AS DECEMBER approaches, virtually every political commentator has his mind fixed on the elective conference of the African National Congress (ANC) — the inordinate concentration on the ANC presidency underscoring a view that the person who occupies that office will affect SA as a whole.
Until the 1940s, the office of the president wielded enormous power in the ANC. Alert to the tensions and ethnic divisions that colonial powers had exploited to conquer Africans in the 19th century, the ANC’s founders tried to make the ANC as inclusive as possible. The constitution provided for the election of the secretary-general, the deputy secretary-general and the treasurer-general. There were four deputy presidential posts, filled by the four provincial presidents. Beyond that, the president had the power to appoint other members of his national executive.
In the first 30 years of the ANC’s life, the calibre of the person elected president was decisive. Fearful of Josiah Gumede’s radicalism, the moderates engineered a coup in 1929 and elected Pixley Seme to replace him. But Seme’s presidency proved disastrous. The once radical lawyer had become a crusty old conservative with age. The ANC virtually ground to a halt under his stewardship. The national executive did not meet for nearly a year and conferences did not quorate. John L Dube, the founding president, also seceded to form his ANC of Natal.
Seme’s inertia and autocratic style of leadership rendered the ANC incapable of intervening when the Hertzog-Smuts United Party government abolished African voting rights in 1935. The ANC presidency was redefined by AB Xuma after he took office in 1940. Assisted by a Professor Macmillin from Wits University and a young Afrikaner barrister named Abraham Fischer, Xuma drafted a new constitution, which the ANC annual conference duly adopted in 1943. The Xuma constitution established a national working committee that would meet monthly and exercise full executive powers between meetings of the national executive committee and as its subcommittee. The powers of the president were subjected to the authority of the national working committee. It thus institutionalised collective leadership by subordinating the three top officials to the committee and replaced presidentialism with the principle of "first among equals".
Though the ANC adopted a new constitution in 1958, it did not substantively alter the powers of the office of the president. Albert Luthuli and Oliver Tambo held office during the most difficult period of the ANC’s history. In 1960, with Luthuli at the helm, the movement was banned. His death in 1967 catapulted Tambo into the presidency.
Operating illegally with a membership dispersed among exile, prison and underground structures inside the country, the ANC suspended its constitution in 1962.
By default Tambo became the ANC’s longest-serving president, an office he filled with quiet confidence and immense dignity.
Tambo brought to the office his own deeply held Christian values, a profound commitment to democratic practice and a leadership style that was inclusive. The ethos of collective leadership was firmly stamped on the leadership bodies. The challenge Tambo faced was reconstructing a movement that had been battered by repression inside SA while knitting together a body of international opinion in opposition to apartheid.
Nelson Mandela, emerging from 28 years of incarceration as an international icon, was elected president in 1991. Unlike his predecessors, Mandela led an executive composed mainly of his political juniors. Apart from Sisulu and Joe Slovo, no one in the national executive committee had a comparable track record of membership. Mandela’s intervention in debate invariably tilted the balance in the direction of the option he favoured. The undecideds were silenced while others deferred to the respected elder. Consequently, new informal powers accrued to the office of president.
Thabo Mbeki inherited many of the informal powers Mandela had accumulated owing to his stature. At the formal level, Mbeki engaged the committee more regularly and broadened participation by drawing in key players from the alliance in extended meetings, and institutionalising meetings of the six top officials. His aloofness could not, however, dispel the atmosphere of wheeling and dealing behind the backs of committee members, which resulted in his isolation.
For many in the ANC, Jacob Zuma’s election promised relief from the managed internal democracy of Mbeki’s incumbency. Instead, it has been marked by political problems, most notably a radical decline in the ANC’s credibility. Zuma’s own actions have also stripped the office he holds of dignity.
Whoever the ANC membership elects in December will have to grasp the nettle of restoring the ANC’s dented credibility and dignity to the office of the president.
• Jordan is a former minister of arts and culture.
More in this section
- Thank you for making South Africa work
- THE LAST WORD: Stellenbosch guru can take Reinet gap
- TAX TALK: Carbon tax must be explained to laymen
- THIS IS THE BUSINESS: Education — not BEE — will drive our success
- BULL’S EYE: Pension? No, stick to beer
- IN THE MARKETS: Better ways to get investment than through blackmail
- SABC presenter Mbuli hailed as patriot and ‘zealous newshound’
- Guptagate report shows manipulation, collusion and illegal blue lights
- There just may be glitter in gold shares
- Iran ‘behind US cyber blitz’
- Sanral ‘refuses’ to disclose Winelands toll costs, says City of Cape Town
- Saxonwold ANC ‘to act against Atul Gupta’