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.
In the midst of this turmoil, Kenya cannot be far from the minds of many South Africans. Kenya was one of the most solid democracies on the continent, but saw political infighting turn in a traumatic outbreak of tribal violence earlier this year.
It is against this backdrop of issues that Lekota served what he called "divorce papers" on the ANC. He was followed by a rising tide of like-minded ANC members who agree with him, like Shilowa, are also angry over how Mbeki was forced to resign. (Mbeki stepped down after a judge inferred he'd improperly interfered in the Zuma case. The judge eventually threw out Zuma's charges on procedural grounds.) Days after prosecutors insisted they would bring the case back to court, Mbeki was out as president of the country, with six months to go before elections. (Mbeki went to court to clear his name, but recently asked the case to be postponed indefinitely. Zuma has asked it be struck from the court rolls.)
Shilowa acknowledged that the treatment of Mbeki is fueling many of the defections, telling me for my NPR story: "There would have been people in the ANC who would have been concerned with some of the things that have been happening in terms of purges and all of that. But that the dismissal of Mbeki or putsch as I call it would have been the trigger that said to people, 'if there's ever a moment to leave the ANC this is the moment.'"
Mbeki, meanwhile, busy in Zimbabwe, the burning house next door, has written a letter to Zuma saying, according to Zuma, that he will not leave the ANC to join the dissidents, but the ANC has said it will not release the full contents of the letter, despite Mbeki saying the party was free to do so. Hmm…what else did Mbeki say that's being kept under wraps?
At his press conference, Shilowa promised to take the high road, but that could become increasingly difficult. The ANC Women's League president referred to the breakaways as "dogs" who were "sick in the head." And that followed a near ugly demonstration at a Lekota rally here in Johannesburg, where ANC loyalists chanted "Kill Shilowa, Kill Lekota," prompting Lekota to proclaim the ANC's leadership were anarchists leading the country down the path of possible genocide.
The police had to step in to protect the dissidents. And now some ANC members have declared certain areas of the country "no go" for the so-called "Shikota" followers and because guns are said to be missing from the defense arsenal, there were suggestions by officials this week that Lekota is a security risk.
So much for the high road.
The ANC leadership has insisted that given the ANC is a voluntary organization, people can leave at will. But they have indicated they would expel members who cast their lot with the dissidents and various high-profile ANC members, like COSATU's Vavi, have criticized the rebels for "not fighting for the poor, but for their back pockets…introduc[ing] a club of praise singers who failed to question authority…and introduced politics of patronage…[a] culture foreign to us."
In an open letter from the ANC, Lekota was accused of "abusing your position as chair" [of the ANC], reducing the party's decision making body [the National Executive Committee] "to an animal farm, where those who shared your views had a field day, whilst the rest were banished to the twilight. The unlucky ones were subject to your verbal assaults, privately and publicly."
And, echoing charges in U.S. politics, some have labeled the breakaway group with what has come to be—in the U.S. at least—the unkindest cut of all—elitist!
And so it goes.
Traveling in the U.S. this past week, ANC President Zuma tried to re-assure U.S. officials, investors and others that the young democracy was on course, economically and politically and that the debate inside the country was healthy, if robust. (This as the National Prosecuting Authority was granted authority to continue pursuing the case against Zuma, which could not only entangle him in legal battles into next year's election, but lead to more political instability and uncertainty.)
And in the streets, among the masses, the debate is also intense. Many believe this is really a fight over personalities rather than principle, and argue that this is a family fight that should be resolved internally.
One unemployed mother of four, who was afraid to give her name, told me:
"Even in the family, if Mother and Dad fight, who suffer is the kids. So it's the same like politics. If those guys fight, we suffer as a people."
But there are also those who see it as a healthy development in a country where one party—the ANC, with a two-thirds majority—dominates. This group argues that what South Africa has, in effect, is a one-party state.
Many, however, are taking a wait-and-see attitude before deciding whether to go with the dissidents or stay in the party.
Meanwhile, the breakaways are gaining momentum, scheduling a national convention for Nov. 2, at which time they will present a proposed platform that will call for direct election of the president (currently chosen by the winning party). They will also announce the formation of a new political party to convene on Dec. 16, National Reconciliation Day.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a Johannesburg-based journalist and author of "New News Out of Africa: Uncovering the African Renaissance."