IF cities could boast, Mangaung would probably show off the most this year. Not only will it host the ANC’s extravaganza of the century this weekend but in December, much like 100 years ago, it will be the place where the future of the movement, and that of South Africa, is to be decided.
The difference, however, is that unlike the 60-odd men who heeded the call of Pixley Ka Isaka Seme to form a representative united natives’ movement in 1912, the thousands of ANC members from across the country who will descend on Mangaung this year will not be seeking power, but rather to restore the party’s credibility.
In the absence of any real threat to his power, party president Jacob Zuma will, after the December elective conference, in all likelihood keep his seat as head of the oldest liberation movement in Africa, which would subsequently entrench him at the helm of government for the foreseeable future.
A proud moment it will be for Zuma, no doubt. And rightfully so, as he would be heading an organisation that has much to boast about.
Having brought apartheid to its knees, the ANC celebrates longevity filled with victories enviable to other parts of Africa and the world.
However, the party is certainly a different beast from that of 1912, and even of 1994. It is the ruling party confronted by sins of incumbency – corruption, looting of state funds and failure to deliver quality services.
As political analyst Karima Brown says: “The ANC’s greatest challenge is not being able to retain power, but the ability to govern with credibility.”
This is why 2012 is a watershed time for both Zuma and the ANC.
Despite the emergence of an opposition, the ANC still enjoys considerable power – 60% majority support nationally.
Moreover, despite Kgalema Motlanthe, Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa warming up to help themselves to the throne in the event of his downfall, Zuma also enjoys sufficient support within the ANC. While this is comforting for a man whose hold on power also keeps his legal skeletons at bay, it actually is a double- edged sword.
Zuma faces a far more taxing battle than former president Thabo Mbeki did in the run-up to Polokwane in 2007.
He heads up a very wounded ANC.
Never has this movement needed credible leadership like it does now.
“The ANC has a good understanding of the socio-economic problems in the country and it has fantastic policies in place, but it is the ability to implement the policies that is a challenge,” Brown said.
“I think the ANC understands the challenges, but fails to act on them … It talks the talk on corruption but does it walk the walk?
“Too many cadres rely on the party as a source of income – that’s why you see people fighting to stay on the lists, because being a councillor is a step away from being unemployed.
“It’s the desperation for the party to be their source of income that feeds corruption, especially at a local level,” Brown said.
Political analyst Joleen Kotze agrees, saying “the party’s rhetoric around corruption seeks to make the right noises, but it is often contradicted by actions taken by the political elite”.
Zuma’s task therefore is to provide the kind of leadership that is strong enough to break these habits. Essentially, it means he will, by default, make enemies of those who have so far handsomely profited from the party’s slow and often lenient stance on corruption.
The task could certainly be out of character for a man who is known to put his foot down only when pushed too far or into a corner.
If indeed Zuma is determined to show his mettle, more than putting out raging internal fires, he would have to rally his troops behind what Kotze termed “dealing with a socio-economic transformation in the context of a liberal democracy in the midst of an economic recession”.
“The difficult question,” Kotze says, “is how to generate jobs, fast-track transformation and engage in sufficient levels of economic development for a sustainable future while maintaining the democratic core of the South African democracy.”
Simply put: how does the ANC keep everybody happy?
While the atrocities of apartheid can never be underplayed, relatively speaking defeating oppression was arguably simpler than the task at hand.
From Ka Isaka Seme to Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo to Nelson Mandela, the enemy was one: the white apartheid government.
For Zuma, however, the task is to move a 100-year-old organisation, still resting on its liberation laurels, to radically implement visible and sufficient change in government.
Whether the ANC can pull this off is up to the party.
The issue perhaps is not so much wanting to turn the country’s fortunes around, but finding the political will to do so.
Zuma’s task at Mangaung will be to lead a thorough introspection of this aged beast and to propel it to what it aims to be: “custodian of SA’s future democratic development”, as Kotze puts it.
Perhaps much like Polokwane, which is synonymous with the rise of the leftists, Mangaung will be, as is hoped, the turning point for the once-revered movement.