Chameleon ANC will shrug off predators
A frisson of excitement last week rushed through many of us who consider ourselves political animals.
Mamphela Ramphele, an inspirational figure for many over the past 40 years, might be entering electoral politics soon, sayreports. Ramphele issued a statement saying she will speak for herself. That is a "yes" and a "no". A wait-and-see.
But those who consider her a messiah - we seem to have had a few lately: last month's was Cyril Ramaphosa - should stop and reflect. They should think seriously about the ANC's ability to renew itself and come through the toughest times. I suspect that the ANC today, for various reasons, will be able to swat off a Ramphele challenge.
There is no doubt that the ANC is buoyant: the Mangaung conference has been a fillip for the party and the conference's outcomes have been far more positive than many expected. The party's leaders are confident that the 2014 election will not be as challenging as they had expected.
The truth is that one of the key themes most of us - ANC leaders, commentators, opposition hopefuls and others - have ignored is the ANC's ability to rejuvenate and reinvent itself to meet the challenges of the day. It is not by chance that the party has survived numerous vicissitudes to be 101 today, it is because it knows how to reinvent itself and take its people along.
One of the post-apartheid era's most perceptive analysts of the ANC, Professor Susan Booysen, of Wits University, wrote last year: "The trends across the domains show an ANC that is remarkably adept at consolidating, protecting and regenerating political power. Despite organisational upheavals, popular disappointments and manifest shortcomings of the ANC in government, the ANC remains largely electorally unchallenged, in a close and critically engaged but trusted relation to the bulk of the people of South Africa, and firmly in control of the state."
We know this has been true, electorally, for the past 19 years despite the scandals, the corruption and the infighting. Do not underestimate this feature of the ANC, for it is potent and goes back a century.
By the 1930s, when ANC architect Pixley ka Isaka Seme had finally become party president, the organisation was at death's door. Membership was low, it was broke and it had become extremely conservative. After AB Xuma's presidency had fixed its organisational and financial troubles in the early 1940s, though, the generation of Nelson Mandela transformed it into a sharp and mass-based weapon against apartheid.
The defiance campaigns of the 1960s were a key part of the ANC reinventing itself and moving from being a party of the elite, satisfied with writing letters to the British government asking for independence, into a militant, mass-based entity.
In the 1960s, after the radical mantle was appropriated by the Pan Africanist Congress under Robert Sobukwe, the ANC reinvented itself again and became the organisation whose leaders gave approval to Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo and Walter Sisulu to launch an armed struggle.
Another example occurred in the 1970s, when the ANC's members were flung across the world and in prison. The organisation was weak and had no real connection with people inside South Africa.
The 1976 riots, which the ANC had no hand in organising or directing, gave the party a chance to absorb the militancy of the country's young. Whereas the PAC in exile saw Black Consciousness Movement activists coming out of the country after 1976 as a threat, the ANC recruited them and told them their ideology was an extension of what the ANC stood for. These young activists who fled apartheid repression in the 1970s and 1980s became the core of the ANC's military wing, Umkhonto we Sizwe, and grew to be its leaders today.
In the run-up to the Mangaung conference the party was again at a low point. But Mangaung has buoyed the party in many people's eyes.
The key question today is whether this latest in a series of reinventions will last.
A reinvented ANC will be problematic for the opposition. An ANC that promises better leadership and decisiveness due to the presence of Cyril Ramaphosa is far more potent than one that offers only Jacob Zuma.
But how genuine is this reinvention? There is only so much difference a Ramaphosa can make. Has ANC culture changed at Mangaung, meaning that sloth, patronage and moral ambivalence on key questions will now be tackled with gusto?
I do not think this latest reinvention is genuine but it is likely to be effective in the short term. It will give the ANC legitimacy for the 2014 election and will put the opposition - including Ramphele, if she runs - on the back foot. This latest reinvention means that the ANC is looking strong for 2014. Ramphele and the rest will have to work extremely hard to dislodge this ANC.