Seniority in the ANC will only get you so far
Business Day, 1 March 2013
The idea of “seniority” plays an elusive but important role in the internal politics of the African National Congress (ANC). Its meaning is neither defined in the ANC’s constitution nor debated at the movement’s elective conferences. But it shapes decisions about who exercises power and it influences the outcomes of ANC elections.
Seniority is not merely a matter of which office one holds. Deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe has been stripped of ANC offices but he nevertheless retains a reservoir of seniority.
Seniority is plainly not a direct reflection of age (although it is difficult to acquire this property if you are young). Most ageing ANC cadres lack seniority; they are instead described as “veterans” or, worse still, as “stalwarts”. Such cadres serve on integrity rather than tender committees and can be safely ignored.
The young acquire seniority only if their patrons die – most famously when Oliver Tambo’s aura was bequeathed to his bag carrier, Thabo Mbeki. The young pipe smoker acquired even more of the property by virtue of the status of his father.
Aristocrats such as Nelson Mandela enjoy an initial seniority advantage. Representatives of the workers, such as Gwede Mantashe, can reach the highest offices in the movement, but they can never accumulate a sufficient quotient of this precious commodity to become ANC president.
In the Mbeki era seniority was associated with exile and with Robben Island. Trade unionists and United Democratic Front leaders were inherently junior to their illustrious exile liberators. Whites and Indians obviously cannot become senior no matter what offices they hold (but they can become “dedicated cadres of the movement” instead, which is a reward in itself).
Men are inherently senior to women (of course) but this is no longer an absolute barrier. A woman can acquire seniority from her family (for example in the Sisulu dynasty) or through marriage.
The latest beneficiary of this magical property is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. “Dlamini-Zuma is as intelligent as she is charming”, an international diplomat remarked at a recent function in Cape Town. “The trouble is that she isn’t very charming.”
It is rumoured that Mathews Phosa, former treasurer general of the ANC, has been assigned a new role working with Dlamini-Zuma. One former minister likened this deployment to animal cruelty; another to the “promotion” of disgraced Soviet politicians to run nuclear power stations in Siberia. It will certainly give pause to future challengers to Zuma’s authority.
Dlamini-Zuma’s record as a minister of health and foreign affairs was lamentable. But despite her personal and political limitations she has acquired a bucket full of seniority over the years.
Her decision to run as Mbeki’s deputy at Polokwane gained her seniority credits.
Her miraculous post-Polokwane rehabilitation has seen her acquire still more. A few months after her arrival as minister at home affairs, it was declared that she had “turned around” the department. Her previous personal relationship with Zuma represents an additional source of seniority.
At Mangaung she came top in the national executive committee elections as a result of concerted lobbying.
Now she has acquired a massive new draught of seniority as a result of her rise to the chair of the African Union Commission.
Dlamini-Zuma may be intellectually and temperamentally unsuited to this demanding role. But her backers in KwaZulu-Natal evidently believe it will provide her with the gravitas that she will need if she is to be parachuted into the ANC presidency in 2017.
This judgment is probably mistaken for two reasons. First, she will flop as AU Commission chair. Second, seniority remains a somewhat haphazard amalgamation of racism, nepotism and cronyism. It is therefore only a secondary value of the ANC, alongside such middle ranking ideals as the quest for human freedom, the search for mining licenses, and the identification of shopping opportunities. It cannot successfully be used to trump the movement’s foundational commitment to reject tribalism.
Butler teaches politics at the University of Cape Town