A fight for the soul of South Africa’s ruling party is under way in Durban at an African National Congress (ANC) policy conference that could decide who rules the party and how it is run for the remaining two years of this presidential term.
At stake at the ANC's National General Council are not just a handful of political careers, but the party's commitment to democracy, property rights, a free market economic system, and transparency.
ANC dissidents aren't likely to remove South African President Jacob Zuma from the top spot. But given that the two ANC allies that worked the hardest to put Mr. Zuma into power in the 2008 election now appear at odds with him, the conference should foreshadow trouble for Zuma down the road.
The ANC won over 65 percent of the vote in the last general election with the help of the Congress of South African Trades Unions and the South African Communist Party, so the ANC’s hold on power is not in imminent danger.
But Zuma’s leadership over the ANC itself appears increasingly fragile.
On the left, Zuma faces challenges from a massive labor union conglomerate whose strikes last month nearly brought the nation to a halt.
And on his populist right, Zuma’s authority is being challenged by the pugnacious Julius Malema, the controversial leader of the ANC’s Youth League, who has repeatedly called for the ANC’s older generation to step aside for the new generation.
"The issue of generational mix will not be avoided,” Mr. Malema said in an interview with the Monitor. “We will make sure that this generational mix is done in all ANC structures.” Malema also said he will push for South Africa to nationalize mines, a proposal that would likely scare off foreign investment, and confiscate white-owned farms.
“We are going to use the NGC [National General Council] as a launch event for this radical economic transformation," said Malema. “We need to translate our wealth from the minority to the majority unashamedly and without pleasing Britain, the imperialist."
South Africa hasn’t been a British colony for 63 years. But anticolonialist rhetoric like Malema's is striking a chord here, as public-sector unions turn against a government they once supported and calls for nationalization are finding a large audience.
"It's going to be tough,” says Adam Habib, the deputy vice chancellor of the University of Johannesburg and a political analyst. “But what the meeting will achieve is to make a compromise on certain issues, otherwise I can't see the congress agreeing on anything the ANC Youth League, Cosatu [Congress of South African Trades Unions], and SACP [the South African Communist Party] would raise.”
Malema could overstep his bounds, says Steven Friedman, a research associate at the Institute for Democracy in South Africa (Idasa) and visiting professor of politics at Rhodes University. Pushing for a change of leadership, he says, would almost certainly backfire on the Youth League.
"The platform is to make policy review,” says Mr. Friedman. “There will be great opposition for the Youth League if ever they raised the subject [of leadership]. The Youth League will run into trouble."
But the issue of leadership will not be easily avoided, says Tiniyiko Maluleke, executive director for Research at the University of South Africa (Unisa).
"The issue of leadership is of interest not only to the ANC Youth League or Malema but to the alliance partners [including COSATU and the SACP],” says Professor Maluleke. "Any attempt to prevent it will be difficult."
The conference is likely to be a raucous affair, with opportunities for Malema and other former allies of Zuma, such as Zwelinzima Vavi of COSATU, to vent against the president's failure to deliver on campaign promises.
In his opening speech at the National General Council, Zuma took a tough line with his critics. “We have no choice but to reintroduce discipline in the ANC,” Mr. Zuma is reported to have told the 2000 ANC delegates at the meeting in Durban. “If we fail to do so, we would be weakening the very fiber and existence of the ANC.”
Singling out the ANC Youth League, he added, “We have noted some regrettable incidents, particularly relating to the ANC Youth League conferences, which are unacceptable and need to be dealt with. It is clear that the time has come for the organization to act. We must take a decision that those who engage in such activities are in fact undermining the organization and its work.”
In his Monitor interview, Malema says he wanted to press on with the Youth League’s radical agenda for transforming the economy, and insisted that seizing land from white farmers is the right course of action.
The willing-seller willing-buyer method of transferring land from whites to blacks has failed, Malema says. He wants South Africa to emulate Zimbabwe, and force sales of white land at prices set by the government. “The farmer should take it or leave, but the bottom line is that the government should determine the price of land."
In a May interview with Britain’s Daily Mail, Malema praised the land-grab policies of President Robert Mugabe, saying taking land from white farmers “was very good except the violent part of it.... We’ve got a majority in parliament to make legislation that will give us power to expropriate land with compensation,” he said.