ANC democracy flounders in the party’s heartland

An independent candidate is contesting the local government elections in a former Eastern Cape Bantustan, revealing deep fault lines in the party’s ward candidate nomination process.

In the run-up to the local government elections, an ANC stronghold in Nyandeni, east of Mthatha, appears to be under threat from within its own ranks. A factious process to nominate a ward candidate has left the party there in disarray.

Communities, and not party members, are responsible for choosing the party’s ward candidates. This nomination process was adopted at the ANC’s 52nd national conference in Polokwane in 2007 to unearth more accountable ward councillors. But there have been reports of irregularities across the country, and many of the ANC’s nominations are now being contested in internal review processes. Some have been challenged in the courts. In Ward 12 of the sub-region, one of the ANC’s most loyal sons, Yandisa Rana, is rebelling against his party’s handling of candidate nominations by contesting November’s local government election as an independent candidate.

6 October 2021: In Ward 12 in Nyandeni, Yandisa Rana, 34, is contesting November’s local government election as an independent candidate because of the ANC’s handling of candidate nominations. 

The stocky 34-year-old, who uses a 2015 South African Democratic Teachers Union diary to organise his days, is dyed-in-the-wool tripartite alliance. “I live, I breathe, I sleep the ANC. I do everything ANC,” he says. But local party structures have apparently undermined their own election process by installing the incumbent ward councillor, Nobuntu Nonkonyana, instead of Rana, Ward 12 community’s choice, for the upcoming elections.

Now, come 1 November, Rana will try to oust the party he has spent his life serving.

More of the same

The ash of burned tyres still mingles in the dust outside Ntapene preschool, a low building with a lone jungle gym in an unkempt yard. The school served as one of five voting stations used by the community of Ward 12 to nominate either Rana or Nonkonyana in late June. Having won three of the other four stations going into the Ntapene vote and leading by 122 individual votes (the candidate with the most votes should be nominated, according to ANC rules), Rana was feeling confident.

But, then local ANC functionaries brought the Ntapene vote to an abrupt end and left with the ballot papers before voting had been completed. The community’s choice was thrown into the chasm of the party’s internal processes, including a failed attempt by Nonkonyana to have a rerun of all five voting stations.

8 October 2021: The ANC has installed the incumbent ward councillor, Nobuntu Nonkonyana, as its candidate for Ward 12 in Nyandeni, despite a flawed election process involving the community. 

When the community eventually voted at Ntapene on 18 August, nearly two months later, elderly voters were allowed to cast their ballots before the vote was cut short after an hour and a half, leading the frustrated community members waiting outside to burn tyres and other debris in protest.

Despite the outstanding results, Nonkonyana has since been officially submitted as the ANC’s candidate for Ward 12. The high court in Mthatha has upheld her nomination, along with the voting at Ntapene, despite the ANC’s failure to produce the ballot papers and results of the August vote. (Ward 12’s ballot papers should have been kept for three months.)

The only game in town

Nonkonyana, who cuts a nervous, guarded figure on her campaign trail, maintains that she was nominated in “a fair and proper process”. She understands the frustrations of those unable to vote at Ntapene, but says “their attitude was not good”. Voting stations depend on cut-off times, she adds.

Speaking as the star attraction during one of Nonkonyana’s recent door-to-door campaigns, Blade Nzimande would not be drawn on the councillor’s contested nomination. “We have a candidate who has been nominated. Where there have been challenges, after the elections, we will go and address those challenges. Because we don’t want to leave them like a festering wound.”

8 October 2021: As part of the ANC’s door-to-door campaign, Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology Blade Nzimande (red shirt, white cap) talks to an elderly resident in Nyandeni. 

Nonkonyana’s election is not the only wound threatening to fester in Nyandeni. Other party stalwarts such as Xolisa Nkosana, 57, are threatening to shut down the 1 November elections after the nomination of the Ward 31 candidate resulted in similar tensions.

Nzimande says that any threat to the ANC in Nyandeni had less to do with the party’s record of delivery – “the fact that we have challenges must not blind us to the fact of the advances that we have been able to make since 1994” – and more to do with its failure to put in “enough effort to get our supporters out”.

7 October 2021: ANC party stalwarts such as Xolisa Nkosana, 57, are threatening to shut down the 1 November elections after the nomination of the Ward 31 candidate was similarly irregular.

While the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Technology tossed ANC T-shirts to Unathi Danster, 33, and Mthuthuzeli Dongwane, 46, without so much as a greeting, the continued ANC loyalty of the two shack dwellers suggest the party’s performance still hinges on the fact that the government remains the only economic game in town.

The government is an employer – Dongwane earns R780 a month cutting grass and collecting trash through the Community Works Programme – as well as a stimulator of demand – most of what Danster’s household spends every month depends on the two child-support grants she receives. The redistribution of state resources makes up the economic horizons of the majority of Nyandeni’s families.

A brittle dominance

Recent elections suggest a strong ANC ascendancy in Nyandeni. The 84% it won in the 2016 local government elections was even stronger than the 79% in the broader OR Tambo district – one of the party’s traditional strongholds.

But behind its recent success is a history that reveals that dominance is seldom straightforward. The Pan-African Congress represented such a threat to the ANC’s chances in the region in the 1994 elections that Govan Mbeki was sent to save the day. When South Africans next went to the ballot box, in the 1999 local government elections, the United Democratic Movement won in the Mthatha municipality.

Rana and Nonkonyana’s differing accounts of the discord playing out in their ward shows that the terrain on which the ANC is fighting to maintain dominance includes issues both local and national. Rana says that tensions between Nonkonyana and the community began when she refused to help an impoverished family who could not afford to bury a loved one. The ward councillor is adamant it is more to do with the frustrations of an educated youth in a jobless economy.

7 October 2021: After being diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis years ago, Pinky Melane, 57, became a wheelchair user. The roads near her house are in such disrepair that the family has to use their disability grants on taxis to and from the doctor

But voters such as Songezo Fayo, 34, say it has to do with Nonkonyana’s failure to secure their most basic needs during her five years in office. The bricklayer, who has been out of work for the past two years, says, “As far as I’m concerned, I don’t have a councillor.” None of his five children have a safe place to play, for instance.

Rana feels certain that politics in Ward 12, and in Nyandeni more broadly, is increasingly defined by young people like Fayo demanding services. He went so far as to suggest there is a new demographic at play in the upcoming elections: young people who have been confined to their rural homes by the Covid-19 pandemic. Where they may have been working in the cities during previous elections, Rana was confident that many have been unable to return and will now bring their experience of better education and services in South Africa’s urban centres to bear on the elections on 1 November.

It would not be the first time that young people and those returning from the cities and jobs have changed the foundations of the former Transkei’s politics. It was an insurgent youth – students and unemployed mineworkers – who transformed rural society when they challenged the region’s corrupt Bantustan authorities in the 1980s.

7 October 2021: On the wall of the collapsing home of Sydney Kenene, 66, hangs a fading poster of Chris Hani, the former general secretary of the South African Communist Party. 

The afterlives of that insurgency show that, whatever the political fortunes of candidates like Rana and Nonkonyana, the yoke of life lived in the absence of basic services is a great deal heavier now. Three of the four people living in Pinky Melane’s household are wheelchair users. “I’m a mother, I’m a father, I’m everything,” Melane, 57, explains. While the nearby Mthatha city centre is visible from their front door, the road leading from it is in a state of such disrepair that the family is forced almost to exhaust their monthly disability grants on private taxi trips to and from the doctor.

Sydney Kenene, 66, who once worked as a driver for KFC and a local funeral home and whose two suits hang in the corner of his collapsing two-bedroom mud home, says he “sees nothing going forward for me. I have lost hope.” Kenene, who has carved the words “Let me live my life” into his front door, has retreated into old age alone.

Fragments of a giant

Going into the election, Rana is well versed in the ANC’s rhetorical flair, accusing the party’s provincial leadership of only ever visiting Nyandeni “to massage and somersault” its communities. But if his campaigning is reminiscent of the ruling party, then his potential governance promises to be even more so. Rana’s platform – youth employment, RDP homes, communal taps where people still collect their water from rivers – mirrors that of his former political home very closely.

Local manoeuvres in the ANC’s party machinery, similar to those now playing out in Nyandeni, make up the fragments from which Tim Gibbs once argued a national state was being built. The University College London historian is no longer as optimistic, however. Where ANC dysfunction was once still able to redistribute resources to some of the people in need, he says the party’s recent trajectory suggests even this delivery is now collapsing.

If the ANC’s rule since 1994 were an essay, the discord playing out in Nyandeni is only a word. But even one word on a crowded page can be illuminating. Local ruptures like these reveal what might be the beginnings of the winds that end up blowing through the party. Now, the fate in the coming elections of disillusioned ANC stalwarts such as Rana will stand as the next test of the party’s local chapters. Will its famously broad church have space for the choices of the communities it aims to govern? And will its horizon be shaded in renewal or rot?

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