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Lessons for the ANC from Polokwane Conference

30 October 2012

As we prepare for the ANC conference in earnest, there are several lessons to be learned from the 52nd national conference in Polokwane, especially for the ANC and the media.

Looking back at the 52nd conference of the ANC in 2007, after all tempers had cooled, it became clear that we had trodden on a forbidden path.

For the ANC members who were devastated by the outcome of Presidential elections, it was honestly understandable. The ANC had allowed the anger of its members to rise to unacceptably high levels on a matter that is part of the organizational culture such as leadership changes. The underlying tensions had not been addressed in time.

All sources of conflict need resolution long before the conference starts. If a conference is fed with divisions, it produces a fray of factional bundles that are difficult to resolve when there are losers and winners who share hatred and bitterness. The pre-Polokwane divisions were immeasurably wide, the leadership contest was fierce and the scars were too deep. The topmost leaders had lost capacity to intervene and bring all sides to sober senses. The rules of civility in internal engagements were thrown out of the window and nobody had the courage to plug the haemorrhaging artery of the organizational values. The seeds of the formation of COPE were germinating long before the conference and the recall of President Thabo Mbeki. The ANC has to take all necessary precautions to avoid that route at all cost in the future.

Leadership had become paralysed as the different groupings slugged it out in private and in full glare of the public who watched in complete disbelief and astonishment as the beloved movement devoured itself. The whole saga traumatised and embarrassed South Africans --supporters and non-supporters no less.

For the ANC, the lesson is that the conduct we displayed on the road to Polokwane is a forbidden path with the surest destination to self-destruction. In isiZulu the expression simply translated says: to get the correct direction find out from those who have travelled on that path. Indlela ibuzwa kwabaphambili. That the ANC survived the tumultuous upheavals that unfolded thereafter is remarkable.

The ANC leaders must never allow a situation wherein so much anger and trauma prevail amongst the membership. Next time, the ANC may never recover from it, despite the impeccable record as the courageous leader of our liberation struggle and selfless champion for the working class and the poorest of the poor.

This time around, the goodness of Mangaung is that, whether people realize it or not, there is proportionally a lot less anger. There is a lot more willingness to engage amongst various groups of thoughts internally. Actually when many sit down to talk, they discover that they are all plagued by exactly the same concerns around the future of the ANC and the country. Though they may reach different conclusions on the future plans, there is a lot of genuineness.

All that needs to be done is to encourage more wide spread engagement, a lot of which is happening, which is, anyway, the culture of the ANC. There are a few though who are clearly driven by self interest and wish to exploit the atmosphere of conflict for personal gain.

In the final analysis these are doomed to failure, as they will slowly decipher, the closer the conference dates approaches.

There are also lessons for the media from Polokwane. Fortunately, unlike in 2007, this time around the effort of many media houses has moved a little further to sample the internal debates and leadership preferences which in the past never reached the glare of the media, for good reasons. Many of us in the country are suffering from a pre-occupation by "short-termism" in our approach to many issues that affect us- Mangaung included. One bad experience occupies our minds and discourages us so badly as though nothing good ever happened in South Africa.

Our high expectations of ourselves sometimes make us condemn ourselves as failures even when we have achieved many successes in other fields. This level of pessimism is almost equating Mangaung to an apocalypse, to such an extent, very few journalists are confident to find a positive side of this very important conference of the ANC. Journalist Karima Brown seems to have been one of the few brave ones to buck the trend. Her recent article in the Sunday Independent about the trends in the ANC structures is correct but under the atmosphere, it swims against the dominant trend in most media.

The reliance on internal ANC sources who themselves have personal interests, may damage images of reputable media brands if care is not taken to reach unbiased conclusions, independent of the power of the influence that some party lobbyists have over the sections or individuals in the media. For some who peruse the newspapers, it raises concerns that clear lobby lines are appearing unadulterated in media columns that should be respected for their objectivity.

This trend suggests that ground is being prepared for public disappointment with the re-election of President Zuma, whereas the democracy we know must force us all to respect the processes of democracy and accept its products. Outcomes of democratic processes are not predetermined. Because of the South African democracy being based on proportional representation, it is understandable for the public to have all the interest in the outcomes of the ruling party national conference. Rules of democratic engagement cannot be bent simply because some may foresee an outcome they least expected.

Watched from machinations inside party structures and the terraces of membership concerns, views about and aspirations for our country, it was quite disappointing to see the views that failed to muster majority support inside party structures, reappear as opinion pieces and editorial commentary in 2007.

When I approached the media stands on the side lines of the 52nd conference in 2007, I was cautioned by two journalists that the media marquee was in "mourning" as a consequence of the conference election results. The level of attachments of some journalists to the ANC internal processes and dynamics had gone too deep for an institution that needs to exercise professional and unbiased evaluation of facts and fiction around a political organisation.

We should all heed the lessons from 2007. What should be remembered is that that there is a lot more work for the delegates to Mangaung than the election of leadership which is the current preoccupation of media and columnists and various lobby groups.

Dr Zweli Mkhize is the ANC KZN provincial chairperson, a member of the ANC National Executive Committee and Premier of KZN.