Lesotho’s Lessons for the ANC on Forming New Parties

Image: Flickr, OER Africa
Image: Flickr, OER Africa

Following Thabo Mbeki's abrupt resignation as South African president last month, there has been much speculation about the possibility and desirability of a new political party emerging from disgruntled ruling party members.

Further resignations of Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa and several cabinet members, hostile open letters between senior African National Congress (ANC) leaders and statements by others that would follow or vote for another party (other than existing opposition parties), have fuelled the fire.

The discussion has revolved around two points: that significant elements of the party have felt sidelined at least since the December 2007 ANC Congress in Polokwane, where Mbeki lost leadership of the party to Jacob Zuma; and that democracy in South Africa would benefit from a credible and strong party with a broad national base to challenge the ANC. However, experience from Lesotho might provide lessons for South Africa on the prospects of a breakaway party.

The media often predicts the possibility of new parties breaking off from the incumbent long before they emerge. There was talk in South Africa (hastily denied) linking former MP and Minister Kader Asmal with a new “movement” a few months ago. Equally vociferous denials have come this week from Shilowa and Mosiuoa Lekota (recently-resigned Minister of Defence and former ANC National Executive Committee member). In Lesotho, politicians Kelebone Maope and Thomas Thabane issued similar denials before they went on to form the Lesotho People’s Congress and All-Basotho Convention in 2002 and 2006 respectively.

Their experiences are telling. When Maope resigned as Deputy-Prime Minister in the Lesotho Congress for Democracy-led government, his reasons included the party’s deviation from the “principles of congress” and lack of delivery. He took with him a quarter of cabinet and 23 of the 80 MPs. But in the 2002 poll, he barely managed to hold his own seat, and LPC emerged with just five of 120 parliamentary seats. Thabane resigned from the LCD in 2006, taking 17 MPs with him, and ended up with one less seat in the 2007 elections. What lessons then for South Africa?

Power follows power: The Lesotho breakaways were based partly on precedent: in 1997, Ntsu Mokhehle quit the Basutoland Congress Party to found LCD. But the crucial difference was that he commanded the majority of MPs, and won the 1998 poll – a key calculation for would-be breakaway ANC leaders. Do they have the numbers, especially of power brokers, MPs and/or leaders of various ANC structures? Without undermining the intelligence of voters, many in young democracies like South Africa tend to follow their leaders.

Masses matter: Many arguments for a new party don’t convince the average voter. These revolve around personalised politics, party “principles” (rarely elucidated), and concerns with international standards that matter to the better off or more educated. In South Africa, the core support for a possible splinter seems to come from elite, not the ordinary people. It is the working (and non-working) masses that support the ANC. The latter would probably not have the patience queue to vote, march or die for their convictions. They may have the resources and time to write newspaper articles and call into radio programmes, but probably not the numerical and emotive drive to put a government in power.

Why did you quit? Basotho voters have become sophisticated, and are not often hoodwinked by splitters appealing to “congress principles” or “service delivery”. Both Maope and Thabane aspired to take the top post themselves, and were quickly seen as too ambitious and not satisfied with their ministerial posts and perks. South African voters may feel the same about any ANC breakaway group. In politics, the discerning voter often sniffs out opportunists quite early. A significant group of leading ABC supporters comprised of the elite who, in the main, were driven by ambition to recover their glory, “eat” some more or re-enter the limelight and state largesse: former diplomats, MPs, civil servants and university professors. Voters would view the same crowd with suspicion in South Africa.

Old wine, new bottles: Whoever leads the new party will simply be seen as a repackaged ANC using the electorate to fight his or her political battles. In Lesotho, the successful LCD used images of an eagle (Ntsu) leaving the nest (BCP) and abandoning “rotten unhatched eggs” (the rump of the party that did not follow him into the LCD). Is today’s ANC a nest full of rot with no future? Would the new party’s leadership soar like an eagle, or fail to lift off like Lesotho’s LPC and ABC? Would a “rebottled” ANC convince the voter? I believe voters will see through this and treat them like they have Thabane and Maope in Lesotho -and the HNP, CP, PAC and UDM in this country historically.

Personalities, personalities: The labels of “Zuma ANC/faction” and “Mbeki ANC/faction” betray the truth that intra-party conflict within the ruling party (as was the case in Lesotho) is about personalities, not issues. These are arguments that will neither win votes not advance democracy (although part of the sentiment that carried Zuma to victory in Polokwane was of this ilk).

The Lesotho experience demonstrates that the one-party dominant pattern is difficult to break down -even if it means alternation between two dominant parties. So a split in the ANC may not necessarily benefit the party (if it is left with a “rotten-egg” rump), nor democracy (because the arrogance of one-party domination would remain). The country already has many small parties, whose main preoccupation appears to be attacking the ANC and each other. Unless a new party is strong enough to carry a significant chunk of both the current leadership and its supporters, it will only add to this field of no-hopers.

Perhaps the saving grace of a “soaring” faction in South Africa would be that internally it would be more united. Having shed the “rot” of internal dissent, the ANC would emerge stronger. Lesotho’s Prime Minister Mosisili used to boast between 1998 and 2006 that he could go toe-to-toe with opposition; since then he says they are no match.

So, recycling dissatisfied elites into opposition does not work, because voters are becoming increasingly skeptical of grudge-based agendas, and stick with what they know. Any new party now would struggle to mobilise and convince the masses while developing a coherent programme for a potential governing or opposition party. Of course, other considerations will influence voter: the management credentials of both the any party and of the ANC under Zuma, the strength of the ANC brand versus personalities, and geographic-ethnic support for a Mbeki-ite party. And of course, South Africa has a history of hitching parties to individuals: Louis Botha, Jan Smuts, HF Verwoerd, Albert Luthuli, and Nelson Mandela. With only six months before the next poll, these calculations should be pondered by any new “congress” in South Africa. Lekota’s “damp squib” announcement today may mean that he has made the calculation, and is becoming cautious about fleeing the nest.