Is the ANC its own harshest critic?

by The Editor

FEATURE: President Zuma’s election as ANC President ushered in a new era in ANC politics. Gone were the days of tight party discipline and the seemingly unified, focused communication that defined Mbeki’s reign. Now it openly and, on a regular basis, criticises itself – often in the harshest terms. Unfortunately, it has little to do with improvement and everything to do with political posturing and so, in the run-up to Mangaung, we can expect more of it, not less.

Is the ANC its own harshest critic?

By: Gareth van Onselen

11 May 2012


Under President Thabo Mbeki internal party discipline was enforced with an iron fist. Woe betide anyone who spoke out of turn, certainly anyone who spoke out publicly against the President. Supported by a coterie of ideological thugs, inside and outside the ANC, and backed by an almost wholly united party, in the early 2000s Mbeki’s line was the line and anyone who stepped across it faced the prospect of vilification if not exile.

I remember the Sunday Times’ rather ominous description of Essop Pahad, Mbeki’s own Consigliere, in 2000:

“Pahad is Thabo Mbeki’s main man in parliament… His reputation as someone who ‘fixes’ things for the President comes from Pahad’s deep loyalty to Mbeki and the resulting knowledge within the ANC caucus that he has both the ear and the trust of South Africa’s most powerful man.”

From the Arms Deal through Zimbabwe through HIV/Aids, it was the kind of enforcement Pahad provided that gave the President so much room to fill with all kinds of nonsense, safe in the knowledge any dissent was to paint on one’s forehead a very large target. With friends like these, who needs enemies, the saying goes.

As the former President’s grip on power slowly slipped, however, so internal unhappiness – suppressed, contained and controlled for so long – began to break free and spread like wild fire.

The tipping point and beyond

There is a strong case to be made the tipping the point was an off-the-cuff remark by then-Deputy Minister if Health Nozizwe Madlala-Routledge to the Daily Dispatch in July 2007, that the condition of Mount Frere hospital in the Eastern Cape constituted “a national emergency”.

She was fired, and while Mbeki’s standard operating procedure inevitably followed – internal disciplinary action together with public condemnation in ANC Today – one had the sense something had changed. Soon afterwards Mbeki himself was removed from office and like a kettle with the lid pressed down, Polokwane released all that steam that had built up for years; and it burst free, spitting and frothing everywhere.

The ANC of today is a very different organisation, fractured and fundamentally split down the middle. Because of this – and coupled with Jacob Zuma’s charismatic approach to leadership (one would hardly describe him as a disciplinarian) – regularly now one reads about senior ANC members inside and outside government, past and present, berating the ANC for its shoddy performance.

Just last month Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga would tell the Sunday Times the Eastern Cape Education Department was “a horror story”. Madlala-Routledge must have had a quiet laugh when she read that.

Trevor Manuel has come to define the trend, using a series of platforms over the past year to launch a wide range of attacks on the ANC and its governments.

• “The [government] bureaucracy resists giving information to people, especially when communities have little voice and are marginalized. They cite every excuse in the book and when they are forced to provide such information, they often sabotage the collection of accurate information.”
• “In South Africa, in general, and there are several noticeable exceptions, we are failing quality services to the poorest of the poor.”
• “… I can talk for hours citing examples of poor service delivery or, in some cases, complete dysfunctionality in service delivery in poor communities. Most of you would know that poor service delivery almost always affects the poorest of the poor and the most marginalized.”
• “We have people in middle-management positions that lack experience and competence. This is due to poor selection procedures, a dearth of skills in the country and in some cases, political interference in appointments.”
• “We allow what used to keep us together [during the struggle] to let people do as they please. We should not tolerate corruption, it is wrong, it is stealing from the poor.”
• “We must accept that, despite the adequate allocation of funding, we fail to deliver quality services, especially to the poor…. We perform poorly, even by our own standards…”

These are serious and damning indictments, not the subtle inference that normally defines the ANC’s political rhetoric. The list goes on. Most famously, in an open letter to Jimmy Manyi, Manuel would write “I have a sense that your racism has infiltrated the highest echelons of government”. A frank admission if ever there was one.

Many others have adopted a similar approach to Manuel, their new found freedom to speak out without serious consequence like a drug once denied but now freely available. And they have indulged it almost at will.

Past members would come forth to criticise Mbeki too, as if offering up a confession on a Sunday morning, desperate for the world’s forgiveness for their years of complicit silence.

“Why did I not speak before? I should have, I should have spoken as an internationalist who invoked international campaigning for apartheid South Africa”, Kader Asmal would bemoan about Zimbabwe.

It is the forthrightness of these sorts of appraisals that is remarkable. Consider then-ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe’s comment to the Financial Mail about corruption in the ANC:

“This rot is across the board. It’s not confined to any level or any area of the country. Almost every project is conceived because it offers opportunities for certain people to make money. A great deal of the ANC’s problems are occasioned by this. There are people who want to take it over so they can arrange for the appointment of those who will allow them possibilities for future accumulation.”

A defining description in my opinion.

Even President Zuma has offered up a few such gems, saying without any irony and soon after taking office that “The simple truth is that we face a crisis of accountability. In some of our front and back offices are employed men and women who do not respect the jobs they are employed in or the citizens they are appointed to perform for.”

Legislation too is up for grabs. The ‘secrecy bill’ has been condemned not only by Cosatu (which, now fully vested in the Zuma Presidency in a way they never were with Mbeki, have likewise let forth a stream of criticism about the ANC and corruption in particular) but by numerous former ministers too, including Ronnie Kasrils, who has labelled it “anachronistic” and reminiscent of the policies of apartheid South Africa. That sort of thing would never have happened under Mbeki.

Indeed, one of the tightest ships he ran was controlling the alliance, its public positions and statements.

In a 2004 edition SA Today Tony Leon recalled the following story:

“By the mid-1990s the ANC had acquired a reputation for possessing a strong culture of internal debate. Jeremy Cronin, the SACP intellectual, claimed in February 1998 that “robust democracy within the ANC and its alliance had been far more effective in fostering answerability” than the efforts of the political opposition.

However, in 2002 Cronin made the error of openly voicing concern at the tightening grip of President Mbeki over the ANC, and at the consequent disappearance of that culture of internal debate and discussion. For this Cronin was hauled before the ANC National Executive Committee and, under the threat of expulsion from the party, forced to issue a humiliating and unqualified apology for his remarks.”

Today Cronin, together with Blade Nzimande, revel in the space afforded to the SACP, regularly criticising the culture of personal entitlement and self enrichment that has come to define the ANC post 1999.

I haven’t even begun to set out Julius Malema’s seemingly never-ending stream of abuse directed at his own party and its leadership.

With Mangaung lurking on the horizon, there is thus every reason to expect more, not less, of this kind of thing. I was struck by a recent speech delivered by KwaZulu-Natal ANC provincial chairperson Zweli Mkhize on ‘the state of the ANC in KZN’. You can read it here. It is devastating. He outlines ten or so “emerging challenges” facing the party. They include: an “uncontrollable desire to accumulate wealth”, “greed and scramble for resources”, “ill-discipline and emergence of a culture of defiance and disrespect of leadership”, “gossip mongering, spreading lies and disinformation”, “sowing seeds of division and conflict to disrupt structures”, “manipulation of autonomy of structures”, “unprincipled fight for positions” and the “use of government positions or business profits” to “undermine democratic processes”.

A list so long and so comprehensive after reading it one left with little more than the distinct impression this is a party in absolute crisis.


One’s first inclination, on assessing all of this, is to conclude it is a good thing. And so far as it is healthy not to suppress criticism, that would be true. But no party can realistically function properly in an environment defined by self-abuse. The ANC spends much time suggesting institutions such as the media, even the judiciary, are some sort of third force, the unofficial opposition to the ANC, but there is just as strong a case to be made that the ANC is its own harshest critic.

That can only ever damage its reputation. And it’s just bad politics. If one strings together bits and pieces from that very limited selection of quotes above, we are talking about a fundamentally corrupt, uniformly unaccountable, poorly performing, anachronistic, racist party that, especially, has failed to deliver to the poor. Those aren’t my words. It’s how the ANC describes itself.

Of course the solution is not to have so much to be critical about. But that’s just the thing – the very freedom to speak out the ANC now enjoys is not the consequence of its transition from revolutionary force to democratic political party, but rather the failure of its own Stalinist-like policies, none of which it shows any signs of wanting to change. As the division becomes more entrenched so any self-directed criticism is perceived by those inside the ANC as having less and less to do with identifying best practice and more and more to do with denigrating one faction or another. To cut a long story short, criticism is not given to help improve but to help divide. At least that is its practical effect.

Criticism of the ANC by its own has become a political weapon. Its ability to help re-calibrate and move forward lost on a party that is too busy indulging its own self-loathing.

It would be very interesting, although impossible, to poll ANC members and ask them to rate the performance of their own party and government. Based on its public attitude, it wouldn’t fair well at all. And that tells you much.

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