After the release of the National Development Plan (NDP) late 2011, the alliterative 2012 seemed to hold much promise. But it became a year of talk shops. For the first time ever, the national policy and elective conferences of the ANC, SACP, and Cosatu all fell in the same year. There was no implementing the NDP. Now at the end of 2012, once again hopes are raised; at Mangaung, President Zuma relaunched the NDP creating space for some cautious optimism.

The long road to the ANC’s 53rd elective conference had stretched the party and its alliance partners almost to breaking point. But the ANC leadership held against the most sustained populist onslaught it has had to weather since coming to power.

Those not purged at Polokwane, those not of the Zuma camp (roughly represented by about 900 of the 4 000 delegates) had their vain hopes to loosen the half nelson grip in which Jacob Zuma now holds the party dashed.

The outcome of Mangaung was in terms of political expediency the best possible result for the ANC: continuity maintained, internal dissension firmly quashed, a deputy to lend it some dignity. Zuma will no doubt lead his corpse bride to victory in 2014.

In the longer term however it will prove with hindsight to have been another symptom of the relentless process of desiccation at work in a steadily ossifying body politic. The internal election procedures on which the ANC prides itself have never in the history of the party seen such brazen gerrymandering. It was the party’s most crooked election to date. At grassroots level some simply do not accept the result. Yet, successful court applications and other legal threats it seems will not halt this Zanufication process.

When he was its president, Nelson Mandela warned the party against electing unopposed candidates. It would have played extremely badly – in the eyes of the world too – had Zuma stood unopposed like Mugabe. But Zuma’s trusty old seat-warmer came to the rescue. As he did as interim president, Kgalema Motlanthe served his function. His lacklustre campaign suggests that this was a sham challenge all along, possibly a backroom deal, a straw man for Zuma’s opponents – a man whose most ambitious action was to withdraw his candidacy for deputy president.

For all the talk of a principled stance, Motlanthe must have been well aware that had he actually challenged Zuma for real, combined with the suspect credibility of the internal election process, he might have risked tipping the party into a Cope-style leadership rivalry, something clearly not in his interest.

Before Mangaung, the punditry were conflicted about Cyril Ramaphosa’s possible candidacy. Some thought the buffalo man was history after the Marikana massacre. They forgot that among the delegates gathered in the Mangaung tent, the shooting of renegade non-ANC affiliated miners is met with some approval.

Others wagered that the deputy presidency would be beneath Ramaphosa, he’d wait to challenge for president. But the Tammany Hall of the ANC elite had realised, and convinced the president, that Ramaphosa was the ideal candidate to shore up the ANC’s deteriorating image in a world that had once put it on a pedestal. Foreign investment has all but dried up.

While Zuma pursues his backward constituency (the only growth area in the party, shoring up the electoral defections elsewhere in the country), someone with lots of inoffensive bling has to stop the haemorrhage of middle-class urban voters Mbeki worked so hard to engineer. Need one mention that in assuming the deputy presidency Ramaphosa has the platform to rehabilitate his dented political reputation outside the tent (he may well be our president one day) and is at liberty to directly pursue what is in his best interests as a business mogul.

The one incontrovertible thing the ANC had managed to give South Africa since it came to power was stability. But with so-called “popcorn protests” springing up all over the country and more strike action than there was under apartheid, many are losing faith.

It should be of great concern to the ANC rank and file that the extremely poor and low contestation for the top six positions in their party shows a political culture that is less self-examining, less open, less democratic than it was even under the high-handed Thabo Mbeki.

Having gutted his former comrade at Polokwane and expelled his most vociferous hecklers in the youth league, the man who inspired the exodus to Cope, Jacob Zuma, could safely lecture delegates on how “unity is the rock upon which the ANC was founded”. Having secured the presidency at any cost, because it is the only thing he has standing between him and an arrest warrant for corruption, Zuma could grandstand about how “we can stop corruption in its tracks”. The man with a R238 million safe house and profligate domestic arrangements spoke of “deep and glaring” inequality.

Whatever one’s sentiments about the ANC, the fact is it will (and must) inevitably decline now that it is no longer a liberation movement but a political party without the oxygen of revolution. It no longer has a sure ideological footing, it mistrusts its own steps. The decadent squander of the centenary celebrations failed to re-inspire the masses. And by supressing the youth league the party has cut off its blood supply (even if it was the wrong blood type).

Today, the Zuma ANC is like most political parties the world over – obsessed with its own factions, money and positions. It may only be whispered in private, but it is the reason why so many from the venerable past have fallen silent.

The danger is that if it loses its democratic culture and resists historical processes as inexorable as they are beyond the control of any one of us, it will morph into something like Zanu-PF. Will the day come, when our revolution too, like so many before it, eats its own children?

For now, that precious space, shrinking as it is, between the ANC as party and the ANC as government, is our saving grace.

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Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman

Brent Meersman is a writer based in Cape Town. He is co-editor of and a columnist for This is Africa. His most recent novel is Five Lives at Noon (2013), and his previous novels are Primary...

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