Formed in 1912, the then South African Native National Congress (SANNC) brought together traditional leaders, the clergy, and ordinary people, mostly disenfranchised Africans to plot a course for a liberation struggle.
Amongst those who led the movement are luminaries like John Langalibalele Dube, Pixlely Ka-Isaka Seme, Sol Tshekiso Plaatjie, and the first African Nobel Peace Price Laureate Chief Albert Luthuli.
Political commentator, Dr. Somadoda Fikeni, says previous leaders in the ANC all displayed different characteristics.
They, however, all contributed in different ways to the struggle against racial segregation and land dispossession.
“The issue of leadership like the likes of Xuma were criticised for being elitist. Moroka was not even a member of the ANC and was brought in and dislodged later. The period of glory would come with the likes of Luthuli who was dignified and a people’s person who had the respect worldwide,” says Fikeni.
Throughout the liberation struggle the ANC produced outstanding leaders like, the late Oliver Reginald Tambo.
Tambo is credited for his astute leadership during the more than three decades of his exiled leadership at the helm of the then banned ANC.
Fikeni describes Tambo as a leader who left the ANC in a strong position.
“Here was a leader (Tambo) who was faced with crisis which were fatal to the ANC. His humanitarian approach, principled leadership, a great thinker and a strategist. He handed over a very strong ANC,” says Fikeni.
Tambo returned to South Africa in 1990 and died three years later due to complications from stroke.
Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela took over the reins from Tambo and steered the ANC through protracted peace negotiations which culminated in the ushering in of a new democratic order in 1994.
It was Mandela who brought together former protagonists, and paved way for a peaceful transitional period which had reconciliation as its hallmark.
Mandela served one term and handed over the reigns to his then Deputy Thabo Mbeki in 1999. It was a beginning of a watershed moment for the ANC, a party which became embroiled in leadership battles.
In 2005, Mbeki sacked his then deputy, Jacob Zuma, after being implicated in a corruption scandal, involving his former financial adviser Schabir Schaik.
Zuma used the opportunity to mobilise support from the party’s rank and file – a move which saw him being elected to be the President of the ANC in 2007.
At the time Zuma extended an olive branch to Mbeki who suffered a humiliating defeat at the Polokwane conference.
Speaking in his first appearance as party President, Zuma spoke on maintaining his relationship with Mbeki.
“Comrade Mbeki and I both, members of the ANC, will develop a smooth working relations between government and the ruling party,” he spoke.
But tensions between Mbeki and the party ruling elite intensified soon after Zuma took over the leadership of the ANC. This led to the recall of Mbeki as Head of State in 2008.
Dr. Fikeni has described the moment as a turning point in the history of the ANC leadership succession tradition, which he says was carefully managed by its elders for many decades during the anti-Apartheid struggle.
“Succession at the time there were elders who respected, who would say hold back your ambitions for the sake of greater good. Nothing of that nature you would imagine today because ambition is an alpha and omega. The revolution defined for personal need and patronage compounded every problem,” says Fikeni.
Delivering a keynote address at the recent OR Tambo centennial memorial lecture in Johannesburg, Mbeki bemoaned the state of the ANC and its structures, saying, “When the ANC faced the threat of existence in 1940, its members successfully intervened to address that threat and today the ANC faces the ANC members.”
Mbeki took swipe at the ruling elite, accusing it of trampling on the ANC’s moral values and betraying the public trust.
“The fact of the matter is that during the last two decades the ANC has failed to do things Mandela mentioned in 1997. And that’s to purge itself from mercenaries who have joined its ranks. The numbers of those who see the ANC as a tool to access political power and corrupt wealth would increase.”
Whilst pundits have described the ANC’s upcoming 54th national conference in December as a make or break, and a decisive moment for the ruling party to self-correct, it however remains to be seen as to whether the outcome of the fierce leadership contest will not result in yet another split which could lead to the demise of the continent’s once-the-glorified liberation movement.
With only few weeks left before the ANC goes to its much anticipated leadership elective conference in mid-December, concerns have been raised as to whether the party will survive the fierce leadership battle which has seen about seven presidential hopefuls vying for control of the ruling party.