Vol. 13 No. 15 · 15 August 1991

Lions, Princes, Bosses

R.W. Johnson reports from Durban on the ANC’s first national conference

3530 words

A year ago you could probably have got odds of 100-1 against the proposition that the man chosen to open the ANC’s first national conference back in South Africa would be Jacob Zuma, the frequently feared chief of intelligence of the ANC’s guerrilla arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). But supreme among Mr Zuma’s qualities is the fact that he is one of the rare Zulus in the ANC’s leadership, a status which quickly earned him promotion to head of the ANC’s Southern Natal region, which includes Durban. From this position he earned a reputation as a charming and moderate diplomat in the tricky negotiations with Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement. Welcoming delegates to the ANC’s Durban conference, Mr Zuma caused minor gasps by talking of how Shaka Zulu, virtually Inkatha’s patron saint, had had ‘his own ideas of how to build a nation’ (essentially, conquest, mass murder and forced assimilation). He also reminded delegates that ‘everyone has wished this conference well; no one who has spoken of it has spoken against it’ – a scarcely veiled reference to Buthelezi and a hint that it would be as well to avoid furious denunciations of the chief in his own backyard.

This sort of moderation had not worked wholly to Zuma’s advantage in the feverish pre-conference manoeuvring over elections to the new National Executive Committee, and when Buthelezi publicly opined that Zuma would be a good choice for the post of ANC Deputy President vacated by Mandela on his assumption of the Presidency, the grinding of teeth within the ANC became almost audible. Initially, the No 2 job had seemed a clear choice between the movement’s two young lions, Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani. Such a choice would, however, have been profoundly divisive, for although both men are members of the Communist Party (SACP) – as, indeed, is Zuma, for MK is a wholly SACP outfit – Mbeki is viewed as a moderate and Hani, the boss of MK, as a fire-eating radical. In addition, Mbeki is known to have an icy relationship with Winnie Mandela – she reportedly struck him in one contretemps – while Hani is her constant consort and even has a bedroom in the Mandela house. Accordingly, both men agreed to stand down – until Zuma’s name was mentioned as an alternative. Hani could hardly stand for the sight of another MK man, younger than himself, being promoted over his head and indicated that if Zuma was nominated, his own hat was back in the ring. Simultaneously a whispering campaign began against Zuma for being ‘soft on Buthelezi’, and it was hastily announced that the 79-year-old Walter Sisulu would stand for Deputy President to avoid all such difficulties.

Rumour persisted of a plan to ambush Hani: Sisulu would back out at the last minute saying he wanted time to be with his grandchildren and calling for a unanimous vote for Mbeki. Such rumours owed much to the frantic desire for reassurance felt in the boardrooms of corporate Johannesburg. Corporate lobbyists were hard at work amongst the presumed new men of power and talked earnestly about what would be best for ‘Jacob’ (Zuma), how ‘Cyril’ (Ramaphosa) was distressingly keen to keep his trade union and civic association jobs while taking over as ANC Secretary-General and, above all, how ‘if we can just get Thabo in, we’re set for the next twenty years.’ (I heard of one business supremo who, in the midst of just such a lobbying meeting, realised, too late, that he’d ‘bought the wrong man’.) The notion that choosing one personality rather than another can save the country from the ill effects of African nationalism is, of course, simple-minded. The fact that all the ‘smart money’ is on Mbeki is actually the best possible reason for betting on Hani.

The most active pre-conference skirmishers were all on the left. The hardly well-kept secret leaked out that Peter Mokaba, the fiery head of the youth section, had had a career as a police informer. Mokaba has become so prominent that it would be embarrassing for the ANC leadership to admit to this, so we suddenly found him cropping up at Mandela’s side to welcome Oliver Tambo at Jan Smuts Airport – a sure sign in the new palace politics that Mokaba is in favour. The veteran Communist and organiser of the underground ‘Vula’ plot, Ronnie Kasrils, ran for office by repeatedly surfacing in press interviews as a sort of high-profile Scarlet Pimpernel. Ronnie – he’s been a friend of mine for thirty years – is a man of great courage and incorrigible good humour. I derived great pleasure from seeing him back in Durban, a free man again.

Another Vula conspirator, Mac Maharaj, had resigned not only from the NEC but from the ANC itself out of an angry suspicion that he had been left to rot in jail simply because he was an Indian. His re-emergence had a double twist to it, coming shortly after the US announced that it was not going to pass on the funds it had allocated to the ANC so long as the movement was so tightly tied to the SACP. Mandela then gave a hurried press conference, Maharaj at his side, to announce that Vula (which had aimed at the armed overthrow of the Government rather than negotiation with it) had not been a separate SACP operation but had been fully sanctioned by the ANC. The point of this was to prevent American fingers being pointed at Vula as the SACP operation it undoubtedly was – and to re-introduce Maharaj to the limelight at a point when some nervousness was felt that Indians might be knocked off the NEC by the scrum of ambitious Africans. Sure enough, Maharaj – a hard-line old SACP hand – now stood again for the NEC, maintaining a steely silence about the reasons for his earlier resignation. Just how tight things might be for Indians became clear when the ANC’s Pretoria-Witwatersrand region met to choose its 50 candidates for elective places on the NEC, and Aziz Pahad, though a senior ANC and SACP figure, found himself contesting 50th place with Winnie Mandela.

As the 2354 delegates assembled in the conference hall one’s overwhelming impression was of a sea of young black males: in fact, 83 per cent were men and the average delegate age was 34. For rank-and-file delegates T-shirts were de rigueur (‘Forward to the Democratic Working-Class Control of Sport’ and ‘Saddam Hussein – I support you’ being my favourites), but the leading lights and the more ambitious cadres were heavily besuited, as betokens the new ruling class they self-consciously aspire to be. Nelson Mandela was shocked to see T-shirted drivers chauffeuring VIPs like himself and immediately prescribed collars and ties. Adelaide Tambo and Winnie Mandela vied with one another in the extravagance of the traditional African dresses they affected, Adelaide having apparently decided that she would like to contest the Mother of the Nation title (vacant). Despite all this, the prevailing mood was one of overwhelming earnestness and seriousness of purpose, not just because power is now within sight but because ANC activists are keenly aware that the last year has not been a good one for the movement. It has been comprehensively out-manoeuvred by de Klerk, signally failed to protect its own in the township violence, lost a good deal of potential support through its legendary inefficiency and failed to achieve its target of one million members. Currently, it claims 700,000 members in 1000 branches – both suspiciously round numbers.

None of this had inhibited foreigners from treating the conference as an opportunity to greet the government-to-be, an assumption the ANC did not discourage, with its repeated references to ‘when we take power’. There is something rather unhealthy about this tribute being paid to a political party which has yet to test its electoral strength. Fifty-six countries and 11 international organisations sent representatives to the conference. It was difficult not to sympathise with the anguished complaint of the Pan-Africanist Congress that these were in fact embassies to a political party and that organisations like the UN or the Anti-Apartheid Movement had no business sending representatives to one party conference unless they went to all of them. Should the ANC fail to win the first universal suffrage election – and nothing should be taken for granted yet – this presumptive paying of tribute is going to seem pretty silly.

The leadership strode onto the stage. The SACP leader, Joe Slovo, took up the chairman’s position in the middle of the front row – an astonishingly confident gesture for a white man in such a black conference. Next to him sat Trevor Huddleston, who opened the conference with a prayer: ‘Comrades, let us pray ...’ The ANC talks of having ten official languages in Parliament but the language of the conference was emphatically and only English. Walter Sisulu announced that simultaneous translation was available in Zulu, Sotho and Xhosa. He then added that he should have mentioned that an Afrikaans translation was also available. It would be difficult to sum up the Afrikaner nightmare better than by suggesting that their language might become an afterthought fifth option.

With evident difficulty Oliver Tambo slowly recited a potted history of the movement, all bland enough stuff save for a passage in which he told how in 1984 ‘enemy agents’ had fomented mutiny in the MK camps in Angola; how firm measures had been taken; how all such agents held prisoner had now been released; and how there must be eternal vigilance etc. This was movement-speak to cover the fact that there has been almost endless unrest in the MK camps, that in 1984 no less than 90 per cent of MK fighters in Angola had mutinied, that many had been consigned to the fearsome Quatro prison camp to suffer torture and death, and that the leadership had been deeply embarrassed by the attempts of some MK dissidents to attend the conference. When ANC exiles in former West Germany elected such a dissident as a delegate, conference organisers had rapidly announced that he would not be allowed to attend, and then a new quota rule was dragged up to exclude him – though delegates elected by ANC branches in Cuba and former East Germany who should also have been excluded by the new quota rule were allowed to attend. Only days before the conference opened, fresh trouble broke out in the Dakawa MK camp in Tanzania, leading to the arrest of ten Zulu-speaking guerrillas as ‘Inkatha bandits’. The whole issue of MK dissidents is an explosive one for the leadership and does something to explain the notable slowness in bringing these men back home. Meanwhile, within the movement at home, the myth of MK is strong and the conference gave repeated evidence of the existence of a powerful SACP-MK voting bloc.

Sitting close to the press seats was the unmistakable figure of Alan Boesak, attending as an observer because he had yet to join the ANC, a fact which had something to do with his messy divorce and forced resignation from his church position, but more to do with a major power-and-personality clash between Boesak and the rival élite which runs the ANC in his home Western Cape region. Essentially, this is a battle for leadership within the Coloured Left, with ANC stalwarts like Trevor Manuel bitterly pointing out that Boesak has never accepted the movement’s discipline and that he is an incorrigible egocentric who makes policy up as he goes along. Boesak, for his part, retorts that the ANC has wholly failed to win Coloured opinion to its side in the Cape (a fact borne out by many polls) and that the attempt to rely on SACP-MK rhetoric is doomed to failure amongst this electorate, which is basically religious and socially conservative. At the same time, Boesak insisted that he could not join the ANC as just an ordinary member (which would mean accepting the existing Western Cape leadership of Trevor Manuel, Dullah Omar and Cheryl Carolus) but that a man of his stature would need to be given a major leadership position.

Boesak stayed inside the conference hall when the press was shown out after just a few hours. For the next four and a half days the conference stayed in closed session and extreme measures were taken to prevent delegates talking to journalists. Instead press briefings of a quite startling vacuity were held and we were repeatedly assured that inside the hall wonderfully open and democratic debates were going on. To distract us, a tour of the ‘unrest areas’ was laid on and five buses set off, four of which got lost. The fifth blundered into a police contingent who helpfully showed visitors the graves of Inkatha members slaughtered by the ANC, which had not been the idea behind the trip.

In fact, of course, delegates did gossip to the press. The debates did indeed seem to have been lively and democratic but, inevitably, what one heard most about was what had gone wrong. The foreign representatives had resisted Sisulu’s pleadings to keep their speeches short and had insisted on reading out long speeches, thus costing the conference a whole half day, never subsequently caught up. Then Alfred Nzo, the Secretary-General, having circulated a long and lugubrious report on the state of ANC organisation, proceeded to read it out – for six hours. Most dramatic of all, proceedings had to be suspended entirely over an angry women’s demonstration, led by Adelaide Tambo, against the dropping of the 30 per cent quota places for women on the NEC. A press briefing was then held to explain that this was not necessarily a defeat for women: in fact, it was a sort of victory. The result of all this was that the conference ran way behind and many commission reports were debated either inadequately or not at all. Given that the conference was in effect giving the new NEC carte blanche to do what it liked for the next three years, including the right to negotiate a new constitution with the Government, this may not have mattered too much.

The subsequent NEC elections showed the strength of the SACP/MK bloc, with SACP members occupying five of the top eight spots. There was and is endless speculation over how many SACP members there are on the new NEC, with guesses varying between 30 and 60 per cent – enough to control the game, in any case. The matter cannot really be settled while the SACP refuses to divulge its members, and the ANC supports it in this. What this means is that the SACP has become the new Broederbond, a dominant and quasi-secret society within the ruling party. What is clear is that no white or Indian could be elected to the NEC if they were not Communists. Coloureds could, just; and Africans could run as simple nationalists and win. But it’s also more complicated than that: activists voted for militancy and for those with high profiles, and the loudest cheers at the post-conference rally were for Prince Mawayizeni Zulu’s election to the NEC (the result of an arcane dynastic dispute with King Goodwill and Chief Buthelezi) – and for the presence of an Iraqi representative. What is one to make of an organisation which cheers both for a Zulu prince and for Saddam Hussein?

Mainly one should realise that the ANC lives most intensely at élite level – it enjoys a wide but diffuse and unorganised popular good will. Its leadership has thus far shown no real talent, nor even much interest in grass roots organisation, acting in a top-down manner which leaves little effective room for popular, or even activist, participation. This élite is clearly the nucleus of a new bourgeoisie which, if it achieves power, may talk the language of socialism for a while longer, but will in fact be as acquisitive and firm-handed as any other in Africa. This élite currently lives in a self-enclosed and self-appointed world in which the most important considerations are biographical (who did what in the struggle) and symbolic. The conference may have exposed the leadership to a brief burst of democracy but that is all over now and life within that intensely private political subculture can resume not seriously disturbed. The most worrying part of this is the way that complete moral certainty (‘we speak for the oppressed’) is frequently combined with the lack of any real feel for grass roots realities.

The SACP has, paradoxically, every interest in reinforcing these élitist tendencies, for it has only 30,000 members and is having considerable difficulty recruiting amongst its main target group, the trade-union rank and file. It is hugely more powerful at NEC level than it is at every successive level below that. Its small cadre is, moreover, way overstretched, for it is largely responsible for running the parts of the ANC that work as well as the SACP itself. And, above all, its trump card in the past was always that in exile it controlled the movement’s purse-strings, thanks to its privileged access to the Communist bloc. Now, with the collapse of that bloc, it can not only no longer attract such funds but, as the recent hold-up of US funds so dramatically illustrates, it is a force which actually pushes money away from the ANC. The Party’s organisational grip may be strong but it is a good question how long the rising bourgeoisie of the ANC – let alone all the other hungry mouths within the movement – will stand for this.

The real counterweight to that is the growing power of constituency. At the moment most of the ANC élite has little constituency basis: Pahad and Winnie, for example, could get elected to the ANC only thanks to diffuse support outside their own region. Similarly, Zuma may have ended up with a top job but he was utterly trounced in his contest with the ageing Harry Gwala in both the Southern Natal and the Natal Midlands regions. Gwala may be a self-confessed Stalinist but he, not Zuma, is clearly the ANC boss of Natal, the top ANC Zulu among Zulus.

The whole Boesak melodrama was also about constituency. Boesak had come to the conference in order to do a deal with Mandela which would enable him to leapfrog the likes of Trevor Manuel. But when his name was placed in nomination for the NEC Manuel reacted furiously: how could Boesak, still a non-ANC member, even be considered? Manuel won the day but Boesak has since joined the movement in the clear expectation of co-option to the NEC. His strength is that he may be able to swing Coloured votes to the ANC that Manuel and Carolus can’t. His weakness is that to make his bargaining position credible he has to threaten to do the opposite if he is thwarted, and in practice he has nowhere else to go but to the ANC. We are likely to see other constituency tug-of-wars. Already it seems clear that the real power-brokers will not be the high-profile names elected to the NEC at conference but the 28 ex-officio regional officials. These were the men who forced the old NEC to accept drastic revisions to the ANC constitution and they are the men in possession of ANC regional organisation, such as it is. They, rather than the beauty contestants of the conference hall, are the men to watch.

The most consummate constituency player to emerge to date is, however, Chris Hani. No sooner was he back in the country than he headed straight for the Xhosa heartland of the Transkei. In effect, this all-important reservoir of ANC support has become Haniland. Hani has reached an accommodation with the Transkei’s ruler, General Holomisa, which allows him to build an MK/SACP base there, and his power has increasingly assumed chiefly proportions. Hani comes from the same district as the old Bantustan ruler, Chief Matanzima, under whom the Transkei received its ‘independence’ and he has taken over most of Matanzima’s retinue, including the famous Transkei United Women’s Organisation – the celebrated ‘TUWO aunties’ who used to ululate the praises of Matanzima, and now do the same for Hani. In addition, Hani has criss-crossed the country on speaking dates and even visited the US as the guest of the American CP. Hani now has behind him the SACP, MK, Winnie Mandela, the Transkei and the militant youth of the country – a virtually unstoppable combination. The only other player with so solid a regional base lies outside the ANC – Chief Buthelezi. But his wider national following was slender even before the revelation of secret government funding for his Inkatha movement sapped it further.

The ANC may have its certainties but the country as a whole, even as it celebrates the end of sanctions, swims with uncertainty, an uncertainty greatly increased by the way the Government has shot itself in the foot with the Inkatha funding scandal. Two years ago P.W. Botha was still confidently in power and everything we now take for granted was unimaginable. In those terms 1993 is much more than two years away: race politics may be over but the race itself is all to come.

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