The Idea of a Splinter Party and its Prospects

By Saliem Fakir · 27 Sep 2008

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Picture: Flagkit
Picture: Flagkit

The dismissal of Thabo Mbeki and the walkout by eleven ministers and some deputies indicates that a severe split exists within the African National Congress (ANC), despite claims to the contrary.

The fissure began in 2005 when Zuma was fired by Mbeki and persisted well beyond the Polokwane Congress in December 2007. Frantic efforts have been made to keep the fight within the ANC and restore unity --seemingly without avail.

Crises are usually fertile ground for fear, panic and opportunity -- opportunity for those who see it.

It would not have evaded the imagination of some that perhaps the whole sordid situation of the palace coup within the ANC may give birth to something new and lively in South African politics – the formation of a new political party.

There is a strong chance that an ANC splinter group of the crestfallen that cannot reconcile itself with the new ANC leadership will contest either this election or the next. Nobody is saying anything yet, but the rumours are flying.

This rumour has being doing the rounds for about two months now and started when the Democratic Alliance (DA) was thought to be talking to some individuals within the ANC about the formation of a new party and possible merger.

Differences between camps go beyond personalities and position, which makes the split within the ANC inevitable. These differences are fundamentally about ideas and not just power.

After 14 years of rule, the party has put a lid on different intellectual traditions of how South Africa should be governed.

This is at the heart of the current rift. The ability of the ANC to reconcile these ideological differences has not borne any fruit. The divide between the believers in real-politik and those who believe that the revolution was stolen from the masses has reached no final resolution within the party.

They essentially have given birth to two different strands of the ANC’s National Democratic Revolution (NDR). They are rarely spoken of in this way because the party has tended to paper over these differences denying their existence.

The first is Mbeki’s pragmatic socialism and accommodation of capital. A whole intelligentsia, bureaucratic elite as well as economic interest groups have suckled on the reversioned NDR.

The second is the emergence of more populist tendencies that have begun to already air their views on a range of issues facing South Africa. They have more radical views about the NDR.

The second tendency feels that socialism requires deepening and that some radical political and economic restructuring is required. The second accuses the first of being overly accommodating towards international and local capital.

Vignettes of this debate have slowly surfaced around issues of inflation targeting, budgetary spend, economic restructuring and proposals for the creation of a 'super-cabinet' to ensure that state planning is more centralised and better co-ordinated.

What impact will a new party have, if it ever comes into existence?

It is still too early to tell. People have argued that low voter turnout has meant that South Africa has reached democratic maturity. Such talk is an indication of the lack of seriousness with which voter interest in politics is taken. There are reasons for voter apathy – political parties have been able to offer little.

In the 2004 elections, only 48.4 percent of people voted and by then the ANC had already lost half the voters that originally voted it into power in 1994.

This was not an indication of democratic maturity, but rather disenchantment in politics. The opposition parties have not been able to make any inroads into the ANC's losses. They are unlikely to do so in the 2009 elections. Some analysts seem to think the situation will get worse.

The DA is pretty much moribund, as Helen Zille who thought she could charm the electorate by holding two posts – that of party leader and Mayor of the City of Cape Town – has only demonstrated that she can’t be superwoman and the party has suffered.

The DA has proven that it can’t shake off its image as a party of the privileged and minority interests. Only the 2009 elections will put-to-pay Zille’s claim that black voters will flock to the polls in the DA’s favour. Don’t hold your breath.

The Independent Democrats (ID) may gain some of the losses and perhaps bring new voters to the polling stations, but the party is too young to make a significant dent. It also lacks heavyweights within its ranks that can woo voters in significant numbers across the country. The ID, though, has shown better growth rates than the DA. Other minor parties are neither here nor there regarding their impact on voters.

It is in this context of change and voter disinterest that a splinter group, contesting politics, may invigorate the South African political landscape in general. It all depends on who takes the front seat or helm of the new party. Whether it will come sooner or later is also open to conjecture. Those at the helm are unlikely to be Tokyo Sexwale and Cyril Ramaphosa -- they were in the thick and thin of the National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting last Friday, calling for Mbeki’s ousting.

This does not preclude the premise that an ANC split is inevitable because the continuation of two opposing strands within the ANC and the ANC trying to hold the ideal of a broad church together seems untenable.

The ANC seems to think it can, presenting this as a rift between the party and the presidency, rather than as something much deeper within the ANC; and suggesting that the ANC will normalise once Mbeki and his inner circle have been dispensed with. 

No doubt ANC heavyweights that want to continue the Mbeki tradition do have the potential to muster a considerable amount of the ANC’s vote – primarily from the middle class, some of the working class and other elites.

They will have to shed a lot of the Mbeki baggage too if they are to win over other voters, those that have not aligned themselves to the ANC traditionally, and who have not committed themselves to any party at the moment.

The realisation is dawning on some ANC stalwarts that the battle for ideas and 'hearts and minds' can’t be won by staying within the broad church. The forces that have gathered since Polokwane have firmly entrenched themselves at the helm, narrowing the space for any other opposition from within that could gain ground or produce a counter-revolution.

Opportunities are more likely to exist outside than come from within. It may be the beginnings of a great new era for South African democracy – party opposition politics with real teeth, rather than minors shouting till their throats can no longer hold, is a far more interesting offering. But, it is still to be seen whether the gap will be taken, as some seem to think it will.

Fakir is an independent writer based in Cape Town.

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Rory Short
29 Sep

Meaningful Politics

The debate surrounding the 'not so hidden' split in the ANC is totally bereft of exciting aand innovative ideas about solutions to our very real problems. The shennenigans are actually totally boring in this respect. We need genuine attention grasping political debate on ideas in this country. A genuine ANC split would hopefully give us that.

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