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Time for ANC old guard to step aside

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Graphic: Timothy Alexander / African News Agency (ANA)

By Professor Sipho Seepe

The outcomes of the ANC leadership tussle are largely predictable. You could easily guess about which 70% of individuals would make it to its national executive committee (NEC).

As fate would have it, the same individuals who were at the forefront of Struggle were entrusted with the responsibility of running the post-1994 state machinery. This development was to be expected. After all, the masses had repeatedly stated their leaders were either in prison or in exile. In ANC parlance, leadership must come from those that can boast Struggle credentials. They must have been “tried and tested”.

This thinking gave us Rolihlahla Mandela (prison), Thabo Mbeki (exile), Gedleyihlekisa Zuma (prison and exile). Unlike his predecessors, Ramaphosa was a product of the ANC’s internal mass movement. There was a foreboding that exiles were too eager to negotiate with the regime.

Ramaphosa represented the legitimate frustrations of those who felt that leadership should emerge from those that confronted the military might of apartheid on a daily basis. Madiba was accused of being frozen in time in his outlook and vocabulary. Prison had softened him, it was argued.

The jury is still out on whether Ramaphosa is or was a stooge for big business. Except for a handful of new entrants here and there, the electoral process of the ANC has tended to recycle the same individuals. Invariably, the recycling finds expression in the executive. Bereft of infusion of new ideas, we can expect more of the same.

Given the dim prospect of gainful employment outside political deployment, the post-1994 mandarins have become modern-day gatekeepers who are prepared to do whatever it takes to cling to their gilded positions. The recycled grouping has become far too invested in its material well-being to expect it to hold a wayward president accountable.

Picture: EPA – Members of the ANC Youth League protest against an anti-ANC march to Luthuli House in Johannesburg in 2016. The representation of 25% of young people in the national executive committee is not enough to give youth the muscle to effect the change required in the governing party, says the writer.

It was just a matter of time that the formula and internal logic that the ANC in electing leadership would be found to be anachronistic. Struggle credentials have proved to be inadequate skill sets to deal with the complexities and contradictions of competently stewarding and proficiently managing a democratic dispensation.

The electoral committee of the ANC was tasked to cure this inadequacy. In keeping with the notion of a mass-based party, the electoral committee resolved that “the NEC should also reflect a generational mix and recognise the importance of including young people in leadership positions. We must strive to achieve an NEC with at least 25% of members being young people”.

This determination is in keeping with the ubiquitous refrain “nothing about us, without us”. On its own the call for generational mix is itself a form of protest. Young people are of the view that the older generation has failed to faithfully advance their interests. The call for youthful representation is emboldened by developments in other countries.

Sanna Marin of Finland rose to prominence when she became the prime minister at the age of 34 in 2019. Carlos Alvarado Quesada was elected president of Costa Rica in 2018 at the age 38. Jacinda Ardern became the youngest prime minister of New Zealand in 2017 at the age of 37. Nayib Bukele was elected president of El Salvador in 2019 at the age of 37. Georgia’s Prime Minister Mamuka Bakhtadze assumed office at the age of 36 in 2018.

The argument behind generational mix is not any different to that which has been advanced by feminist movements. This has resulted in the rule requiring that at least “50% of nominees and elected members must be women”. At an intuitive level, no one can argue against this.

Youthful representation also makes sense (something missing) at a political level.

South Africa has a demographically youthful population with nearly 38 million constituting its total population estimated to be 58.8 million. Slightly more than half of this youthful population (about 17.84 million) is eligible to vote.

The insistence of ensuring a generational mix is aimed at capturing this voting segment of the country’s population.

For the ANC Youth League, this is also a tactical manoeuvre to ensure that some of its members move up the ranks.

Beyond the optics that come with representation, there are several dangers that must be factored before popping the champagne.

First, the inclusion of women and youth would not necessarily guarantee an ideological shift in politics. It depends on whose terms and agenda is this being done.

Without questioning the logic that informs the structures, systems and processes, the inclusion of youth and women may serve little purpose in changing the dynamics of our politics.

Systems have their own internal logic. They also have in-built mechanisms that ensure that they reproduce themselves. One of the mechanisms is to enlist the services of the former oppressed into the ranks.

The former oppressed, now wearing ANC minted regalia, turn out to be the great and spirited enforcers of regulations that they once fought against. For instance, young people took it upon themselves to embark on the process of dismantling the offensive symbols of oppression in their places of learning.

The so-called renowned black scholars had made peace with and resigned themselves to tolerating oppressive symbols of apartheid colonialism in their midst. Some of these scholars pride themselves in being affirmed in these spaces. They represent the modern-day Uncle Toms.

Second, while greater generational representation is a move in the right direction, the representation of 25% would not give the youth the necessary critical mass or muscle to effect the change required.

The danger is that they may end up being swamped not only by numbers but also by the perks that come with the positions. So far, other than parties like the EFF, the political consciousness of young people in the ANC, seems to be shaped by the older generation. For now the ruling party is more concerned with staying in office than in advancing any radical change.

Third, it is doubtful that structures like Parliament are the right forums to effect any radical change. Modern parliamentary politics has been perfected to work the system and not to welcome new thoughts and newcomers within. Any change that has occurred has come from the outside.

Both the #FeesMustFall and the #RhodesMustFall movements led to major changes in the funding of higher education, and also in how to treat offensive symbols of apartheid. It is also doubtful that the country’s historic injustices, such as land reclamation, will come through structures whose design was meant to disempower the majority.

At best, Parliament exists as a place of containment of radical thought.

There is no substitute for mass mobilisation and mass action to effect lasting change. For young people to be relevant, they have to change the discourse and the terms of engagement of the spaces they occupy.

It may well be necessary to change the terrain of engagement. In this regard, those in the ruling party may discover that their party has outlived its purpose. The party has proven inept to take the struggle for total emancipation to the next level. They must heed Audre Lorde’s advice that the “master’s tools will not dismantle the master’s house”.

Young people may be the catalyst to unlock the political logjam the ANC finds itself in. Movements of the people have always been changed by younger people who speak up. The history of the ANC, and that of the Struggle in general attest to this.

As matters stand, the ANC risks fizzling into political oblivion. It has become unsure of its ideological location. It is this lack of ideological rootedness that has opened it to capitalist capture.

Seepe is the Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Institutional Support at the University of Zululand.