Is the African National Congress (ANC) in KwaZulu-Natal fashioning itself as the centre of unity in the governing party with the invitation of former Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Kgalema Motlanthe to address its provincial structures?  The ANC in the province invited the former Presidents to address its PEC and various other structures.

This is the province known for its strained relations with Mbeki in the past, following the 2007 Polokwane Conference. Mbeki has been in the province twice and Motlanthe was there over the weekend.

The keenly contested 2007 ANC Polokwane conference most probably marked the beginning of divisions in the governing party. The ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, where challenger Jacob Zuma originated from leading the march, out-seated Mbeki at a highly-charged conference. Mbeki was even heckled by his own comrades.

Mbeki’s defeat, including his subsequent recall as State President soon after, continued to cast its shadow for almost a decade. However, this disunity has proven costly with the ANC steadily shedding support in KwaZulu-Natal, not only in its largest constituency, but also across the country.

With a significant drop in support from the 2004 national elections when Mbeki was President, the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal is reaching out to the former president and other leaders.

ANC provincial secretary Mdumiseni Ntuli says Mbeki and other leaders have a role to play in saving the ANC from self-destruction.

”We had a session with President Thabo Mbeki, I met him in his foundation and I said to him that the movement is going through difficulties and we have accepted as the current leadership in KZN that unless we admit honestly to the nature of the source of divisions we are going through, we have gone through, we are not going to succeed to rebuild the organisation. So we went to town explaining how we conducted ourselves going to Polokwane and post-Polokwane. And then we said to him as we did as well to comrade Kgalema Motlanthe, that we believe that we as the current leadership are what we may call – Committed Disciples of Our Movement and we said to him when the President said beyond this there must be redemption, we believe KZN must be counted amongst those who will lead that project. ”

Ironically as KwaZulu-Natal is spearheading unity within the party, the province did not gain a single top six position at the 2017 National Conference.  Ntuli says the wisdom of past leaders like Mbeki and Motlanthe is crucial.

”His acceptance to our invitation and the fact that he has honoured it twice communicates a very clear message about the need for cadres of the movement to understand that at a certain period in our time there will be difficulties, but difficulties can’t be permanent. It communicates the message that says we must accept that where we have hurt each other and where we might have signalled to society that we no longer need each other were moments of that time and there is a need for the ANC to consolidate and move forward.”

Ntuli said they are happy that Mbeki understands that their concern of a divided ANC is genuine.

“What excites us as the provincial leadership is the fact that when we approach him on this question he understood that this was not just blackmail, secondly he understood that this is not just a cheap call for him to come because we are going to elections. It was a question of him understanding a leadership that is genuine about the need to repositioning his organisation because he himself keeps on saying this is, ‘my organisation, when it is not doing well I also get embarrassed, when I travel the continent people ask me about the state of the ANC, I am always ashamed and without making any contribution I also feel that unwittingly and unconsciously, I am part of creating the same problems within the ANC’. ”

Political Analyst Professor Somadoda Fikeni says Ntuli’s posture is ultimately driven by the need to preserve the ANC.  ”He may not be consciously doing that but his actions have brought in a breath of fresh air in an ANC that is factionalized. So part of the younger leaders do not have these memories of grudges of what happened in exile, what happened in the 80s, what happened in the UDF, they are more concerned about what they see now, the impact and the damage of divisions and the impact of ethnic tensions.”

Ahead of the National General Council later this year, the province has been categorically on its stance that it will not support any moves to de-stabilise the current Cyril Ramaphosa administration and whether other provincial structures of the party will take their cue from KwaZulu-Natal remains to be seen.