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Creative Thinking Could Resolve ANC's Dilemma

The Times (South Africa)

John Stremlau says Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma should consider putting the party — and the nation — ahead of their personal ambition.

Albert Luthuli, Oliver Tambo and Nelson Mandela guided the ANC through much more treacherous times than today face Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.

The ANC is still arguably the world's most admired national party, capable of leading the nation for decades to come. Yet a close reading of Joel Netshitenzhe's political overview delivered to the National Executive Committee suggests the ANC may be losing its bearings and its historic ties to the people.

A fight to the finish between Mbeki and Zuma for control of the party will likely make matters worse.

Barely two weeks before their showdown at the ANC's 52nd National Conference in Polokwane, the 4,075 voting delegates appear to be evenly and bitterly divided, despite Zuma's lead going in . If delegates could quickly and firmly unite behind a successor to Mbeki, the long run-up to the 2009 presidential election could be a time of political renewal for the ANC and the nation.

This now appears unlikely, even if a third candidate miraculously appears.

Were Mbeki to prevail in Polokwane, there would be plenty of time for a successor to be named and to become better known to the public. But the bitterness among Zuma supporters, and suspicions that the choice of a new leader will be Mbeki's alone, would not bode well for a revival of the party's social cohesion.

If Zuma wins, the challenge would be even greater, with a court case pending against him and Mbeki still in charge of the state. As of this writing, the only third candidate who looms as second choice for a majority of the delegates is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. With backing from the two main factions, she could begin building the grass-roots constituency she currently lacks.

There is a fourth scenario that may sound even more improbable, but could serve the best interests of the party and the nation. It would entail Mbeki and Zuma announcing that neither are candidates for the ANC presidency, and offering to the members a third candidate who would renounce any intention to stand for national president in 2009. This means de-linking, at least for now, the dual presidencies of party and country and the abandonment of the archaic pretence that cadres don't campaign for national office.

The aim would be to heal the current rift in the party quickly, and rekindle the grass-roots party cohesion and activism that Netshitenzhe's NEC memo suggests is required.

Maintaining the status quo, with Mbeki and Zuma at the top of the party for another five years, would be simpler, but this is not likely to satisfy Zuma partisans unless they could be persuaded their man was committed to it, and the process of choosing the ANC leader for the 2009 election would be genuinely democratic.

Indeed, it is hard to imagine Zuma pulling out even if Mbeki somehow draws enough votes for a narrow win, unless both agree to back an open contest to energise the ANC base over the coming year.

Assuring Zuma he could retain the deputy presidency for another term would help, as would a little creative jurisprudence to avoid a long, divisive, and possibly inconclusive corruption trial.

Mbeki and Zuma would be among the first to admit the ANC is bigger and more important than any member. At 65, both men can look back with pride on their decades of selfless service to the party and as founding fathers of South African democracy and the African renaissance.

Both have made major contributions to resolving conflicts at home and elsewhere in Africa, drawing on ANC lessons of tolerance, inclusion, generosity and decision by consensus.

I recall once asking then Deputy-President Zuma what it would take to resolve the conflict in Burundi, where he had spent countless days shuttling among the warring factions. "About 25 Burundians with the political skills of an ANC cadre," he said with a smile.

Such skills are still abundant within the party and should be unleashed, starting at Polokwane, to reconcile the ANC's current divisions and to prepare the way for a new generation of leaders for 2009 and beyond.

Stremlau is vice president for Peace Programs at The Carter Center, Atlanta, Georgia.

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