They don’t understand ANC processes, lamented Nomvula Mokonyane, the party’s elections chief, when it came to the violent protests in Tshwane this past week.
The protests, which brought the capital city to a standstill and will cost millions in damages, as well as costing at least five lives, were ostensibly a bad reaction by the populace to the idea that incumbent mayor Kgosientso “Sputla” Ramokgopa would be replaced by someone flown in by the Gauteng leadership.
Of course the story is not as simple as that, as our reports this week show: there is, in reality, a network of factions, forces and interests at play that have led to the unedifying spectacle of fire in the streets and municipal buses being torched.
If, as Mokonyane says, the riotous mobs don’t understand ANC processes, that surely is largely the ANC’s fault. Did the party not explain to its constituents how the business of mayors and local government elections work, as it went about signing up potential voters and campaigning for an ANC victory? Did it just leave it to patronage, local interest groups, tribal affiliations and the politics of the “Big Man” to assemble some kind of power structure? It looks like it did, and now the ANC has to try to untangle this mess. Characteristically, it did so with a top-down placement supposed to sweep aside the warring factions and “unite” the party at local level – and, characteristically, such an action made it all worse.
A large part of the ANC’s success at the polls, historically, has been the bottom-up leadership that comes from its branches “on the ground”. It helped to develop wide buy-in for policy decisions and leadership choices. But, as the Mail & Guardian has reported for some time, the party’s internal democracy processes are in as deep a crisis as the local-government offices that the ANC, along with other parties, will be trying to fill in August’s elections.
In January this year we reported that the ANC’s national executive committee had set itself up for a showdown with the party’s provincial structures, which were already, seven months ahead of the poll, deeply opposed to the decision to have mayors of the country’s metros and strategic districts appointed by the party’s top brass. Six months later, those tensions have exploded in the most brutal possible way, leading to the worst pre-election violence South Africa has seen since 1994.
We have watched in dismay as Tshwane burned; we have tried to find the telling details that will help us to understand the reasons why. Was the violence an “orchestrated” attack, as the ANC brass says? If so, who co-ordinated it? The proximate causes of the violence and destruction need to be untangled. But the deep-rooted reasons for this situation also have to be uncovered, and one of them is that the weakening of the ANC’s internal democracy is a bigger threat to its future than any opposition – or any conspiracy from within.