So why should we care who wins the ANC presidency?

We shouldn’t, Ndumiso Ngcobo suggests in his latest post. And he is right to insist that the difference between the candidates is not nearly as great as their supporters and the analysts (sorry, “star gazers” and “palm readers”) make out. But, despite this, the succession battle could be important to all of us — although not necessarily in the way in which most tea-leaf readers (analysts?) insist.

Ndumiso is right to insist that the ideological difference between the candidates is small enough to be invisible to the naked eye. None of the candidates who want Thabo Mbeki’s job disagree much with him on policy: Jacob Zuma, whom many see as the candidate furthest from Mbeki, has been at pains to support current ANC policy. The battle between Mbeki and his opponents is not one between the left and right: ANC policy will not change dramatically after Polokwane, whoever wins.

He is also right to insist that it does not matter who wins. While activists and some analysts tell us this is a battle between the good and bad guys — for some, Mbeki is a threat to democracy; for others Zuma is a threat to civisilation — any of the possible candidates could lead the ANC and the country in a more promising direction or take us backward. None of them is certain to bring either the promised land or our ruin.

So why care? Because how the next ANC president wins and what he or she does afterwards may make a difference to all of us.

To explain this, we need to understand why the ANC is in the midst of a leadership battle and what that means to everyone else.

The rebellion against Mbeki is not about ideology — it is about leadership style. To his critics in the ANC, he is a “top down” leader who insists on centralising decisions, on laying down the law and treating those who disagree with disdain. The president, they say, places great store on policy made by technical experts rather than on connecting with and taking seriously those he leads, particularly those who differ.

Whether you agree with all of that or not, the most important lesson of Mbeki’s presidency is that you can be a highly intelligent leader (Mbeki may be the smartest head of government in the world right now) with very sophisticated policies — but, if you can’t take those you lead with you, you will run into resistance that will obstruct everything you are trying to achieve.

The chief problem with the government over the past few years has not been that it is short of smart people and sophisticated policies — it is that it has not connected with grassroots citizens. Research has shown a large gap between most anti-poverty policies and what grassroots people say they want and need. We spent five years, for example, finding a way to get mortgages down to poor people despite the fact that all the evidence shows that the poor don’t want mortgages because they fear being thrown out of their homes if they can’t pay the monthly instalment.

The government has also been less effective than it can be because it hasn’t always connected with citizens enough to persuade everyone to cooperate with it.

The ANC conference can, therefore, lay a foundation for fixing many of the problems we have faced over the past few years if it triggers a new leadership style more focused on listening to people and respecting those who differ than on using smart people to decide what everyone wants and then insisting on giving it them.

For that, we need a stronger democracy, and so it would be a big plus if the ANC chose its leader in an open contest rather than in a back-room deal among its leaders: this would establish the principle that leaders get to lead by competing for support from those they represent rather than by being chosen by other leaders. As long as the losers accept the results, we will be in much better shape if the next ANC leader is elected, not selected.

It will also be important if the institutions we need to make democracy work survive the strain placed on them by a rough and often bitter contest. Democracy needs a justice system that will apply the law to anyone, however exalted their position. But, at times during the contest, our justice system’s independence has been challenged as Zuma supporters claim the courts are being used against him to prevent him becoming president, and National Director of Public Prosecutions Vusi Pikoli’s suspension fuels claims that the system is being used to fight political battles. If we emerge from the succession fight with continued respect for the principle that no one is above the law, we will be far stronger.

Democracy also needs free and independent media that can tell us what our leaders do not want us to know. But both Zuma and Mbeki supporters have been angered by media coverage and there is talk of a tribunal on the media and of public servants buying newspaper companies. If these threats are averted and we emerge from the battle with media freedom intact, democracy will be in a healthier state.

Also, much of this battle has been fought by smear and counter-smear. For a variety of reasons, leaking dirt on your opponent to the media has often seemed a surer way to win than open debate. This erodes public trust and weakens the fight against corruption because people either decide that all politicians are crooks or that the allegations can be ignored because they are simply weapons in the fight for power. If we emerge from this having established that political contests are settled by open argument, not secret smears, the link between politicians and citizens will be far healthier and we will be much better able to fight corruption.

What the winner does after he or she wins will also be vital. Whoever wins after a tough leadership battle can either decide to show his or her opponents who is boss by excluding them or try to build bridges and heal wounds by including them in decisions and the bodies that make them. It seems likely that a leader who decides to polarise the ANC will do that to the country too — one that builds bridges in the ANC will do that in the country too.

Finally, the succession could throw up a new leader who will break with the leadership pattern that caused the problem and adopt a more consultative and inclusive style. That is obviously not inevitable, whoever wins — nor is it impossible.

So yes, policy won’t change much after Polokwane. The winner’s name probably won’t matter that much. But the succession is important because it will help decide whether we emerge as a stronger democracy and so a more successful society.


  • 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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