When the ANC Eastern Cape Provincial Conference turned into a festival of chairs with the breakout of violence to resolve a political impasse and the subsequent departure of over 700 delegates, it stopped being a gathering whose outcomes could be considered legitimate.
A prevailing truism is that politics is messy but it should never be deadly. Attempts to collapse a conference using tactics that do not harm other delegates cannot be responded to with violence.
In our laws, violence is a criminal response that can only be justifiable under circumstances of self-defence.
The minute violence broke out in that conference, the venue became a crime scene.
Consider filibustering in parliament. It is an act of stonewalling proceedings, often used by people who may not possess enough numbers to prevent a piece of legislation from being passed.
A person who filibusters cannot justifiably be responded to with violence. It is for this reason that the National Assembly once concluded proceedings at late hours of the night.
Stonewalling of a political process is often an indication that issues have not been resolved to the satisfaction of all competing sides.
In the context of a conference, a side that attempts to collapse a conference is often one that may be lacking enough numbers (votes) to win the conference inside the venue. It could be that the said side genuinely does not have numbers and is disrupting proceedings to cause confusion and disorder, or some of their aligned branches were unjustly excluded or the side they are competing with has included in the conference’s credentials branches that were unqualified to participate.
Factions are not new in the ANC, they have a long history that nearly collapsed the ANC as a movement in the 1930s until Alfred Bitini Xuma took over as president in 1940.
Reflecting on that moment in 1955, Xuma stated: “When I took over leadership of the Congress in 1940, the Transvaal was divided into seven sections, Natal into two and the Cape Province into two, and the Orange Free State could only claim Bloemfontein for the Congress.”
When he left office in 1949, there were no such divisions in the movement.
This illuminates an important point – the ANC is faced with a crisis. Can today’s Xuma please stand up?
The nature of political organisations is that there are often differences of opinion on who must lead, but everyone should remain convinced that after a fair contest, all sides should work together.
There was no fair contest in the Eastern Cape conference because the environment descended into such chaos that it became an imminent threat to people’s lives.
This is no exaggeration.
The first moment of disruptions on Friday night led to an adjournment without violent incident after some ANC members stormed into the venue alleging that they were unfairly excluded from the gathering.
The second lot of disruptions ended with blood on the floor after mutiny ensued inside the conference, with some members refusing that credentials be adopted, resulting in eight people being injured and needing medical attention.
What would have been the outcome of the third moment of disruption? A death? Surely not. Death can easily happen during a fracas involving a festival of chairs and a stampede.
The key question to ask would be, how can we be certain that once the opposing faction had walked away from the conference, the remaining faction did not inflate its numbers by manipulating the lists in order to show that the currently elected leadership would still have won with a convincing majority?
How was security handled in the moment of a mass walkout to ensure that people who were not part of the conference did not make their way into the hall?
Given that Phumulo Masualle and those “nominated” comrades aligned to him were not in the venue to accept their nominations, how did they end up in the voting process? Did they accept nomination by phone from a gathering they no longer wished to participate in?
Were their nominations “accepted” on their behalf to embarrass them by the “7 votes” that are flying around, or to appease the few who remained behind?
This reminds us of a similar incident where, in the eThekwini regional conference of December 2015, James Nxumalo received one vote against 283 received by now incumbent chairperson Zandile Gumede.
Nxumalo and his supporters had boycotted the conference.
It was irregular and malicious to have them “contesting” in a gathering they were not part of. Such is factionalism – it makes the unthinkable acceptable and the abnormal a new norm.
Legitimacy is loosely defined as “the ability to be defended with logic or justification; validity”.
In a factionalised environment, this means getting even the losing side, after having fairly participated, to defend the leadership that emerges.
This is achieved if everybody believes there were no unnecessary shortcuts taken in the build-up to conference.
However, on the ANC’s own admission, the manipulation of processes and buying of members in the lead up to conferences to influence the election outcome are crippling practices to the movement.
The ANC must accept the proposal made by its stalwarts that the auditing of branches and handling of elections must be done by a group of individuals without a vested interest in the election outcomes.
Or adopt the principle advanced by Oscar Mabuyane and others, giving all ANC members an opportunity to vote for leadership – the one member, one vote principle.
Lukhona Mnguni is a PhD intern researcher in the Maurice Webb Race Relations Unit at the University of KwaZulu-Natal