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OPINION: What exactly is happening in Tshwane?

One can't help but feel that this week's violent protests in Tshwane are a multi-layered and complex problem. Centre-stage is a political party that has lost its moorings against the backdrop of corruption and patronage and easily combustible communities, some of which have over 50% unemployment rates.

But all this did not happen overnight. As far back as 2007, then secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe warned of "the cancer of corruption eating away at the ANC". In December 2005 then President Thabo Mbeki addressed an ANC staff lekgotla and spoke at length about the 'new cadre' of the movement. Mbeki pointed out then that the challenges for the ANC was dealing with "being in power". He said, "we have seen these people attracted to join the ANC as a bee is to a honey pot. They come with the view that they will use access to power for personal benefit". He went on pointedly to say, "We have been trying to raise this matter for some time now" before listing examples of those who may carry an ANC membership card but, in their actions of stoking violence to gain positions, "are not ANC".

So the complexity of the liberation movement in dealing with power and attempting to become a modern political party, constrained by free and fair elections and then the transparency and accountability required in a democracy, has found the ANC sorely lacking in depth and in its ability to keep the rent-seekers out. This challenge is, of course, not unique to the ANC as a liberation movement.

Enter Jacob Zuma who ascended to power in a way that shifted things within the ANC quite dramatically. At Polokwane the deep strains of intolerance that had been building across the tripartite alliance during the Mbeki years were felt almost from the first day of that ANC conference. Ahead of the event there was already significant gripes regarding membership numbers and whether some delegates at Polokwane were members of branches in good standing or not.

'Slate voting' - where delegates vote en bloc for a group of individuals, thus distorting voting processes and entrenching factionalism - became the order of the day and set a pattern for voting at subsequent elective conferences. Motlanthe, ahead of the ANC's Mangaung conference, lamented that slate voting was the "worst form of corruption" within the party. But who was listening then, and who is listening now?

Zuma became president of the ANC as a result of slate voting and it is not in his interests to make any attempt to open the Pandora's box of change. One person alone cannot solve the ANC's challenges, though one cannot help but look to Zuma as the embodiment of all that is wrong and corrupt within the ANC. He has taken the corruption Motlanthe and Mbeki bemoaned to new and far more brazen levels, endangering the very democratic project of 1994 as well as its institutions. Earlier this year, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa said, "in the 2016 local government elections we will not play zama-zama with our people's future. So we will not allow our municipalities to be turned into a lottery. We will not allow our municipalities to be employers of last resort and provide jobs for pals. We want sound, dedicated, and skilled personnel in our municipalities. Let it be known that if you abuse power, you will lose it. If you do not deliver, you are out. If you are caught with your fingers in the till, you will go to jail." Ramaphosa knows that he serves at the behest of a man who himself has done everything in his power to escape more than 700 charges of fraud and whose friends are capturing the state through state-owned enterprises. His words thus ring decidedly hollow.

The depth of the rot within the ANC can also thus not be solved overnight. Its failure of internal democracy and consistent inability to weed out the rent-seekers has become a governance challenge across most of the country. There is no doubt that trying to change the ANC system of imposing leaders, which under Mbeki caused so many complaints, was a feeble attempt to root out some corruption and create a sense of internal control. However, parachuting Thoko Didiza in as mayoral candidate for Tshwane was simply too little too late. The ANC leadership, after all, has been well acquainted with the deep divisions in Tshwane for a while now. These divisions relate to factionalism, 'slates' of supporters, those who would seek to destroy rather than give up power and who would seek political power to gain access to resources and tenders.

South Africa needs a governing party that is strong, sure-footed and able to deal with electoral and other conflict effectively. We are in dangerous territory when the ruling party is unable to summon the moral authority to deal with their organisational challenges in ways that are non-violent.

In the past week, the ANC has seemed weak while arsonists and looters run amok. In some instances we are told the police simply looked on. As usual, in South Africa we can rely on denialism and obfuscation by the ruling party, saying that ANC supporters had not started the violence. Was it orchestrated by a faction of the party as some media reports suggest? Given South Africa's high levels of unemployment, poverty and inequality, the time is always ripe for instability, violence and breaches of the law. We ignore the xenophobic element to some of the violence in Tshwane at our peril. Somali shop owners were attacked and their goods stolen. In times of scarcity and violence, 'the other' is often targeted. One has yet to hear a condemnation of this aspect of the past few days' events.

Flames rise from two shops set alight during overnight looting in Mabopane north of Pretoria on 21 June 2016. Picture: Reinart Toerien/EWN.

In times like these we look to the state to provide both protection and guidance. That was sorely lacking this week. The problem is that the state is the ANC and the ANC is the state. Much of it feels simply like Zuma's fiefdom. The ministers of the justice and crime prevention cluster appear weak and without authority. Our State Security Minister David Mahlobo always claims to "know who the culprits are", yet somehow never manages to use this intelligence to prevent acts of violence. In Vuwani he claimed also to know who started the burning, yet to date nothing has been done about that.

The ANC, long detached from its founding ideals and its members' voices, is in serious trouble and no amount of papering over the cracks will show otherwise.

The immediate effect of Tshwane will be a call for calm ahead of the elections. Yet, we can expect a violent election challenging the apparatus of state and the IEC. How will the ANC and its supporters deal with electoral losses in key areas, for instance?

And more importantly, how does it therefore rejuvenate itself, and is that even possible?

We won't know whether the ANC can fix itself yet, all we know is that it is broken.

Judith February is based at the Institute for Security Studies. Follow her on Twitter: @judithfebruary_

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