Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Doublespeak

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ANC President Jacob Zuma and SA President Thabo Mbeki have released a joint statement dispelling the notion that there are two camps in the ruling party. This appears to be a desperate attempt at a display of unity - a rare occurrence given the two politicians' otherwise antagonistic relationship.

In a letter to the City Press, Messrs. Zuma and Mbeki insist that "[n]either of us holds opposing political positions. Neither of us are involved in a struggle to build a personal support base in the ANC..."

"There is no Zuma camp in the ANC. There is no Mbeki camp in the ANC. Nobody, including members of the ANC and the media, should use our names to pursue divisive goals that have nothing to do with the truth".

One can appreciate this gesture for its attempt to achieve some kind of d├ętente between the ANC's organisational structures - dominated by Zuma and the new National Executive Committee (NEC) - and the incumbents of state office. It could be argued that the contradictory messages on everything from the electoral crisis in Zimbabwe to the crime problem have left South Africans thoroughly confused as to the policy positions of the Congress. Such conflict hampers effective decision-making and creates needless distractions from the more important task of governance.

However, not only is the joint statement a feeble attempt to paper over the divisions that exist in the ANC, it is also consistent with the party's long-held, and cumbersome tradition of "collective leadership". This principle may have worked in building exile structures, but it is at the very root of the ANC's current problems. During the Mbeki years collective leadership narrowed the space for the contestation of ideas and cultivated a climate of fear - with those who broke rank feeling the cold rebuke of The Chief.

The party seems to be uncomfortable with the newfound diversity of opinion from within its ranks, but this is a necessary phase in order to create more deliberative mechanisms of governance. We should welcome the divisions within the ANC, not because we wish to see them torn apart, but because we recognise the value of having plural voices in one of the country's most important institutions.

The open letter also reveals the supercilious character of the ANC leadership and its perception of the public. Are we so easily swayed by the utterances of our politicians that if they merely insist that something is not the case then it will cease to be an issue in the public mind?

Alternatively, the letter could be considered a message to rivals within the ANC that they should cease their fighting for the sake of the higher good of organisational solidarity; but this also seems feeble. No amount of proclamations can get you around the awkward fact that there are competing networks of patronage vying for the limited resources of the state and that only one faction can win.

A reconciliatory gesture this may be by Zuma's people, but the fact that such statements are being made at all is indicative of the seriousness of the divisions. No such statements would be necessary if the ANC was indeed operating on a united front.

This letter appeared in the Business Day, 12th June 2008.

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