SOUTH Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) last week celebrated its 104th birthday in Rustenburg, a longevity achieved on the back of various factors among them the party’s capacity to constantly renew its leadership and therefore revitalise itself.
This is in diametrical contradistinction to the cult of the “Great Leader” policies espoused in Zimbabwe where the mere mention of challenging President Robert Mugabe is regarded as treasonous despite the fact that Mugabe has clung steadfastly to the leadership of the ruling Zanu PF party since 1977 and ruled the country since Independence in 1980.
South Africa became a democracy in 1994 and has had four presidents — Nelson Mandela, who served one term, Thabo Mbeki, Kgalema Motlanthe and the incumbent Jacob Zuma, who is serving his last term.
It speaks to the vibrant internal democratic system in the ANC. Such is the vibrancy of the democratic culture in the party that sitting presidents can be challenged and even recalled from office as happened in 2008 when Mbeki was recalled over allegations he abused power.
Motlanthe briefly succeeded Mbeki before making way for Zuma, whom he unsuccessfully challenged at the party congress in Mangaung, Free State, in 2012.
And despite being defeated in a heated contest, Motlanthe was allowed to complete his term before being replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa.
In all, the ANC has had a total of 14 leaders since its formation in 1912, meaning on average, each leader has served for seven-and-a-half years.
The low average is despite the fact that Oliver Tambo (1967-91) was at the helm of the party for 24 consecutive years, which is attributed to the fact that the party had been banned while some of the leaders, including Mandela, were in jail. During the period ANC operated in exile in different countries.
Given the reportedly close ties it enjoys with Zanu PF, it would be expected that Mugabe and Zanu PF would learn from the ANC about the benefits of cultivating internal democracy and leadership renewal.
Over the years the party has gradually become weakened and divided because of vicious infighting fuelled by Mugabe’s decision to cling onto power despite his advanced age.
He has led the party for 39 uninterrupted years, having assumed leadership at the party’s 1977 congress held in Chimoio, Mozambique.
Political analyst and academic Eldred Masunungure attributes ANC’s longevity to the party’s ability to rejuvenate itself through leadership change.
“The ANC has had several leaders while Zanu PF has had only two leaders since its formation (in 1963). Leadership renewal has made ANC robust and durable in the face of political storms before and after South Africa’s independence,” Masunungure said.
“Lack of leadership renewal in Zanu PF has weakened the party and this is proving to be disastrous for the once-popular party.”
Another analyst Maxwell Saungweme said: “The ANC’s ability to renew its leadership and not necessarily renewing its ways of doing things has been key to its survival unlike Zanu PF.”
While the ANC’s history is decorated with names of leaders who have come and gone in a generally orderly succession, that of Zanu PF is littered with “carcasses” of former party stalwarts who were kicked or frustrated out of the party for showing the slightest hint of ambition or having an opposing view to Mugabe.
The likes of Edgar Tekere, Dumiso Dabengwa, Eddison Zvobgo, Dzikamai Mavhaire and Simba Makoni were once party luminaries, but were consigned to the wilderness by Mugabe.
However, the mother of all purges saw the axe fall on former vice-president Joice Mujuru at the Zanu PF congress in December 2014.
Mujuru and several other top leaders like former secretary for administration Didymus Mutasa were fired from the party and government on untested allegations of plotting to assassinate Mugabe.
For Mugabe and his cronies, it seems the idea that someone can take over during his lifetime amounts to sacrilege and his wife, First Lady Grace Mugabe, thinks his long life is a sign that God wants him to rule for life.
Blissfully oblivious of constitutional provisions which permit the replacement of a leader for reasons such as infirmity, Grace even declared during a rally in Murehwa that “we are going to create a special wheelchair for President Mugabe until he rules to 100 years, because that is what we want”.
The same Grace was to speak glowingly of the late vice-president Simon Muzenda at another rally in Masvingo praising his lack of ambition and describing his apparent satisfaction to remain in Mugabe’s shadow as virtues of a man who knows his place in the universal chain of being which has Mugabe forever at the helm of both party and government.
And if Zanu PF cannot learn from the rich history of the ANC where an even bigger and revered global icon Mandela chose to serve only one term, then surely Tanzania’s ruling party Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM) can provide some useful lessons. CCM, the longest ruling post-liberation party in Africa — has also allowed leadership renewal within its systems, hence the party has managed to survive in the face of growing opposition.
Tanzania’s founding leader Julius Nyerere gave up power back in 1985 when life presidents and one-party states were still en vogue. Since then the country and CCM has had leaders like Ali Hassan Mwinyi, Benjamin Mkapa, Jakaya Kikwete and currently John Magufuli. Even Mozambique, which had a long civil strife, has witnessed leadership change. Once President Samora Machel died in a plane crash in 1986, the party embarked on a new course embracing leadership renewal which has seen a succession of leaders including Joaquim Chissano, Armando Guebuza and now Filipe Nyusi.
Malawi and Zambia, like present day Zimbabwe, had strong personalities who dominated their parties refusing to give their lieutenants the chance to contribute ideas or even rise to the helm of these parties. The then ruling Malawi Congress Party (MCP) had Hastings Kamuzu Banda as the singular fountain of wisdom and centre of power while Zambia’s United Independence Party (Unip) had Kenneth Kaunda after both leaders had purged some of the brilliant minds whom they worked with in the independence struggle.
While Banda was “the singular fountain of wisdom and centre of power” Zanu PF officials also declare that there is only “one centre of power (Mugabe)” in Zanu PF.
The present reality is that both MCP and Unip have sunk into oblivion and if anything, this is the path that Zanu PF could travel in the post-Mugabe era given the never-ending battles for power within its rank and file.