The politics of leadership succession have driven the party's Top 6 to try to contain divisions, write Sibusiso Ngalwa and S'thembiso Msomi
ANC leaders this week reacted with venom to stinging criticism from Nedbank chairman Reuel Khoza.
In his chairman's statement, contained in the latest Nedbank annual report, the respected business executive berated the country's political leadership, saying its "moral quotient is degenerating" and, as a result, South Africa is "fast losing the checks and balances that are necessary to prevent a recurrence of the past".
He made a strong call for citizens to defend constitutional democracy from a "strange breed of leaders" who are "determined to undermine the rule of law" and override the country's founding document.
"We have a duty to build and develop this nation and to call to book the putative leaders who, due to sheer incapacity to deal with the complexity of 21st-century governance and leadership, cannot lead.
"We have a duty to insist on strict adherence to the institutional forms that underpin our young democracy," wrote Khoza.
A day after Khoza's blistering criticism hit the headlines, an angry ANC secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, told a press briefing that the Nedbank chairman was a failed leader who should stay out of political issues.
"Reuel Khoza must sell Nedbank. He has been told to do so by the biggest shareholder. He has failed to do so; he has tried two deals, they [both] fell through under his watch. What kind of a leader is that who allows deals to fall through under his watch and still criticises political leadership?
"[Khoza] is venturing into something he doesn't know. What I can tell you about him? He is actually on the wrong platform; he must talk about business and Nedbank, in particular, thank you very much," Mantashe said before swiftly moving to the next question.
It was a classic Mantashe response to criticism - playing the man, rather than addressing the issues raised.
Yet nothing could have better demonstrated Khoza's point about the state of the country's political leadership than the press conference that Mantashe was addressing.
In an unprecedented move, the ruling party's national officials - who are commonly known as the Top 6 - convened an extraordinary press conference to dispel perceptions of deep divisions among them.
But very few among the millions of South Africans who followed the briefing live on television and radio would have been convinced.
The Top 6 is made up of President Jacob Zuma; his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe; Mantashe; deputy secretary-general Thandi Modise; national chairman Baleka Mbete; and treasurer-general Mathews Phosa.
This is the most politically influential leadership collective in the country, as Top 6 members are key in deciding important ruling party deployments within government and other public institutions.
So, when an alert was sent out to the media on Monday afternoon announcing that the Top 6 would be having a press briefing the following day, there was widespread speculation as to what it was going to be about.
Top 6 officials do not appear together at a press conference unless they are addressing a matter of extreme national importance.
But, as Mantashe began reading out the Top 6's prepared statement at Luthuli House on Tuesday afternoon, it became clear that the matter of national importance was none other than Julius Malema, the now suspended president of the ANC Youth League.
Malema has been running rings around Zuma and his leadership team, plunging them from one crisis to another with his divisive statements.
With Luthuli House hauling him before its disciplinary structures in a bid to rein him in, Malema had upped the game by exploiting perceived differences among Top 6 members.
Two weeks ago, the youth league invited Motlanthe to a mass rally in Nkowankowa, in Limpopo, as part of the league's celebrations of the ANC's 100th anniversary.
But Malema and other league members soon turned the rally into an informal Motlanthe presidential campaign launch, with T-shirts bearing Motlanthe's face being distributed to the crowd.
Although Motlanthe chastised the crowd for the T-shirts, the rally was widely reported as his endorsement of the league's campaign.
A week later, Malema was sharing the stage with Phosa at a public lecture at the University of the Witwatersrand. The youth league leader used the platform to publicly denounce Zuma as an intolerant "dictator".
The two incidents left many within and outside the ANC wondering if the Top 6 members were still pulling in the same direction as the party prepares for its Mangaung conference.
It is this perception of divisions that prompted the officials to go into panic mode.
The intention of the press briefing, according to Mantashe, was to "put an end" to squabbling among leaders and issue a stern warning to the league to stop ridiculing Zuma.
"We are ... very concerned about some alien behaviour within our movement, which has manifested itself in various ways, including some shockingly crude, disrespectful and un-ANC remarks that have been in the public domain over the past few weeks ...
"We wish to state at the outset that the national officials of the ANC are at one with regard to any matters of discipline within the ANC, as well as action taken, as informed by the ANC constitution. We remain loyal to all decisions we were part of," Mantashe told the press conference.
In a move choreographed to demonstrate unity, Mantashe would give all of his Top 6 colleagues an opportunity to answer questions related to the statement at the briefing. Although nothing in each of the officials' body language suggested any visible tension, only the naive would deny that Malema and the underground lobbying for positions that has started ahead of Mangaung were straining relations among the ANC's top brass.
Instead of demonstrating unity, the press briefing seemed more like a desperate attempt by Luthuli House to reclaim the ground it had lost because of Malema.
Zuma, however, would be hoping that the press briefing sent out a message to party structures and the public that he was still in charge of the Top 6 - that none of his senior comrades had turned on him ahead of Mangaung.
The league, on the other hand, is giving a different spin to the event, saying it exposed a Zuma who is now in panic mode. Although it never reacted to the briefing, some of its leaders sent out SMSes after the event questioning its wisdom and timing.
"Electricity prices up, fuel prices up, e-tolling a burning issue, service delivery protests all over, [yet] the officials are calling a press conference for what they consider to be a serious matter, and they are leaving out all these vexing questions. What a joke!" read one SMS.
The authors of such an SMS may be motivated by their anger towards Zuma and his leadership collective, but what they say goes to the heart of the problem.
For most of the past five years, the ruling party has been too consumed by its internal strife to pay undivided attention to numerous socioeconomic issues confronting the country. As Khoza - and the ANC itself - put it, high levels of unemployment and poverty are the greatest threats to the long-term stability of the country.
Yet despite all the rhetoric about the need to create "decent jobs" and tackle inequality, little energy is being expended on these issues.
Instead, the politics of leadership succession has so engulfed the highest echelons of the country's most dominant political party that the Top 6 are now battling to contain divisions exposed by Malema.
Rather than attack Khoza, the ANC should be asking itself what has gone so wrong that its leaders' agenda gets determined by Malema and his league.