OK, so we know now that we are not Zimbabwe. It will take a whole lot longer before we know clearly what we are — or, rather, what we are becoming.

The key implication of the Zuma victory is, surely, the point made by some grassroots delegates and a few commentators this week: that it has shown that our democracy will not follow the path that is meant to be inevitable when liberation movements lead countries to majority rule.

In no post-independence African country has a sitting president been peacefully and democratically defeated by his own party. While some countries have, in the past few years, seen democratic processes that have rejected sitting presidents, none has ousted a leader democratically so soon after majority rule. And it may well be that no liberation movement anywhere in the world has seen such a swift assertion by its membership of its right to decide who should lead it.

This is crucial because, in many people’s minds, there is an inevitability about countries, particularly those in Africa, that are led to majority rule by liberation movements: the new leadership becomes immune to removal by the electorate or its own members, prompting decades of decay. Zimbabwe is the most immediate and the most topical example, but hardly the only one.

The ANC vote signalled that we are on a different path in which leaders can be turfed out by those they lead and in which, therefore, high office is always a conditional gift — you keep it only as long as those who gave it to you allow you to keep it.

Important as this is, we are not necessarily riding off into a new sunrise simply because the ANC changed a leader democratically. We may be headed for a more vigorous democracy that would surely make us a more successful country, better able to deal with its challenges. But many tests and trials lie on the way before we can be confident of this.

First, for many South Africans, including many who work in, or vote for, the ANC, the benefits of an election for ANC president are outweighed by the costs of the result. Many have deep misgivings about Zuma and would have much preferred the chance to choose someone else. More than a few, for example, wish that Mbeki had withdrawn months ago to give Cyril Ramaphosa a clear shot at the presidency.

This raises the possibility that the gap between the political leadership and the country that has so hampered progress since we became a democracy has not been bridged; that all we have seen is a shift from one elite figure to another in a process from which the people will continue to be excluded. And so, if we are to move closer to becoming a more democratic society, Zuma and his supporters need to know that this vote was far more a rebellion against Mbeki than an embrace of Zuma — they need also to remember that the more than nine million people who vote ANC but don’t belong to it did not choose him.

That means that Zuma cannot assume the support of either the ANC or the country — he must work to achieve it. Only if he does this are we likely to see a government more in touch with the society it governs.

Second, we do not know yet whether the Zuma supporters here at Polokwane were making a lasting statement that they want an ANC in which leaders account to the led or whether they were merely switching their allegiance from one leader to another. Are those who challenged the decisions of a chair chosen by the Mbeki camp going to hold to account one chosen by the Zuma camp? More generally, will their willingness to challenge the old leaders apply also to the new ones — or will they now become cheerleaders and foot soldiers, not active members? Will the Mbeki camp remain active in the ANC, will it hold the new leadership to account and, if it does, will it be allowed to do so? On this will depend whether we are seeing a more democratic and vibrant ANC with open expression of healthy difference or the old movement with its stress on respect for leaders and public unity under new management.

Third, what future is there in the new ANC for the 42% who voted for Mbeki? A movement that offers no active role for the representatives of four of every 10 members will remain in conflict with itself — or lose a large chunk of its membership. Equally important, much of the skills and experience that the Zuma camp needs are to be found in the Mbeki fold. If the Mbeki people are not made welcome, the democratic breakthrough will be undermined by continued conflict and decline in the quality of party and government leadership. An early test is whether the national executive being elected this week adequately represents people who supported Mbeki.

Fourth, what if Zuma is charged with corruption? Will his supporters insist he is being victimised and challenge the legal process? Will they maintain that he is innocent until proven guilty and so insist on him leading the ANC into the 2009 election even if he has not been acquitted? Or will he graciously withdraw, leaving his new deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, to become our next president? This may decide whether we enjoy a smooth transition to the next state president. It may also determine whether we establish the principle that all, including victorious ANC presidents, are subject to the law.

Finally, how will the tensions between the ANC and the ANC in government be managed now that the “two centres of power” that this election was meant to prevent is here? On Tuesday night, a senior civil servant suggested that Zuma and Mbeki need to talk “right now” if the smooth running of government between now and 2009 is to be secured. They probably did not talk, then but they need to do it now.

If government over the next 15 months is hampered by constant conflict between it and the ruling party, again the gains of the past few days will be undermined by a further decline in government performance — there is no point in people choosing if their choices cannot be translated into reality. And it is probably this danger, rather than the false alarms that have been raised these past few days, that should be the uppermost concern of every South African, whatever our view on the ANC.

Further along, one effect of this week’s events may be that more government decisions will be taken by the ANC rather than government officials. That will make the government more responsive to the people who gathered in Polokwane — but, if the one in three voters who vote for other parties are excluded, then a government more responsive to Polokwane’s majority will still not be able to serve all the people.

How the new ANC responds to these realities may well determine whether Polokwane’s democratic dawn brings more light to the entire country.


  • Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality is the study of democracy. He wrote Building Tomorrow Today, a study of the trade-union movement, and edited two studies of the South African transition.


Steven Friedman

Steven Friedman is a research associate at Idasa and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. He is a newspaper columnist and a media commentator on South African politics. His academic speciality...

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