Analysts Have High Hopes for New South Africa Party

17 October 2008

Early next month a national conference called by dissenting current and former senior members of the ruling African National Congress is likely to give birth to new South African political party. As VOA's Delia Robertson reports from our southern Africa bureau, the developments have reinvigorated the country's politics.  

Mosiuoa Lekota at a news conference in Johannesburg, 08 Oct 2008
Mosiuoa Lekota at a news conference in Johannesburg, 08 Oct 2008
"Sir, it seems that we are serving today, divorce papers," said former South African Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota.

A year ago it would have been unthinkable for a veteran member of the African National Congress and its struggle against apartheid; a graduate of political incarceration on Robben Island; to announce he was serving divorce papers on his movement.

But last week that is exactly what former Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota did. And this week he was joined in public by other senior and mid-level ANC officials. His group have also since held several successful rallies, in same cases drawing thousands of traditional ANC supporters.

Lekota's divorce papers included an intention to hold a national consultative conference on November 2, from which a new political party is expected to emerge. He and his team say the conference is necessary because the current ANC leadership is threatening core principles in the country's constitution and the party's founding document, the Freedom Charter.

In this June 26, 2005 file photo ANC President Jacob Zuma, left, with Defence Force Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, right, in Soweto, South Africa. Lekota has tendered his resignation following the resignation of President Thabo Mbeki.
ANC President Jacob Zuma, left, with former Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, right, in Soweto, South Africa, (26 Jun 2005 file photo)
"We paid the price for these principles in the [Freedom] Charter,"
Lekota said, " we paid the price in exile, we paid the price underground in this country, we paid the price on Robben Island and other places. Then many of our comrades have died for these principles, it would be a betrayal on our part not to rise to defend the legacy they left us."

One of the primary issues raised by Lekota is what he said is the party's disrespect for the principles of rule of law and equality before the law. Lekota pointed to a recent official call by the ANC for a political solution to the corruption charges against party president Jacob Zuma. The charges are currently in suspension, pending an appeal by the National Prosecuting Authority against a court finding, on technical grounds, the decision to prosecute Zuma was invalid.

The Deputy Chairman of the South African Institute for African Affairs, Moeletsi Mbeki, told VOA it is these charges that precipitated the current deep divisions in the ANC.  

"In fact the current crisis of the ANC, it has been triggered by corruption," he said. "The current president of the ANC, as I say, fighting against his predecessor for taking him to task for corruption - for being involved in corruption."

Former Prime Minister of Gauteng Province, Mbazima Shilowa, announces his resignation from the ANC party at a press conference in Johannesburg, 15 Oct, 2008
Former Prime Minister of Gauteng Province, Mbazima Shilowa, announces his resignation from the ANC party at a press conference in Johannesburg, 15 Oct, 2008
But the organizers of next month's convention also want to overhaul South Africa's current electoral system which includes election of the president by parliament. Former provincial premier Mbhazima Shilowa, said this system has left the South African electorate feeling powerless.  

"Such a sense of helplessness must surely implore us to discuss whether the time has not come to consider the introduction of constituencies for national and provincial legislatures," he said.

Mbeki said these changes would deepen and strengthen the country's democracy and are important initiatives.  

"The South African electoral system does not promote accountability by the government to the people. So they want electoral reform, which is very critical for South Africa," he noted.

The ruling party's market friendly policies have resulted in more than a decade of sustained growth and stabilization in the economy. However, they have failed until very recently to start significantly reducing joblessness and deeply rooted poverty which has led to 45 percent of the population living below the poverty index.  

This is an issue that has driven the internal politics of the ANC in the past few years. It played a major role in the decision by the leaders of the party's alliance partners, the South African Communist Party and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), to put their weight behind the election of Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC last year. As a consequence their influence within the ANC has greatly increased.

The dissenting group has yet to articulate its economic policies and some analysts have warned that unless they come up with innovative plans to deal decisively with poverty, the new party will fail. COSATU General Secretary Zwelinzima Vavi told a local TV broadcaster he has heard nothing from them that says they are ready to tackle poverty.

"If they were going to talk to us about a new developmental path, a new economic strategy that is going to help us create decent work at a mass scale; new policies that are going to attack poverty and deal with the growing inequalities, maybe we will be there in the [national consultative] convention," he said.

Analyst Mbeki said he doesn't think the current leadership of the ANC is ready to deliver those policies either.  

"But after 15 years I think [the ANC has] had the opportunity to sort out their problems and giving them another 15 years I doubt if [the voters] will be able to - because as you know they keep saying that they are continuing with the policies that have given us 45 percent poverty levels," Mbeki said.

Leaders of the ANC and its alliance partners have gone on the attack against the dissenters often using insulting and loaded language. Mbeki said the breakaway group has sent a shiver of fear down the spine of the ruling party.  

"Absolutely if it hadn't sent a shiver down their spine they wouldn't be reacting in these violent - in language terms - ways, they are running smear campaigns against the individuals concerned and as you say insulting the people. So they are terrified," he said.

Next month's convention is already generating widespread interest - with many South Africans talking about little else. Analyst Mbeki said he thinks attendance will be high. He added the group behind it have the ability and drive to make a new party succeed over the long term.