The images of demonstrators brandishing placards along Durban Club Place, the street that runs outside the IFP head office in Durban, evoke the atmosphere of the pre-1994 city and country where so much that mattered to the people on the ground had to be proclaimed on the periphery of the formal decision-making processes. Why do the protesters who ostensibly demand reform within their political party take their concerns to the street when they can bring them into the building? Whose interests do they serve?
The IFP, born simultaneously out of the struggle against apartheid and the need to pave the way for a democratic, pluralistic and prosperous South Africa, is a political organisation based on rules and principles. These are spelt out in detail in the party’s constitution and provide, among other things, for a democratic election of all office bearers. Under duress brought on by the worse than expected election result in 2009, observance of these rules has become more important than ever. If the IFP is to stage a comeback as a party of government, it must be guided by a respect for rules and principles, not swayed by impulse or anarchy.
Much of the popular protest against the sitting leadership has been sparked by the party’s showing in the 2009 poll. Yes, the election result was less than satisfactory. The IFP’s parliamentary presence has been depleted and in the national political arena it has lost its coveted status as the third largest party to the ANC’s latest splinter, Cope. The size of the IFP’s parliamentary caucus in KwaZulu-Natal is now less than half of that of the ANC.
But the party’s electoral support is not holed beneath the waterline, to use a maritime analogy. The 4.5% of the national vote the IFP captured and the 18 seats it filled in the National Assembly and the KwaZulu-Natal Legislature respectively, is a significant representation, if its parliamentarians work diligently. The crust is now spread very thin over the portfolio committees but effective parliamentary oversight, as South African history has shown ie Helen Suzman, can be performed single-handedly.
The IFP president is only too aware that there are organisational problems in our party. But he, like the hundreds of thousands of voters who made a mark next to his effigy on the ballot paper in April, continues to believe that there is a space for the IFP as a casual liberal/centre-right party based on ubuntu and that its fortunes can be turned around.
Buthelezi’s hard-won reputation as an elder statesman, rightly or wrongly, has pulled the IFP along, not the other way around. Buthelezi was a go-getter long before the term found its way into corporate boardrooms. His dedication to the welfare of his people is his vocation. When others chose to sit out apartheid in exile, he got down to tackling real challenges in real time. The bulk of the human capital and infrastructure, the ANC government found in the rural KwaZulu-Natal, bears his signature and, in some instances, even his name. This name is a unique and instantly recognisable brand.
My personal experience of working with Buthelezi over many years is that he relishes the cut-and-thrust of politics. He is well-read and urbane and intolerant of mediocrity. He believes that political office is a means, not the end. He maintains that public service ought to be run upon the lines of life affording excellence. In doing so, he draws upon a rich hinterland. In short, he has a life: an adored and adoring wife, children and grandchildren. He likes to play jazz and choral music while he works. He is a farmer, a lay minister, a traditional leader, and much more. The point is that he does not have to lead a political party to keep himself occupied.
Buthelezi likes — and inspires — new ideas and original thoughts. He will always make time to hear the merits or argument. There is plenty of space in the IFP for young people to express their ideas and thoughts. There is no need for turning down invitations for talk, as some sections of the IFP Youth Brigade have done. Brandishing offensive placards while kicking the door that is wide open is inimical to the culture of the party that begs to differ from the Malema-infested ANC.
The question one is tempted to put to his detractors in the IFP is “how would his removal advance your agenda?” In fact, more to the point, what is your agenda? The most recent spate of protest must be a déjà vu to the consummate politician who has seen off so many challenges and challengers. In 2004 Ziba Jiyane was elected IFP national chairperson on a modernising ticket and subsequently went on to challenge the rest of the party’s leadership. But while Jiyane could do the talk, he could not walk the talk. As much as some in the IFP were taken in by his charisma, no one can recall him suggesting one practical initiative or policy proposal.
Today, as in 2004, leadership alternatives to Buthelezi essentially lack substance. Now, as then, Buthelezi’s detractors are viewing the problem the wrong way round — real change must emanate on the ground and in solid performance. Real change does not originate from empty slogans on placards.
Edited from a joint article with Roman Liptak MPL