There’s hardly any political party in any democracy in the world that does not have internal squabbles. Political parties globally are driven by internal conflict. In the United States, the Republican Party has become consumed with infighting less than two weeks before election day. The party is engaged in a fierce civil war, instigated largely by a ridiculous presidential nominee, a bigot whose divisive and toxic rhetoric has inflicted incalculable harm on his party.
South African political parties are not immune to internal party conflicts. Being a vibrant democracy, we have seen the rise of internal party tensions which have become the trademark of party politics in this country. Even the country’s smallest political parties haven’t been insulated from internal feuds that have driven many of them into extinction.
The ANC, which has been in power since the dawn of democracy more than two decades ago, is experiencing the worst cracks since assuming power in 1994. While no political party is immune from infighting, what is key is whether a party is able to learn from these challenges and whether it is able to manage these intra party wranglings to ensure its sustainability and survival.
Judging by what is happening in the ruling party, it appears it is unable to learn from history and is more than willing to repeat past mistakes. The ANC emerged from its Polokwane elective conference highly divided between supporters of President Thabo Mbeki and those of Jacob Zuma, who had defeated Mbeki as the organisation’s leader.
Very little was done to repair the damage this leadership contest had inflicted on the party two years before the 2009 national elections. Instead, supporters of Mbeki, led by Mosiuoa Lekota, formed their own party, Congress of the People (Cope), which contested the 2009 elections and grabbed more than 1 million votes, mostly from their former political home.
The ANC, which obtained 69.7% of votes in the 2004 elections, still won but obtained 65.90%. The 3.8% loss in votes for the ANC was attributed to divisions in the party – prior to the elections which led to the split – that saw the birth of Cope. That the ANC did not learn from this split was evidenced by how it handled its problem with its populist youth league leader, Julius Malema, who it expelled in 2012, two years before national elections.
Malema, who begged without any success for any punishment except being stripped of his membership of the ANC, miraculously regrouped and staged one of the most spectacular political comebacks in SA history. He went on to establish his own party, which is now the country’s third-biggest political party that has played a major role in the ANC’s loss of electoral support in several of the country’s metro councils.
With the 2019 elections just over two years away, there are no signs the ANC has learnt from its past blunders. Calls are growing for dissidents like Jackson Mthembu, who openly speaks against Zuma, to be sacked. Theoretical physicist Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This rings true in the case of the ANC.