How would ANC leaders fare in opposition?

Douglas Gibson asks how the liberation movement would fare if the inconceivable happened in 2019

The Speaker of the National Assembly,  Baleka Mbete, announced recently that she was ready to be the president of the ANC. 

She joined the aspirants who all coyly say they are humbled and honoured to be considered before scrambling backward and stating that it is not appropriate to discuss the leadership of their party just yet.  Orders from on high.

And then “On High” breaches the same diktat and goes on to endorse, or virtually endorse, Nkosazana Dlamini, the mother of around twenty per cent of his children. He also berates the aspirants for announcing their readiness to serve.  He then adds that it is time for a woman president, and praises Dlamini Zuma. This painful process seems set to go on for the rest of this year until the ANC elective conference in December.

My two grandchildren aged two love to hide behind the curtain or the door, be the subject of a search with the searcher asking: “Where’s Keira?  Where’s Thomas?” before they squeal with delight at being found.  The goings-on of the geriatric aspirants in the ANC remind me of the grandchildren playing games.

Every one of the declared (or if you prefer it, undeclared ) candidates for ANC leadership qualifies for an old age pension.  In a young country with the vast majority of the voters being young, the credible aspirants all seem too old. Why don’t some of them go ahead and retire? The Americans have just inducted their oldest president in history, probably encouraging our aged to stay in the race.

The lure of high office in the ANC is so attractive because the candidates and the commentariat all seem to believe that the next stop is the Union Buildings.  For a full generation, the ANC has been a shoo-in to win every election and most people cannot conceive of any other outcome in 2019. 

They overlook the fact that no-one, repeat, no-one, would have predicted five years ago that Solly Msimanga, Athol Trollip and Herman Mashaba would be the mayors respectively of Tshwane, Nelson Nmandela Bay Metro and Johannesburg.  What happens if Mmusi Maimane is the next incumbent of the Union Buildings, perhaps as the head of a DA led- coalition government? If the ANC vote falls to below 50%, that could happen.

South Africa would then have its youngest president ever – Maimane is thirty six years old. The president of the ANC would then be leader of the opposition. In considering who it wants as its next leader, the ANC ought to be thinking about this possibility.

Every democracy needs a good and effective opposition.  A government with a weak and poor opposition can too easily go off the rails. People who assume power are under a great temptation to think they will be there, and perhaps even should be there, forever.  We know that President Zuma feels the current government will (and should)  remain in power until Jesus returns and sees nothing wrong in repeating the statement, not caring whether he gives offence to Christians in the process.

Arrogance like that turns voters off and being human, even a new government might at some stage fall prey to the same hubris.  This is why a vigorous, highly motivated, well-briefed and well-led opposition is essential to the further democratic development of our country.

Some believe that the gold standard for opposition was set by Tony Leon and his “Magnificent Seven” MPs from 1994 to 1999. (Disclosure: I was one of them).  It will be recalled that the ANC still enjoyed the moral high ground internationally and had not yet decayed and deteriorated internally.  The constitution provided for the next biggest party, the National Party, polling 20% of the votes, to get a deputy -president and membership of the cabinet.  The third biggest party, the Inkatha Freedom Party, polling ten per cent of the votes, was entitled to some seats in the cabinet.

The Freedom Front, the fourth biggest party, served the interests of a fraction of one section of the white population and could in no sense be the leader of opposition thought and action.  It was thus left to the Democratic Party, forerunner of the Democratic Alliance, under a new, untried thirty-seven-year-old Tony Leon, with only 1.7% of the voters supporting it, to be the real opposition.

President Mandela wanted Leon in the cabinet, agreeing he could say what he liked inside but would have to defend it outside. Tony Leon declined.  This was a seminal moment in post 1994 history: he and his party believed that South Africa needed a proper opposition much more than it needed a bigger government. The DP went on to make opposition, even opposition to Mandela, respectable and established the idea that a firm underpinning of principled opposition is essential to our constitutional democracy.

Can anyone seriously see Speaker Baleka Mbete filling that role with any credibility? I think she would be lousy at the job. Or Ramaphosa? Or Dlamini Zuma? Or Mantashe? Or Mkhize?  The next generation of leaders, Ministers Gigaba and Mbalula, fill one with gloom.  They are simply not up to it. Don’t even mention the current ANCYL president, Collen Maine, nicknamed Oros.

The ANC needs a good long period in opposition to find its soul again; to find policies that will resonate with the voters and be relevant to this century.  It must grow new leaders, get rid of the corrupt, the careerists, and the bandwagon climbers who drag it down. 

Pity they don’t appear to have a leader of the opposition in waiting.  Or do they? Now’s the time to haul out someone young with energy, brains and capacity who can be a match for Mmusi Maimane and for Julius Malema.

A former opposition chief whip and former ambassador to Thailand, Douglas Gibson is now a keynote speaker and a writer.