Thursday, December 22, 2016

ANC Veterans in New Fight for Soul of Their Own Party
New split in former militant wing reveals bitter feud in South Africa’s ruling party

by Joseph Cotterill in Johannesburg
Financial Times

Apartheid-era struggle songs filled a hall as middle-aged men and women danced and swayed to the rhythmic beat. They wore uniforms that combined combat camouflage with the black, green and gold livery of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress — rekindling memories of the former liberation movement’s fight against white minority rule.

The recent gathering in Germiston, near Johannesburg, of veterans of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the ANC’s armed wing in the fight against apartheid rule, was designed as a show of unity and support for Jacob Zuma, the embattled president.

But for all the joviality and pledges of support for Mr Zuma, who once served as an MK operative, it failed to mask the depths of a bitter feud that has broken out among the veterans.

Rather, divisions within the MK epitomise a crisis engulfing the ANC as scandal-prone Mr Zuma defiantly swats away mounting calls for him to step aside for the sake of the party that has dominated politics since 1994.

Although the days of apartheid are long gone, some MK veterans see the tradition of “the struggle” being revived. Some have been shocked into action by the ANC’s humiliating performance in local government elections in August, when for the first time it lost control of cities including Johannesburg and Pretoria. Others are fed up with the stream of allegations of corruption and cronyism that have blighted Mr Zuma’s seven years in office and severely tarnished the ANC’s credibility.

“It is traumatic . . . if the ANC doesn’t listen, it will lose power in 2019 [elections],” says Mandla Dlamini, one of those at the meeting, tears welling in his eyes. “A number of people have been in denial [about the state of the ANC].”

Even at his lowest point in MK exile training camps in Angola and other countries during the apartheid era, Mr Dlamini says he never imagined the ANC might one day be facing the crisis of legitimacy it does now.

He is one of a group of veterans who have become increasingly critical of the ANC’s leadership and had intended to meet at the town hall in Germiston. But in a hint at the way Mr Zuma and his allies operate to counter dissent in the party, they suddenly found they had been outflanked by pro-Zuma veterans who had booked the venue.

“We must support Zuma,” says Commander Mthunzi, an attendee at the Germiston meeting. “We are a revolutionary defender.”

While the pro-Zuma meeting was going ahead, the president fought to stave off a serious threat to his grip on power after senior ANC members, including government ministers, raised a motion for him to resign at a meeting of the party’s top decision-making body.

Mr Zuma rallied his supporters and survived. But the ruptures are only likely to deepen. Some of the ANC’s highest profile and most respected veterans, including Ahmed Kathrada, a member of the MK’s original high command, have added their voices to the calls for him to step down.

“Those veterans were trying to defeat the president,” says Reginald Msibi at the Germiston meeting — looking surprisingly youthful among ex-combatants of a force that demobilised in 1993. “There are too many factions . . . They [other veterans] will talk, but it’s outside the context of the movement.”

Illustrating the increasingly toxic nature of the factionalism, Kebby Maphatsoe, head of the pro-Zuma MK Veterans’ Association, was recently rebuked by his own party for comments made about the stalwarts who have criticised Mr Zuma.

Indeed, compared with civil society leaders, businessmen and some of Mr Zuma’s own cabinet ministers who have called for the president to go, the unrest among MK veterans has particular emotional resonance for the party.

Rank-and-file MK recruits, over 10,000 of whom were trained outside South Africa, were “the single largest component of the ANC in exile”, says Thula Simpson, lecturer at Pretoria university and a chronicler of the armed struggle.

William Gumede, chair of the Democracy Works Foundation adds: “It shows that Zuma’s leadership has split the ANC along every level possible.

“Every structure of the ANC now is divided into two groups. This is historic and extraordinary . . . What we’re seeing is almost two parties.”

A council of former MK leaders met this month around the organisation’s 55th anniversary to discuss how to restore ANC unity.

That veterans rather than the new generation are leading calls for an end to corruption may underline the ANC’s dilemma even further, Mr Gumede adds: “The post-1994 generation are increasingly not interested in the ANC any more.”

But as the ANC prepares for a gruelling year culminating in a conference next December at which it will elect its leadership, disgruntled veterans may remain a powerful influence on the movement’s future.

“We are bringing hope to a number of people,” Mr Dlamini says. “They are rising up from their slumber, those who were thinking nothing can be done.”

No comments: