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Our tragic reality on the eve of Polokwane

The most unfortunate reality at this moment is that our collective fate and future is in the hands of just over 4 000 ANC delegates to next week’s Polokwane conference when the party is facing its worst internal crisis yet. Therefore, the key question we should all be asking is just how this conference can reach crucial decisions not only about who the next president of the ANC and ipso facto the country will be, but also about our deep and unprecedented social crisis and the way forward when the ruling party is imploding before our eyes.

What the media have reported just over the past week alone should leave every one of us — no matter what our own views and party or political affiliations might be — deeply concerned about the future of this country. Reports of dirty tricks and even allegations of ministers bribing branch delegates with money, drinks and other sordid incentives — such as promises of government jobs and contracts — to obtain support for current president Thabo Mbeki have shown the putrid depths to which some campaigners have sunk, though they deny it.

These and many other accusations and counter-accusations between the Jacob Zuma and Mbeki camps in the past few weeks have reached fever pitch and thereby set the most dismal scene imaginable on the eve of the most important conference in the history of the ANC. The decision by the ANC Women’s League to back Zuma two weeks ago has only served to deepen and extend the already seemingly intractable divisions within the ANC and the entire tripartite alliance.

Add to that the serious divisions that support for Zuma has opened up in Cosatu, its affiliates and the SACP and we have on the whole a poisoned and vicious situation within the ANC and its allies just days before the conference. How in such a destructive environment can they be vested with the responsibility to take decisions that will affect our society for the next five years and beyond? In fact, should the conference in the first place even take place in such a deeply negative atmosphere? Probably not. But with months of logistical arrangements and at this late hour it is inconceivable that it could be postponed.

The big problem of having this conference in such a terribly hostile climate is that it makes the likeliness of acrimonious divisions beyond Polokwane that much greater. That does not augur well for the Mbeki administration, the entire ruling party and Parliament between now and the 2009 elections. If Zuma wins the presidency next week, there can be little or no doubt that this poisoned atmosphere between his supporters and those of Mbeki will plague the government, the ANC and Parliament at least until the 2009 elections and probably beyond.

But there are more troubling ironies. A party that has clearly departed from its earlier redistributionist policies and embraced — even if reluctantly — neo-liberalism is now tasked with charting the way forward in a country facing its biggest social crisis yet as a result of it. This is the inevitable consequence of the unrivalled dominance the ANC enjoys despite this reality. And it is a peculiarity we may be stuck with for many more years to come because of the predominantly racial voting trends since 1994 — in a country in which the black population is the overwhelming majority of the population — and the absence of a strong leftist opposition.

This is also the unfortunate consequence of the current political system in which Parliament and the ruling party decide the presidency of the country and not the broader electorate. In fact, it is this constitutional system and the overwhelming mass support it receives that has enabled the ANC to do what it likes and conduct itself with virtual impunity because no matter what it — or more specifically the Mbeki-led Cabinet — says or does, it is finally the political kingmaker.

But for now all eyes are on Polokwane because no matter what, the show must go on. But will it? With several reports about the highly questionable status of many of the delegates who cast their presidential nominations a few weeks ago and the ongoing heated controversy about the status of the decision of the ANC Women’s League to vote for Zuma — especially in the current bedevilled climate and amid reports this past week of various forms of attempted bribery of delegates — we must not be surprised if the conference either does not get off the ground or is aborted later.

How can the African continent’s oldest liberation movement, in the richest and most powerful country on the continent, proceed to have the most important conference in its history, at this most critical juncture in our history, in the midst of its biggest and ugliest crisis ever? For many good reasons it does not make good sense.