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[ANALYSIS] Marching entropy threatens ANC’s future

In a polity as fast-moving as ours, it can sometimes be difficult when to know that things actually have fundamentally changed. Sometimes, the yardsticks are easy – Thabo Mbeki lost to President Jacob Zuma at Polokwane, and we knew life would be different. Sometimes, they are unexpected, such as the ANC’s loss of three metros in the 2016 local elections. And sometimes, they come about as a result of unpredictable events, say, a memorial service. The marches on Friday were massive. The reaction of the ANC was to show that it cannot even remember someone like Ahmed Kathrada in a dignified, let alone unified, way. It’s been said before, but things really are now never going to be the same.

As a nation, we do not shock easily. This is a place where a president was booed during Nelson Mandela’s memorial service, which world leaders had travelled from far and wide to attend. But even back then, just three short years ago now, the ANC still had a residual moral authority. That, surely, has now departed.

The ANC, that body that claims to be a leader of society, that can unify our people with their disparate histories and cultures, can now not even remember one of its own in a dignified fashion. Unfortunately for the party, these internal pressures are peaking at a time when the pressure from outside is greater than it has ever been since it came to power in 1994.

On Sunday another memorial service was held for Ahmed Kathrada, this time in Durban. For the man who spent decades in the cell next to Mandela. And like the man he shared a wall with, his memorials too have become an opportunity for political disruption. The main speaker was former Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan. Even before he spoke, the service was disrupted by members of the ANC Youth League. Like the Black First Land First movement, revealing themselves by “guarding” the Gupta residence on Friday, so these Youth League members revealed themselves by chanting and singing in favour of President Jacob Zuma. It was obvious who sent these people, and why. And it was then obvious that that man wanted this to happen, and he does not care at all about the message that it sends out to the rest of the country, and, even less, to the world.

It can be easy to criticise and mock those who decided to march last week. Or even for someone like presidential contender Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to tweet that the marches were “rubbish” (before she deleted the tweet and promised “an investigation” to see who was responsible for it). But what is surely undeniable is the number of people involved. Even on government’s own numbers, 60,000 people marched against Zuma. This is unprecedented. Not just in the Zuma era, but in the post-democracy era. (The only organisation which may have had bigger protests during this period was Cosatu, but they would have been as part of strikes against a generic idea of government, not a person, and not the ANC.)

But it is not just numbers that make the marches so powerful. Their power actually rests in the breadth of the constituencies involved. It is not easy for white Sandtonites and black domestic workers, and lawyers and workers, to find common ground. But on this they were in agreement: Zuma must go.

Almost all parts of our country were represented in some way on Friday. From the DA and the bullet-proofed Mmusi Maimane, to the ANC-veteran Sipho Pityana, through to the civil society veteran leader Mark Heywood, and Julius Malema. It was the most diverse of united fronts.

For the ANC, this is a clear warning. It is the ANC that claims to be the leader of society. It is the ANC that claims to be the party, the vehicle that unifies the country. It is the party that claims to be “multiclass with a bias towards the poor”. It made non-racialism the non-negotiable bedrock of our politics. And now it is the party that appears to be, for short-term political purposes, trying to reopen our old, still unhealed wounds, inflaming race issues more and more in a way that is hard to see as constructive. And, while being engaged in such disturbing development, it badly struggles to heal its own divides, divisions, ruptures and conflicts.

In normal politics (should there be such a thing) people are usually divided by their class and their position in society. Here, Zuma appears to be uniting them all, against him and what’s left of the newly politically isolated ANC. Think about that for a moment. A significant proportion of people in the most unequal society on earth are united in calling for Zuma to go. It takes real political skill to provoke such strong response.

One of the more important aspects of Friday’s marches is that people who have been politically active only through voting since 1994 are now feeling the need to get involved in active, street politics. And once they’ve tasted it, it is much easier for them to do it again. Which means that some marches in the future may be even bigger than Friday’s events. What is certain is that there are going to be more marches. More and more of them, in fact.

The ANC appears to have already given in to the temptation to decide to hold its own mass events in return, in what has become known as the politics of “filling stadiums”. On Wednesday, while opposition parties are holding a “Day of National Action” and another march, the ANC Youth League (whose leaders believe that being downgraded to junk is good for a nation) will be holding its own rally to celebrate Zuma’s birthday. Thankfully for all of us, their rally will be in Kliptown, and thus the two events should be far enough apart. But even that is not really a rally of the ANC. It is a rally of only the part of the ANC that thought it would be a good idea to disturb and disrupt the memorial service for Kathrada on Sunday afternoon. This is not the ANC, this is a factional group using disruptions to prevail.

But the ANC does not appear to have the organisational strength that it had in the past. Ten years ago the one organisation in this country that could mobilise a million people to take over the streets was Cosatu. And it could keep them out there for a week. No longer. And even if it could, its members would be more likely to march against Zuma than to march for him.

The ANC itself, while still able to fill the Orlando Stadium in January, does not appear to be able to organise in the same numbers it could just a decade ago. And when a leader of one of its formations is known to all and sundry as “Oros”, then you realise how little respect most people pay to this formation.

Meanwhile, the organisational strength of the DA appears to be growing. It is able to arrange a march with thousands of people at a week’s notice. And the thing about this is that they are likely to get better at it. The Economic Freedom Fighters also have more practice in getting people out, and could decide to do this more regularly.

And the strength of all of the opposition parties uniting is that it essentially turns the event into a political one that is above party politics. You can lean towards Cope if you like, or think Bantu Holomisa is the best thing since Roelf Meyer, and you can still come, and no one will accuse you of backing Malema, or “selling out” by supporting those in blue. Perhaps the real power in this sort of broad-front politics is that, almost at a stroke, it removes the power of identity politics. It is hard to claim that a rally against Zuma involving all of the opposition parties is somehow “white” or "anti-black". Particularly when someone with the racial legitimacy of Malema is on the podium. And of course, the attendance, or explicit backing of these marches by the SACP allows those who grew up "in the movement" to feel that they are not betraying their own history by taking part.

While these groups appear to be having some success in uniting people of different classes across our society, the ANC appears to be having the opposite effect on its own members. Excuse the blasphemy, but for God’s sake, they cannot have a memorial service in an organised fashion. It certainly cannot deny being split. While some of its members, and the Cabinet it deployed, have celebrated the removal of Gordhan, others have publicly lambasted the president. And, for the moment, survived. And have not apologised. And as the leadership contest approaches, the party is only likely to be split even further.

Perhaps in desperation, some leaders appear to be almost going down the Zanu-PF route, claiming that the outside world does not matter, that ratings agencies are a European conspiracy, and that Zuma is to be praised because Gordhan is an instrument of “white monopoly capital”. Others, of course, realise the real damage that is being done to your economy, how every South African is going to be poorer and how things are only going to get worse. But those who back Zuma in this way are bound to divide the party still further. It is not just white members who will leave, but possibly those of other minority groups. People who belong to its Saxonwold and Sandton branches are surely going to feel that they are not welcome in a group that tolerates these comments. In other words, the ANC itself is splitting along class lines, and the urban/rural divide. Of course, it’s not always as simple as that, but that is what seems to be happening.

And seriously, if you belonged to a club that could not remember one of its own all-time heroes without rancour, would you really want to stay a member? Or supporter?

Meanwhile, other parts of society that have stayed out of politics are now being drawn in. Business, organised and otherwise, is beginning to play a bigger role. If you consider that just a few years ago FNB retracted and apologised for an advert asking about the direction of the country, things have changed dramatically. The Banking Association said Gordhan’s removal was “not in the national interest”. That’s pretty direct criticism. And they’re not going to withdraw that at this stage.

On Sunday, the jewellery chain Browns, which has advertised on the front page of the Sunday Times for years, paid for the bottom right-hand block of the page to be printed in black. With the simple message; “In memory of Madiba and all that he stood for”. For one retail chain, a chain that faces its customers directly, with no interface, this is a bold statement. And an incredibly powerful one.

Groups like the Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) are now calling on their members to withhold paying income tax in protest at the level of corruption in Zuma’s government. This is unprecedented. Lines have been crossed here. People who maybe felt that not paying tax was too big a step for them, now know they will have support. In the same way that OUTA’s promise to legally defend the first person charged for not paying tolls ensured very low levels of payment, so this call by Fedusa could have a big impact. People may feel there is safety in numbers.

However, there is one problem that these groups who are opposed to Zuma have. They may agree that he must go, but their Achilles’ Heel is that they will have very differing views on what should happen next and who should take over. Even if he went, can you imagine the fight between the DA and the EFF on whether it should be Cyril Ramaphosa or someone else. This issue could become a deal breaker soon. And there is no easy way to resolve it.

There is one other aspect that is important to mention. Politics is going to become an even bigger part of our daily lives than it had been. It will be mentioned in speeches at family events, in boardrooms, at birthday parties. Everywhere you go, this is going to be the most important topic of conversation.

This kind of situation could be countered, there are political responses to these criticisms, to these marches, that could be made. Some would be more legitimate than others. But to make those responses, a party would need to be unified, it would need to have direction, and a purpose that is not just to enrich a few. It would need to mobilise and ensure that meetings, and trains, arrive on time. This, the ANC of Sunday late afternoon plainly cannot do.

And consider this. The ANC now cannot have a memorial service to honour a respected person without disruption, without the police having to be present in large numbers. Now, imagine the start of the ANC’s conference in December. Imagine, as these internal tensions continue to build, as the pressure from outside continues to get worse and worse. We now have to consider, seriously, the awful possibility that the December conference doesn’t even finish. Doesn’t even start. And that all that ends, right there on the stage in front of all of us, is the ANC itself.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes

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