Can South Africa's ruling party overcome its reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence?

Ahead of the ANC conference, where the country's next president will likely be anointed, Martin Plaut examines the internal divisions plaguing the party.

In less than two weeks the African National Congress will gather in Mangaung – the metropolis around Bloemfontein. They will select the party’s president and – almost certainly – the next president of South Africa. The election has been a protracted, bloody and even murderous affair.

One victim was Councillor Wandile Mkhize. On the 30 June he arrived at his home in Manaba, on the south coast of Kwa-Zulu at ten at night. He had come from an ANC meeting, at which he supported Jacob Zuma. But when he got out of the car men driving a Toyota Corolla drove by, opened fire, and left him dying in the road.

He had received death threats before, but never taken them too seriously. In a campaign of many months, the ANC election has pitted its president, Jacob Zuma against his deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe.  At the meeting Mkhize had led ANC delegates in songs praising Zuma and had become involved in a confrontation with rival Motlanthe supporters.

Once his murder would have been blamed on political rivals outside of the ANC, like the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP); but no longer. This was a struggle for influence within the ANC. As Zwelinzima Vavi – Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary - put it: “Political killings are so commonplace in KwaZulu-Natal that we can no longer blame them on the IFP warlords because it's an inside job," Vavi said.

In this province alone there have been nearly 40 political murders since 2010. Dozens more have been killed in provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo.  The ANC has repeatedly promised to act to halt the attacks. “The ANC has never condoned violence,” said its spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.

Yet party meetings continue to be broken up and the assaults continue unabated. On the 30 November the ANC conference in Limpopo to select the party’s leadership had to be abandoned. It “…was collapsed [on Friday night] by violent hooligans," provincial spokesperson Makonde Mathivha said. "Delegates had to flee the venue. It was terrifying."

There have also been repeated allegations of membership manipulation, with “ghost members” being paid for in order to win backing for particular candidates. Party members have claimed that auditors padded the figures for provinces crucial to Jacob Zuma's re-election campaign.

The whole ANC leadership is up for re-election, but this still does not explain why such extraordinary steps are being taken to win what are, after all, only internal party positions.

The reason is not hard to find. Even minor positions, like a ward councillor, provides access to state resources and an influence over government contracts. Supporting the right faction is the surest route to political power and this is often the only means of escaping poverty. With more than 30 per cent of South Africans unemployed, gaining a foothold on the political ladder is a means of winning access to contracts and key resources, like housing.  

A study by Professor Doreen Atkinson concluded that municipal malpractice had become “extensive”.* She set out just how these corrupt practices work.

“There are numerous ways in which municipalities lend themselves to personal enrichment. Typical problems are the abuse of mayoral funds, unauthorised transfers of municipal money to outsiders, favouritism in procurement processes, the payment of bribes to secure services the abuse of travel allowances, fictitious tenders, involvement of councillors with companies which then win tenders, non-payment of municipal services by councillors using municipal facilities for party-political or personal purposes, and irregular performance bonuses.”

Backing a winning slate is therefore worth fighting for.

It is now certain that Jacob Zuma will win the contest for the presidency, since he has already received the backing of nearly 60 per cent of the 4,500 delegates. For his deputy, the quietly spoken Motlanthe, the outlook is bleaker.  He is not on the Zuma slate and looks likely to be replaced by the millionaire businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa. 

For a while it looked as if the Marikana massacre, in which 34 miners were gunned down by the police, would sink Ramaphosa’s chances of election.  Although once a miner’s leader himself, he is today South Africa’s second richest man, with a stake in Lonmin, which operates the Marikana mine. His election would be seen as a powerful encouragement to business, at a time when multinational companies have been reducing their holdings in the country, following this year’s damaging wave of strikes.

If elected, Cyril Ramphosa will be in a position to succeed Jacob Zuma. This would be a turning point for the ANC, which since 1994 has been run by the exiles who carried the movement through the apartheid years.  Ramaphosa would be the party’s first leader to have won his spurs inside the country. He made his name during the union revival of the 1970s and the growth of the United Democratic Front of the 1980’s. Both were built on the principles of grassroots democracy, very different from the ANC’s practices in exile and the underground.

Cyril Ramaphosa, once favoured by Nelson Mandela as his successor, could revive the ANC at a time when it is facing a critical test.  Popular support is ebbing away. The previously derided opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is becoming a credible challenge. At the DA’s party conference in November it elected young blacks men and women onto key positions and declared that it was ready to take on the ANC in the 2014 elections.

To achieve this would require a transformation of their electoral fortunes. But as they meet in Mangaung, ANC stalwarts know they need to undertake a root and branch renewal of their party, if it is to slough off its current reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence.

D Atkinson, "Taking to the streets: Has developmental local government failed in South Africa?" in State of the Nation: South Africa 2007. Cape Town, HSRC Press, 2007, p 66.

 

President Jacob Zuma delivers a speech at the Parliament in Cape Town. Photograph: Getty Images

Martin Plaut is a fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London. With Paul Holden, he is the author of Who Rules South Africa?

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The lute master and the siege of Aleppo

Luthier Ibrahim al-Sukkar's shop was bombed; when he moved, militants came for him. Over WhatsApp, he told me what's next.

Aleppo was once a city of music, but this year the 400,000 residents who inhabit its eastern suburbs can hear nothing but the roar of Russian warplanes, and ear-shattering blasts from the bombs they drop. To the north, west and south, the city is encircled by ground troops from the Syrian armed forces, Hezbollah and Iran. Most residents are afraid to flee, but soon, now that supply lines to the city have been cut off, many will begin to starve. We have reached the crescendo of Aleppo’s suffering in year five of the Syrian civil war.

One clear August morning in 2012, in the early weeks of the battle for the city, a man approached a street corner shop and found a hundred shattered lutes scattered across the floor. Ibrahim al-Sukkar, the engineer who had made the lutes (Arabs know the instrument as the oud), was overwhelmed. He wandered between the tables of his workshop and peered up at the sky, suddenly visible through holes in the roof. He wept on the floor, amid the dust and ash.

Some of the wooden shards that lay around him had been lutes commissioned by musicians in Europe and America. Others were to be used by students in Damascus and Amman. Each oud was built for a specific purpose. In every shard Ibrahim saw a piece of himself, a memory scattered and charred by government bombs. He packed his bags and headed for Idlib, a few hours to the west, where he set up shop a second time. A year later, his workshop was destroyed again, this time by Islamist militants.

It was at this point that Ibrahim came to a stark realisation – he was a target. If barrel bombs from government helicopters could not succeed in destroying him, the Islamists would. The cost of sourcing materials and getting goods to market had become unmanageable. The society that had inspired his desire to make musical instruments was now trying to lynch him for it.

The 11 string courses of an oud, when plucked, lend the air that passes through its bowl the sounds of Arabic modes known as maqamat. Each one evokes an emotion. Hijaz suggests loneliness and melancholy. Ajam elicits light-heartedness and cheer. An oud player’s competence is judged by his or her ability to improvise using these modes, modulating between them to manipulate the listener’s mood. The luthier, the architect of the oud system, must be equal parts artist and scientist.

This is how Ibrahim al-Sukkar views himself. He is a trained mechanical engineer, but before that he was a lover of classical Arabic music. As a young man in the Syrian countryside, he developed a talent for playing the oud but his mathematical mind demanded that he should study the mechanics behind the music. Long hours in the workshop taking instruments apart led him to spend 25 years putting them together. Ibrahim’s ouds are known for their solid construction and, thanks to his obsessive experimentation with acoustics, the unparalleled volume they produce.

Ibrahim and I recently spoke using WhatsApp messenger. Today, he is lying low in the village where he was born in Idlib province, close to the Turkish border. Every so often, when he can, he sends some of his equipment through to Turkey. It will wait there in storage until he, too, can make the crossing. I asked him if he still felt that his life was in danger. “All musicians and artists in Syria are in danger now, but it’s a sensitive topic,” he wrote, afraid to say more. “I expect to be in Turkey some time in February. God willing, we will speak then.”

Ibrahim’s crossing is now more perilous than ever. Residents of Idlib are watching the developing siege of Aleppo with a sense of foreboding. Government forces are primed to besiege Idlib next, now that the flow of traffic and supplies between Aleppo and the Turkish border has been intercepted. And yet, to Ibrahim, the reward – the next oud – is worth the risk.

I bought my first oud from a Tunisian student in London in autumn 2014. It is a humble, unobtrusive instrument, with a gentle, wheat-coloured soundboard covering a cavernous, almond-shaped bowl. Some ouds are decorated with rosettes, wooden discs carved with dazzling patterns of Islamic geometry. Others are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. My instrument, however, is far simpler in design, decorated only with a smattering of nicks and scratches inflicted by the nails of impatient players, and the creeping patina imprinted by the oils of their fingers on its neck.

My instructor once told me that this oud was “built to last for ever”. Only recently did I discover the sticker hidden inside the body which reads: “Made in 2006 by Engineer Ibrahim al-Sukkar, Aleppo.” 

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle