Reinventing the ANC means more than simply dumping Zuma – Business Day, 12 January 2015

Will the ANC dump Zuma? Until it does so, it is unlikely to reinvent itself.

By John Kane-Berman 

JUDGING by newspaper editorials and op-ed commentary, the question already uppermost on many people’s minds this year is whether the African National Congress (ANC) can "reinvent itself" and/or go through some kind of "intellectual renaissance". This would include rooting out corruption, ceasing to abuse institutions such as the intelligence and prosecuting authorities and reversing the decline of the state.

Even before President Jacob Zuma came to power, the South African Institute of Race Relations asked whether he would be able to "fix the failing state". Incompetence in public health and education, the police and elsewhere had already gone far enough for the question to be asked when Thabo Mbeki was still at the helm.

In retrospect, we were naive to surmise that Zuma might fix things, because they have worsened under his rule: never-ending failures in local government, the slide of corruption, the politicisation and prostitution of intelligence agencies, growing police brutality, and the torpedoing of executive accountability to Parliament.

Some of those who called us doomsayers then are themselves now publicly wringing their hands about Zuma. They still don’t get it. For the problem is not Zuma, so much as his party’s actions.

Mbeki could not have persisted with his inhuman policies towards the victims of HIV/AIDS without the support of his party. The investigation into the arms deal by the standing committee on public accounts could not have been subverted without the support of the ANC. And the ANC is up to its neck in covering up malfeasance over Nkandla.

Whether political parties can reinvent themselves is an intriguing question. Powerful leaders in the UK cajoled their parties into adopting new and radically different policies such as privatisation (Margaret Thatcher) and the renunciation of nationalisation (Tony Blair). Subsequently, their parties have in many ways reverted to type.

Mikhail Gorbachev could save the Russian economy only by destroying his party. Likewise, FW de Klerk in SA. He did not wish to destroy the National Party. Nor did he reinvent it so much as use it to push through unavoidable political liberalisation.

Leaders reluctant to change can be forced to do so by parliaments. Apart from a few prescient doomsayers led by Winston Churchill, the British House of Commons enthusiastically endorsed prime minister Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement after his visit to Adolf Hitler in September 1938, only to reverse itself a year later and force him to declare war against Germany. A few days later, SA’s parliament rejected prime minister Barry Hertzog’s neutrality proposal and also voted for war.

Zuma is not the man to change the ANC, or even some of its main policies, because they are key to his power. Nor is there much in the ANC’s parliamentary track record over HIV/AIDS, the arms deal, or Nkandla to suggest it will call him to account. However, the party did get rid of Mbeki over his economic policies.

Will it dump Zuma? Until it does so, it is unlikely to reinvent itself. But if it were to sack him, would it abandon cadre deployment, rule by Luthuli House, affirmative action, and the steady extension of state control? Getting rid of Zuma is only half the battle reinvention would require.

• Kane-Berman is a consultant at the South African Institute of Race Relations.

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