Marius Oosthuizen
Marius Oosthuizen

The assassination of Shaka the unifier is a lesson for the ANC

South Africans celebrate the enigmatic historical figure of Shaka Zulu, the military revolutionary who rose from illegitimacy to be a unifying monarch who used alliances and the occasional judicial assassination to build a Zulu powerhouse on South Africa’s east coast in the 1800s. Ironically, while Shaka’s use of military power, diplomacy and patronage succeeded at bringing multiple chiefdoms under his rule, his own murder eventually came from within his family. He was bludgeoned to death by his half-brothers Dingane and Mhlangana, aided by an iNduna or advisor of Shaka called Mbopa, who created the necessary distraction for the betrayal. Shaka had created a facade of unity among his people but this masked longstanding rivalries and treachery. Shaka’s reputation was that of a unifier but his legacy was a divided people who could not be held together by tribal identity alone.

There is an interesting parallel between the role of Shaka in the Kingdom of KwaZulu Natal and the era of Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma in the tri-partide alliance of which the African National Congress (ANC) is central. Jacob Zuma came to power on the promise of unifying the alliance partners in the wake of disgruntlement with President Thabo Mbeki. The union federation under Zwelinzima Vavi’s leadership was increasingly vocal and critical of economic policy, the youth under Julius Malema had lost faith in the mother body and the communist party under Blade Nzimande was silently critical of the dominance of the ANC in the alliance. Through a rowdy coup de’tat president Zuma grabbed the sceptre from Mbeki in an embarrassing showdown in Polokwane. What was meant to be a exercise in unity looks increasingly like the beginnings of the death of the alliance.

Since taking the helm of the party, president Jacob Zuma has alienated the largest trade union, the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) who has drawn a further nine affiliates out of the labour federation COSATU. The movement’s former leader has been banished from the realm as it were, discovering as the president said he would, that “it is cold outside the ANC”. Similarly, in a messy personal fallout, the current ANC youth league leader has under the president become a mouse with a megaphone as young lions such as Julius Malema and Floyed Shivambu left the pride to found their own fiefdom of the disenfranchised. With the communist party in their latest congress calling for a review of their political and electoral support of the ANC, the third leg is coming loose and the melting pot is beginning to tilt. In the wake of this fracturing the president has played to his strengths, tribal loyalties. At a so-called victory celebration for winning the local election in the Zulu Kingdom, the president lamented that dire state of democracy where recourse to the courts has overtaken debate on issues, exposing his bent towards rule by lekgotla or village court, rather than Western-style codified law.

The divisions in the ANC are simmering. They have taken on a provincial, tribal and personal nature. Unfortunately the future of the party is imperiled irrespective of who succeeds the president. There remains a slim chance that a reformer could recapture the imagination of party loyalists and redirect the movement, but this depends on the strength of the president’s grip on the party as his personal isigidlo, a securitised enclosure for the protection of royal privilege. The secretary general, Gwede Mantashe is walking a tightrope between holding the factions together and keeping up appearances, while absorbing the growing discontent from ANC stalwarts, business leaders who are card carrying members in good standing and from clergy who have been friends of the movement for a century. There must have been a Gwede in Shaka’s kingdom too, perhaps Mbopa was just such a cadre.

From this point the ANC seems to have three paths to the future to choose from; tribalise the ANC, discredit the ANC or reform the ANC. These depend in large part on if president Zuma stays, lingers or goes and how long this takes. If the president stays until the end of his term and beyond, which he is likely to try and do given the probable prison sentences that await him, the ANC will collapse into tribal skirmishes as bitter resentments overtake a once principled movement. The only winner here, as was the case under Shaka’s successor Dingane, will be the boers and the Europeans who’s political organization has long transcended narrow ethnicity alone. The movement a century in the making will eventually be memorialised as was the Marxist African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) or the FRELIMO and ZANU-PF, all of which brought political liberation but could not muster the internal cohesion to build an economic legacy for their people. If president Zuma stays the ANC voters will eventually leave, clinging to greenshoot parties in the rural hinterlands as the Democratic Alliance (DA) continues to surge in the cities. The labour movement will be dealt a death blow for having climbed aboard a shipwreck and the South African economy as we know it will take a turn for the worst. Urban centers will still attract investment with an appetite for Africa, seeing South Africa as a reasonably stable haven for a regional office but not making any major investments in fixed assets other than their own offices in places like towering Sandton.

The radical alternative, where the president goes quickly, opens up a path to rapid reform in the ANC. The difficulty here is keeping the Zulus, now the largest faction by membership among the provinces, in the kraal. Could Zweli Mkhize be the face of reform and outflank the old guard? The second difficulty is the president himself, who bravely says he is not afraid of prison precisely because he is calculating the prospect of returning to a cell not as a freedom fighter but as a criminal. The ANC would have to make a choice to disown their unifier and admit their mistake. The Zulu faction would have to calculate their own interests as being better served at the table in a bigger territory instead of the current narrow short-term dominance. A collapse in the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) followed by a mass exodus to the ANC behind Mkhize for instance, with the vocal support of King Goodwill Zwelithini kaBhekhuzulu, would help to tip the scales. In the wake of rapid reform the DA is likely to dip sharply as young urban black voters return to the political home of their forebears. The SACP, who were for long comfortable bedfellows of the current president will be left out in the cold but this would remove the policy blockade and see the thinking of the National Development Plan (NDP) return as front and centre.

The middle way, where the ANC delays the inevitable and the president lingers will do even more harm to the ANC and its current office bearers and deployees, discrediting both the party and the individuals associated with the period. Both the DA and EFF will benefit for different reasons as modernising young people on the one hand and angry revolutionaries on the other finally accept and mourn the death of their movement. While the labour movement would appear active in this environment they would largely remain captured by political ineptitude and lose their voice for decades. Joseph Mathunjwa will remain a lone voice. The economy would continue to stagnate as the stalemate continues.

If Shaka could have another go at ruling the kingdom he may have recalculated that giving his brothers their place in the sun would preserve his own seat at the helm. I wonder of the Zulus have made this calculation?

The views expressed here are that of the author and not representative of any affiliated institution or persons. 

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