Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA) – Some of the ruling party’s senior leaders vying for the positions of ANC president and deputy president respectively
By Bheki Mngomezulu
In December 2022, the ANC will hold its 55th National Conference in Nasrec, Johannesburg. At this conference, the ANC will not only adopt the policies it ventilated in July this year. It will also elect its new leadership. It is this new leadership that will take the ANC to the much anticipated 2024 general election.
Coincidentally, it was at the same venue [Nasrec] where the current and outgoing leadership was elected in December 2017. In a way, the venue should serve as a reminder of the mandate that was given to the current leadership by the ANC delegates. Importantly, meeting at this venue should also give the outgoing leadership an opportunity to reflect on how they have individually and collectively served the ANC.
As the leadership race gains momentum and as the day of the National Conference comes closer, a few developments have become discernible. One of them is that each candidate has started to do anything and everything to increase his or her chances to emerge victorious.
Those who are promoting their campaigns are already using every trick in the book to ensure that their candidates win.
In the context of democratic practice, there is nothing sinister or untoward about such activities. However, the guiding principle is that all the campaigns have to be run fairly and within the confines of the law. This would ensure that whoever emerges victorious does not have to constantly look at his or her back knowing that their victory neither came in a fair manner nor was it clean.
One of the noticeable developments recently is that character assassination has gained impetus. The aim of this strategy is to discredit candidates (both already known and potential candidates) so that they could be frowned upon and despised by conference delegates. This goal is achieved through dirty tricks, ploys, inuendo, half-truths and blatant lies.
Some of the people who sustain these strategies do so deliberately and consciously. These are the people who orchestrate the character assassination agenda. But there are also those who find themselves joining the bandwagon of either promoting certain individuals or discrediting others unconsciously and without basing their actions on any substance.
To illuminate this assertion, I will enumerate a few cases which affect some of the politicians who are seen as serious contenders for different leadership positions in December.
In 2017, of all the six ANC leaders who competed against now President Cyril Ramaphosa, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is one leader who irrefutably gave Ramaphosa a good run for his money. She went toe-to-toe with Ramaphosa until the very last minute. Had it not been for now Deputy President DD Mabuza who enabled Ramaphosa to claim victory with a mere 179 votes, Dlamini-Zuma would have won.
Now that her name has once again been proposed to run for the presidency of the ANC, it is interesting to note that criticisms against her have resurfaced. One of the accusations is that she cannot be the leader of the ANC because she is the former wife of former President Zuma. This is cheap politics. Candidates should be judged on merit and not their past and/or present association with certain individuals. Using Dlamini Zuma’s previous marriage amounts to political parochialism meant to promote unfair competition.
Recently, Dlamini Zuma made her views public that she finds the ANC’s “step aside” resolution to be counter-productive. Some applauded her for making the point which many other South Africans have made. The reality is that the resolution contravenes the national constitution which states that someone is assumed innocent until proven guilty by a court of law. Secondly, the manner in which this resolution is being implemented creates the impression that it is being used to purge certain members and to prevent them from contesting positions at the ANC’s conference in December.
Dlamini Zuma’s detractors use this to tarnish her image. They advance a wrong narrative that she is pro-corruption because she wants to condone those who are accused of corrupt activities. The fact that other members of the public raise the same concern does not seem to bother the people who are determined to destroy Dlamini Zuma’s political image.
Dr Zweli Mkhize’s name has also been nominated to run for the presidency of the ANC. His detractors push the narrative that he cannot lead the ANC because he was implicated in the Digital Vibes saga. The fact that the Parliamentary Ethics Committee cleared him and the fact that no formal charges have been laid against him do not see to matter to Dr Mkhize’s political opponents.
In fact, those who push this narrative can be accused of double standard. Ramaphosa is in the same situation. The Phala Phala matter is still hanging over his head. However, he has not yet been formally charged. Therefore, he remains eligible to be elected in December. If Ramaphosa is eligible, then Mkhize too is eligible. In the same vein, if one of them does not qualify to contest, the same should apply to both of them.
The name of Lindiwe Sisulu has been mentioned in different quarters as one of the potential candidates at the December conference. Those who want to discredit her make a number of accusations. Among others, they argue that she suffers from a sense of entitlement just because her parents (Walter and Albertina Sisulu) were well-known politicians.
Recently, Sisulu went to see John Block, an ANC politician who is serving a 15-year sentence for corruption. Her version of the story was that Block was denied an early release during the Covid-19 pandemic. Instead, foreign nationals were released. She also complained that she was denied permission to visit Block – an accusation which correctional services officials deny.
While this seems to be an issue which has nothing to do with her ambition for a leadership position, there are those who are using it to dent Sisulu’s political image. Firstly, they accuse her of embracing corrupt leaders. Secondly, they accuse her of disrespecting correctional services officials on the one hand and wanting Block to enjoy preferential treatment on the other. Whether this is true or not, those who propagate this view do not care. Their agenda is to portray Sisulu as less of a cadre and thus not deserving a leadership position at the ANC’s December conference.
Ordinarily, elections for leadership positions should follow a fair process. Candidates should be assessed based on their leadership credentials, not insinuation, inuendo, ploys, dirty tricks and deliberate misrepresentation of facts about such individuals. But, lately, these practices seem to dominate the political landscape.
There is serious danger in this practice. Wrong people might end up being elected into leadership positions even if they do not deserve such positions. As long as someone has a team that plays dirty tricks and tarnishes the image of potential contenders, such a person has the propensity to win.
At the same time, a deserving individual might be left out there in the cold because certain people have damaged his or her image publicly. In the process, the party (ANC) might end up being led by people who lack leadership prowess and vision. The ripple effect of this is that if the ANC were to contest elections in 2024 led by such incapable leaders who ascend to power through treacherous means, it is the ANC that will lose votes.
Given this context, it is of cardinal importance for the ANC to do anything and everything to mitigate this practice. The vilification of ANC members who are vying for positions does not only dent their political image. Such activities also tarnish the image of the ANC as an organisation. Dirty tricks, ploys and innuendo create divisions and also deeply entrench factionalism which has already weakened the ANC.
There are different options that the ANC needs to consider. One option is to issue a memorandum from its headquarters at Luthuli House and inform all provinces that anyone found engaging in such activities will be reprimanded. The second option would be to refer such cases to the party’s Integrity Commission. Thirdly, the ANC could establish an ad hoc committee with a specific mandate to deal with those who spread wrong information about fellow members or deliberately misinterpret certain activities with the aim of disadvantaging potential contenders for different positions in December.
Should the ANC fold its arms and do nothing about the current state of affairs, the party’s rebuilding and re-unification processes will remain a mirage. Those who are currently at the helm of the ANC are already being blamed for the party’s dwindling support and disunity.
Therefore, they should take the lead in correcting the present practice of pitting party members against one another through lies and false accusations. If the ANC were to die under their watch, history will judge them harshly. The current leadership should desist from behaving like spectators.
Bheki Mngomezulu is Professor of Politics and Deputy Dean of Research at the University of the Western Cape.