Power Struggle Pushes ANC Factions to Naked Hostility

Jonathan Clayton, London Times, December 18, 2007

A second day of ill-tempered chaos marred attempts by the African National Congress to elect a new leader and sparked warnings of “anarchy” if the populist Jacob Zuma won later today.

Voting by 4,000 delegates was delayed again by arguments over procedure as party elders lamented the unprecedented mob-like scenes and bitterness that have dominated the party conference.

Tensions between the factions of Mr Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, burst to the surface as they were confirmed as the only two leadership candidates. With a huge display of grassroots support for the populist Mr Zuma, Mr Mbeki now looks certain to be toppled from the leadership this evening.

Pro-Zuma candidates for the top six jobs on the ANC’s National Executive Committee received loud cheers while the names of Mr Mbeki’s allies were met with silence and occasional boos.

Jubilant Zuma supporters made circular movements with their hands, like professional footballers indicating that it was time for a substitution. “This is nothing more than a grassroots rebellion,” one delegate said.

Mr Zuma, a controversial populist who has portrayed himself as the champion of the poor, will now be in pole position to become South Africa’s third black president in national elections due in 2009.

Voting will begin early today. The result is expected before the end of the day, but many of Mr Mbeki’s closest aides appeared to accept that the battle was lost. A former aide of Mr Mbeki told The Times that he believed the unruly scenes had cost Mr Zuma some votes but that he would still win.

“Zuma represents everything that is negative about modern South Africa—corruption, mob rule, sexism and violence against women,” he said.

Earlier tensions between different factions once more burst to the surface. Supporters of both men jeered and taunted each other outside the main conference venue—a huge white tent on the grounds of the University of Limpopo at Polokwane. ANC security men watched carefully, ready to intervene if needed to prevent any clashes.

The stakes are high. The ANC leader is virtually assured of being the ruling party’s candidate at the next national elections in 2009—a poll the ANC is certain to win given its total grip on national and local power only 13 years after the end of apartheid.

Mr Mbeki fired Mr Zuma in 2005 as the country’s deputy president after he was linked to an arms bribery scandal. He kept his ANC position, however, after corruption charges against him were dropped on a technicality. He also beat a separate rape charge last year, but admitted having unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman half his age. His supporters maintain that he was a victim of a plot by Mr Mbeki’s followers, who fear losing power and influence when their champion steps down.

The ANC once prided itself on its discipline and ability to present a united front. This election—the first time the party’s top post has been contested in 55 years—has been marked by bitterness. Since the conference opened on Sunday, it has been marred by ugly scenes. Senior ANC figures were unable to command the floor and were frequently booed. Delegates loyal to Mr Zuma booed Cabinet ministers and top party figures close to Mr Mbeki as they took their seats on the leadership rostrum.

Despite a ban on T-shirts with slogans supporting either candidate, pro-Zuma delegates smuggled in posters that they waved above their heads and frequently burst into Mshini Wami (Bring me my machinegun), the struggle song associated with Mr Zuma, a former leader of the ANC military wing.

When Mr Mbeki delivered his keynote speech and emphasised the need for the party to close ranks, he was met with shouts of “too late, too late”.

Mluleki George, a Cabinet minister and close ally of the President, voiced what many others were clearly thinking when he said that Zuma supporters were “demonstrating before they get to power that there is going to be anarchy” if they succeed. The rand sank to a three-week low yesterday.

Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC spokesman, said the atmosphere of hostility and distrust was not in keeping with the tradition of the party. “The organisation is going through deep strain—this is not what we have to come to expect at ANC gatherings,” he said.

Long road

—The South African Native National Congress was founded in 1912 to fight for the rights of the black population. It changed its name to the African National Congress in 1923

—The ANC was banned from 1960 to 1990 by the Afrikaner National Party

—Nelson Mandela led the ANC to victory in the first multiracial elections in 1994

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