ANC Members Raucously Defy S. African Movement's Elite

African National Congress delegates backing former deputy president Jacob Zuma against South African President Thabo Mbeki for party leader cheer during the national conference in Polokwane.
African National Congress delegates backing former deputy president Jacob Zuma against South African President Thabo Mbeki for party leader cheer during the national conference in Polokwane. (By Jerome Delay -- Associated Press)
By Craig Timberg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 18, 2007

POLOKWANE, South Africa, Dec. 17 -- Africa's iconic liberation movement is this week facing urgent new demands from its members to display the same principles of open, accountable rule that it long demanded of apartheid South Africa.

The African National Congress's national conference, which in past years has settled for blessing decisions made by a small circle of party elders, has over two days assumed the fervent, high-decibel atmospherics that once characterized anti-apartheid rallies, complete with singing, dancing and calls for powerful officials to bow to the popular will.

While the stakes are far different in an era when racial freedom is already entrenched in law, the many outbursts amount to rebukes not only of President Thabo Mbeki and his closest political allies but also of the ANC's style of leadership. Many of the movement's leaders, particularly those of Mbeki's generation, received schooling in Eastern Europe during the Cold War, and the party of that era came to value discipline, probity, a resistance to airing disputes in public and fidelity to decisions reached by consensus among a relatively small number of top officials.

"It's a certain approach to leadership . . . in which a small elite leads the masses," said Mark Gevisser, author of "Thabo Mbeki: The Dream Deferred." "It has never really been a mass-based organization."

The tension between Mbeki's style and the more raucous approach of many of the delegates has surfaced repeatedly at the national conference, held on a university campus outside the northern city of Polokwane. On Sunday, when the party's elderly treasurer, Mendi Msimang, scolded delegates for their demonstrations and asked if they intended to repudiate the party's ruling National Executive Committee, many in the crowd shouted back, "Yes!"

The national conference, held once every five years, selects the party's next president. This year, the choice is between Mbeki, the incumbent, and the charismatic former anti-apartheid guerrilla Jacob Zuma, whom Mbeki fired as the nation's deputy president in 2005 over allegations of corruption.

The race is the first battle for the ANC presidency to reach the floor of a national conference in more than 50 years. Voting was expected to start Tuesday morning, with results expected later Tuesday. If Zuma wins the party post, he would be in line to run for the national presidency in 2009; Mbeki is constitutionally prohibited from running for a third term.

Zuma is 65, the same age as Mbeki, and the two men have shared a long history. But Zuma has brought a more modern, populist style of politics to the contest, organizing energetically at grass-roots levels, talking about divisive issues such as the death penalty and openly acknowledging his interest in becoming party president -- something long taboo in the ANC, whose members typically say they would happily serve the party in whatever capacity the membership desires.

Mbeki has attempted to become more accessible in recent weeks as well, granting a series of interviews with newspaper and radio stations -- a tactic he had mostly spurned in the past.

But judging by the conference crowd's cheers and jeers, Mbeki has gained little new support in the weeks since Zuma trounced him in regional nominating conventions. Delegates here say that Mbeki, in 10 years as party president and eight as president of the nation, has been aloof and imperious, often handing down decisions rather than have them percolate up from the party's members.

"He was leading like Moses," said Jackport Ndinisa, one of thousands of conference delegates who responded to a long speech by Mbeki on Sunday by singing a liberation anthem, "Bring Me My Machine Gun," that is associated with Zuma.

Party leaders, especially those allied with Mbeki, have repeatedly warned delegates that they may be ejected for such partisan displays. But Zuma supporters say they are merely bringing the rough-and-tumble tactics of democracy to a party unaccustomed to them.

"It's about holding your leaders accountable," said political analyst Adam Habib. "That's something you have to celebrate."

Mbeki, the son of the late Govan Mbeki, an ANC and Communist Party stalwart, received military training in the Soviet Union. And although the younger Mbeki left the Communist Party in 1990 and embraced cautious fiscal policies and free-market principles as president, analysts frequently describe his leadership style as authoritarian.

Mbeki has done nothing to dispel that impression in his appearances here so far. In speaking to the conference, he lamented the corruption, selfishness and careerism he said had infected the party's ranks over the past five years, a period in which its membership has jumped nearly 50 percent. He suggested that the party needed to improve the quality of its membership, saying, "Better fewer, but better!"

The line was from an essay written by Vladimir Lenin in 1923, when he was leading the recently formed Soviet Union.

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