be strongly represented amongst grass roots delegates: that is, the people who have been to date the prime beneficiaries of ANC policies, the rapidly expanding African managerial and business class. (Their interests are also still in the balance in the debates over the Basic Conditions of Employment Bill, for example.)

ANC leaders may be willing to reconsider the wisdom of "neo-liberal" economic policies which are set to deliver only a paltry 2.7 per cent growth rate next year, but a discernible swing to the left might well alienate the kinds of people to whom Peter Mokaba's views seem to be directed. As the proceedings of this conference will indicate, sustaining a middle class alliance with the world's fastest growing labour movement is a tall order. In December, traditional considerations of unity and discipline will probably win out, if narrowly; Nelson Mandela's charismatic authority will be on tap to ensure that. But after his departure charisma will be in shorter supply.

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