A Bitter South African Divorce

The recent defections threaten the future of Nelson Mandela's ANC party.


Out of the frying pan into the frying pan…

That's what I thought when I returned to South Africa after four months of sizzling U.S. politics. My adopted home in South Africa is also sizzling with the sounds of change. The breaking news is the breakup of Nelson Mandela's African National Congress (ANC), the oldest liberation movement on the continent.

So, I hit the ground running—straight to a press conference by a top South African politician, Mbhazima Shilowa, a former trade union leader and communist. Shilowa and his comrade, Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota are attempting to change the political landscape of this 14-year-old democracy. Their movement so far has been labeled by some. "Shikota."

Shilowa just resigned from the ANC and from his post as premier (similar to a U.S. governor) of Gauteng province—the economic heartbeat of the country. By the time he finished explaining why he is leaving the 96-year-old party, I began to feel the proverbial heat. Indeed, while I wrote about the emerging dark side of political campaigns in both South Africa and the U.S.—the ugly death threats, etc. —at this particular moment, what I was hearing now was mostly sizzle.

Only it was the kind of sizzle that could go up in flames.

There was some shocking news: Shilowa and Lekota, former minister of defense and also former chairman of the ANC, said they were leaving the party of Mandela and Oliver Tambo because it violated the principles laid out in the party's constitution. This historic document came out of a 1955 multiracial gathering in Kliptown, a sprawling black area south of Johannesburg. The men and women created the Freedom Charter that repudiated apartheid rule, called for a country that belonged to all who lived in it, black and white, as well as for equality before the law. The document became the foundation for the South African constitution, adopted after the end of apartheid.

Lekota got his nickname, "Terror," from his days as a soccer star, before he was joined Nelson Mandela as a prisoner on Robben Island for his anti-apartheid activities. He gave me many examples that pointed to a party he said was losing its moorings. Lekota cited the case of an ANC official labeling judges of the Constitutional Court, the country's highest court, as "counter revolutionary." Because the court is considering a corruption case against Party President Jacob Zuma, some have argued the judiciary would not be able to be objective in a Zuma trial. Zuma faces the possibility of a trial on charges of fraud and corruption, following the conviction of his business partner for soliciting a bribe on his behalf. He argues there should be a political solution to the case since in his view the case was politically motivated.

Lekota told me: "… The courts have been attacked. Instead of strengthening democracy, you weaken institutions of governance."

He also criticized what he called unconstitutional efforts by the ANC to introduce legislation barring a sitting president from being taken to court. He charged that the "cult of personality" being created around Zuma violates the ANC constitution. He recalled a meeting last December at which Zuma criticized Mbeki for the leadership of the party.

During the meeting, Zuma supporters wore (and sold) T-shirts with his picture and the words "100 percent Zulu Boy." Lekota insisted Zuma should have put a stop to the T-shirt sales because they violated the party's constitution prohibition of openly advocating tribalism.