It is indeed true that in its over hundred years in exile, the African National Congress had to contend with crises that threatened it’s very existence. It was during these moments of crisis that the leadership of the ANC at the time proved their pedigree. Oliver Reginald Tambo, the longest serving ANC president, was a capable and admired leader. For thirty years he held htogether the different interest groups of the “broad church” until 1991 when he handed over the reins to Nelson Mandela.
It must be remembered that the ANC was faced with its greatest crisis in 1960 when it was outlawed by the apartheid regime after the Sharpeville massacre. The organisation ha been in existence for 48 years in which time it had exhausted all peaceful means of struggle against a brutal and racist regime. The ANC leadership in 1960 had the most difficult decision to take in its history. What to do next considering that it was no longer allowed to operate politically in the country? Fortunately, at the time, the organisation was led by outstanding leaders, Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo and others.
In 1961, under this leadership, the ANC announced that ” there comes a time in the life of every nation when there remain only two choices: to submit or fight. That time has come to South Africa and we shall not submit. We shall fight with all the means at our disposal in defence of our country and our people.”
Under the leadership of Nelson Mandela as the first Commander in Chief, Umkhonto we SIZWE was born and the entire leadership went underground to usher in a new phase of armed struggle in South Africa. The leadership was equal to the task. Mandela left the country to get training abroad in order to lead the new people’s army. Unfortunately, soon thereafter, the high command was arrested in Rivonia in 1963 and with the entire high command in prison, Oliver Tambo was destined to lead the organisation in exile for the next three decades. That was only possible because of the calibre of leadership of the ANC at the time.
The second crisis was in the late 1960s when the organisation was not making any progress in the struggle and it looked like the organisation had been defeated because the armed struggle was virtually non-existent. It took the courage of young army leaders led by Chris Hani to remind the leadership that they were in exile in order to lead the prosecution of the struggle by armed means instead of taking exile as an end in itself. The Hani Memorandum was signed by a few brave and patriotic cadres of MK. Hani and his comrades were nearly executed for this Memorandum that criticized the leadership of the organisation for failing to lead. It was the intervention of OR Tambo that saved them from certain death.
As a result of the Hani Memorandum, the ANC held its first consultative conference in Morogoro, Tanzania, to reflect on the state of the organisation almost a decade after being in exile. The conference made a frank assessment of the state of the struggle in the country and resolved to refocus and intensify the struggle for liberation in South Africa. Had it not been for leadership and courage of Hani and Tambo, the ANC could have ended up like failed and fractured other South African liberation movements like the Pan Africanist Congress and Black Consciousness Movement. It was the superior leadership that saved the ANC.
Lastly, in the mid-eighties, when there was a stalemate between the apartheid government and the ANC leadership in exile, Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela stepped in to resolve the stalemate and lead a process that culminated in the 1994 democratic breakthrough that the world still call a “miracle.”
In the mid to late Eigties the struggle in the country had so intensified that the apartheid regime was on the brink of collapse. Using its four pillars of the struggle, mass mobilization, armed struggle, underground work and international isolation, the ANC made South Africa ungovernable and the Pretoria regime was in a corner as it could no longer govern the country in the old ways while the ANC and the Mass Democratic Movement couldn’t defeat the regime. It was a stalemate. Mandela initiated clandestine talks with the regime without the approval of Lusaka until such time that he was ready to engage Tambo and the leadership in exile. This led to successful negotiations with the regime leading to democratic elections in 1994.
Now the ANC is in crisis again. The leadership at the head if the organisation is nowhere near the calibre of the leadership that stepped in at critical moments in the past. Jacob Zuma, the president if the organisation, is more of a liability than anything else. Under his leadership since 2007, the organisation is weak, fragmented and losing support of voters and its mass base. From the 70% that the party polled in the 2004 under Thabo Mbeki, the party is facing defeat in the next election as it only commands 54% support of the electorate. In the local government elections held in August 2016, the party lost three very important metros in the country, including Johannesburg and Tshwane, the commercial and administrative capitals of the country respectively.
One reason why the ANC is going to find it almost impossible to self-correct, renew or re-invent itself will be because of what is commonly known as the “sin of incumbency.” As the ruling party since 1994, the ANC has attracted all sorts of rascals and political opportunists.
Zuma is undoubtedly the most scandal-prone leader of the ANC since 1912. Since his ascension to power in 1999 as deputy president of the country, Zuma has been accused of taking bribes, corruption, rape charges and factionalism.
Now today the ANC stands at the crossroads with diminished voter support. The organisation is fragmented. Two distinct factions have entrenched themselves in the national leadership as well as in the provinces, regions and branches. The president is part if the dominant faction and has alienated the other faction. He doesn’t command support of the entire organisation.
With the calibre of leadership at the head of the organisation, especially the flawed character of the president, South Africa’s ruling party has neither the will nor the capacity to save the organisation. The 2019 national and provincial general elections will oasis true judgement of the relevance or otherwise of the former glorious movement.