The ANC at 101; the ANC of Jacob Zuma

During the handover of the reins of the ANC and South Africa to Thabo Mbeki in the mid-nineties, Nelson Mandela developed the habit of referring to political parties according to who was leading it at the time. For example, he would say "the National Party of FW De Klerk" or "the IFP of Mangosuthu Buthelezi" (not that there would be any confusion now or then about who is the IFP boss).

Even though he was still president of the ruling party, Mandela would say "the ANC of Thabo Mbeki", which at the time was perceived to be his way of endorsing his successor's leadership. But in truth, the ANC of the mid-nineties was already changing rapidly from its former incarnation as a liberation movement. Of course it had to. It was the governing party and had to adapt itself from an exiled party fighting an oppressive regime to control the levers of the state.

Once Mbeki did take over as ANC president, he made a deliberate attempt to change the party according to how he thought it should function - top down, secondary to the state. It immediately set him on a collision course with the populists and the alliance partners. Before the ANC's 2002 national conference, he actually revealed that he preferred the ANC to be a core of high calibre leaders rather than to aim for burgeoning membership.

He described the prototype of the ANC member he wanted as such: "This is a cadre who strives at all times to raise his or her political consciousness. This is a cadre who works continuously to improve his or her skills to enhance his or her capacity to serve the people of South Africa. This is a cadre who is loyal to the movement, dedicated to its cause and respects the discipline of a movement she or he would have joined voluntarily, with no compulsion by anybody.

"It may be that not everybody accepts what some may consider to be burdensome obligations of membership of the ANC. We are permanently interested in increasing the size and strength of our movement. Nevertheless I am convinced that we must also pay particular attention to the principle - better fewer, but better!" Mbeki said at the ANC policy conference in 2002.

The foundation of Mbeki's view on the character of the ANC and its members is a controversial internal document he wrote several years before in preparation for the party's first post democracy national conference in 1994. Entitled "From Resistance to Reconstruction: Tasks of the ANC in the New Epoch of the Democratic Transformation - Unmandated Reflections", the document was Mbeki's glance into the crystal ball as to how the ANC would look in the future and the political opposition it would face from within and outside the alliance.

"Some of these objectives that these forces will pursue will be: To destroy the ANC from within … [and] to create contradictions and conflict between the ANC and other formations in the democratic movement. The offensive against the ANC will concentrate on a number of issues, among others: Splitting the organisation and fomenting an internal struggle on the basis that the ANC is made up of three component parts (in government, in parliament and at the grassroots) the ANC in government will be portrayed as having betrayed the interests of the masses, the ANC in parliament which will present itself as the 'revolutionary watchdog' over the treacherous ANC in the executive, and the ANC outside government which will be projected as the true representative of the soul of the movement with a historic task to be the 'revolution watchdogs'; Splitting the ANC around the issue of leadership, with various comrades within the movement being set up against one another on the basis that they represent different competing tendencies within the movement."

Paranoid maybe, but quite incredible how close Mbeki was to predicting 18 years ago how the ANC would turn on itself and how competing forces in the party would fight for dominance.

The ANC in 2013 might have the same colours, sing some of the same songs and hang on to the same traditions as the party of liberation, but is different in one major respect: the quality of its leaders and members.

The ANC embarked on a mass recruitment drive in the past five years to take its membership over the million mark - a roaring success in terms of numbers but toxic to the character of the party in that it attracted all manner of people into the organisation with little or no appreciation for its values and history. The pursuit of wealth and status has also led to many using their ANC membership as a hot ticket to patronage, state resources and other material rewards, which resulted in a negative backlash on the party image.

ANC membership during the liberation struggle was a danger to a person's life and welfare. Joining the party was a conscious decision to put one's life at risk and a commitment to self-sacrifice. In KwaZulu-Natal in particular, ANC membership was a death warrant which led to people being hunted by the notorious KZP (KwaZulu Police), the IFP or the then South African Police.

Last year the ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal went up by over 80,000 members, with no screening whatsoever of the new recruits and no political education conducted to ensure that they were schooled on the values, traditions and history of the party.

It is no wonder, then, that the older generation of ANC members feels alienated and disillusioned. The party is obviously not able to preserve that which held it together during the difficult years of the liberation struggle when it has to accommodate thousands of new members who have no institutional memory or regard for the culture which defined the ANC.

What they see now is a party convulsing between trying to modernise and retain its heritage at the same time. It takes strong and inspired leadership to maintain the balance and give direction to the state. But this is not a consideration in ANC elections. The past two ANC national conferences have degenerated into factional wars which produce opposing slates with only one set of winners.

There is no assessment of who are the best leaders of the ANC; rather, the dominant faction produces the top line-up and controls the national executive committee (NEC). The losing faction, regardless of whether there is talent among them, is out in the cold.

In Mangaung, KwaZulu-Natal got virtually its entire list of preferred leaders for the NEC elected, by virtue of its size and influence. While there are a few people on the NEC that are above the factional battles - Joel Netshitenzhe and Pallo Jordan among others - the committee is now overwhelmingly dominated by allies of President Jacob Zuma. These include his lobbyists, cheerleaders from the alliance and members of his Cabinet. This means there are unlikely to be many critical voices or engaging debate in the ANC's highest decision-making body between conferences.

The ANC of Jacob Zuma, therefore, is the very antithesis of the ANC of generations past. Although the ANC's centenary celebrations in 2012 were a conscious effort to show it was the same cohesive, valiant party that fought colonialism, racism and sexism, the ANC of old would not have survived and triumphed over Apartheid had it been run by the calibre of leaders and members it has now.

One of the things the new battalion of recruits would not know is that one of the ANC's major strengths was its vigorous debate and engagement, led by men and women of impeccable credentials, selfless dedication to the organisation and a vast knowledge base. The cult of a single leader and personal status did not feature.

But the fact that the ANC has mutated and changed so significantly would not matter if its current leaders were wholly committed to alleviating the numerous critical problems South Africa has now. On Saturday, Zuma delivers the NEC's mission statement for the year at the ANC anniversary rally in Durban. The statement can either be an inspired plan of action or another declaration of empty rhetoric.

In a lecture last October on the ANC centenary, Mbeki, in his inimitable style, used literature to lament the state of leadership and "grave challenges we face".

He said: "Some centuries ago, in his famous play, Hamlet, the eminent English playwright, William Shakespeare, reflecting on similarly troubled times in his imagined State of Denmark, got the hero of the play, Hamlet, to utter the challenging words full of pathos:

The time is out of joint -

O cursèd spite

That ever I was born to set it right!

I dare say that the time during which we live is out of joint."

The ANC of Jacob Zuma has now to prove that even though it is a shadow of its former self, it can set things right. They are now the custodians of a 101-year old grand organisation. They have five years to show they are not the masters of its destruction.

This column appeared in The Daily Maverick.