This weekend will see the most important conference of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), since the end of the apartheid state.
Over 4,000 delegates will gather in Polokwane for the ANC’s five-yearly conference.
All the media attention will be on the struggle for the party leadership between the country’s president, Thabo Mbeki, and his challenger Jacob Zuma.
All the signs are that delegates will vote for Jacob Zuma to lead the party – and thereby unleash a storm of headlines about a shift leftwards.
Whoever wins will be almost certain to become leader of the country in 2009.
Mbeki is identified with neoliberal policies, appeasing big business, and working with the US on the international stage. Zuma has won backing from trade unions and the left.
The bosses’ magazine, the Financial Mail, had a two-word headline on its recent cover story about a Zuma presidency, “Be Afraid”.
Many business people and state officials don’t like Zuma’s radical speeches, or the fact that he attracts militant supporters who join him in singing songs from the freedom struggle such as Umshini Wami (Bring Me My Machine Gun).
Zuma won nearly two-thirds of the vote in the provincial nomination elections at the end of November.
He then secured the support of the ANC Women’s League, a traditional supporter of Mbeki.
The confrontation between Mbeki and Zuma is the echo of a deeper split inside the ANC.
Many members, especially those in the trade unions and the South African Communist Party (SACP), are disenchanted with the lack of change since the end of apartheid in 1994.
SACP leaders wrote this month, “The current dilemmas are the direct consequence of a failing project – the illusion that the national democratic revolution could be delivered by a new political elite controlling the commanding heights of the state and working in close collaboration with established monopoly capital.
“The undemocratic imposition of GEAR [the neoliberal economic policy] in 1996 marked the marriage ceremony between this new elite and old monopoly capital.”
Trade union federation Cosatu recently passed a motion saying, “While the historic constituency of the ANC remains the black working class, and the poor majority, the national leadership of the ANC is increasingly becoming capitalist and middle strata in composition and character.”
Such criticism is itself an echo of the real source of the ANC crisis – the growth of resistance from below.
Workers and township dwellers are increasingly struggling against the poverty and oppression that remains almost untouched since the end of white rule.
Last week 240,000 mineworkers struck in the first national miners’ strike for over a decade – over the fact that more than 200 miners die every year as the race for profit sees safety ignored.
A major public sector strike in June shook the government. Around 750,000 workers – nurses, domestics, cleaners, admin workers, teachers and others – defiantly struck for 28 days. Since then other groups have been inspired to strike.
And in the townships – where most black people live – hardly a day goes by without a protest over housing, lack of services and the sporadic supply of electricity.
Filmmaker Ben Cashdan has made a film about the ANC succession battle (Through The Eye of a Needle) that charts the inner–party bitterness.
But he adds, “One set of voices does emerge untainted in our film. Those are the voices of a very poor community of shack dwellers in Potsdam, a village close to the huge, sprawling township of Mdantsane.
“We visited the Potsdam community a few weeks after its recent protests, at which shack-dweller leaders were shot at by police using tear gas and rubber bullets.
“We found the Potsdam community defiantly singing Umshini Wami. Had they always sung this song, or was it a sign of their identification with Zuma? The answer is probably both, but undoubtedly their chorus has grown in intensity since their recent experiences with government.
“‘I hate Thabo Mbeki,’ says Xolile, one shack-dweller leader in our film. ‘Mbeki goes to Europe in a suit and tells the Europeans that all is well in South Africa. He never comes here to do anything about our situation. If Zuma knew about our problems, he would help us.’
“Xolile’s faith in the ANC deputy president is soon challenged by another community leader, Marilyn, who asks, ‘Has the ANC done anything to help us?’ After a pause to think, Xolile answers ‘No.’ ‘So why do you vote for ANC?’ asks Marilyn.
“’The ANC used to have great leaders,’ explains Xolile, ‘but today our leaders are corrupt. Maybe after Zuma, a new leader will come who will be right.’”
Those who believe that Zuma will deliver change will be disappointed.
It remains unclear whether he will be prosecuted over allegations about corruption and bribes from an arms firm. And, although he was acquitted, a rape trial last year undermined his reputation.
In any case, Zuma is not nearly as left wing as he is often painted.
He flew to London in November to collect business funds for his campaign and to reassure international investors that he would not reverse Mbeki’s pro-business policies.
Paul Ekon, a London-based South African mining finance consultant and a friend of Zuma, said Zuma had been invited to Britain by “senior banking and investment people in the UK who had noted Zuma’s success in the leadership nominations, and who were concerned about his economic policies”.
Ekon added, “They all said they were very pleasantly surprised at the policies he outlined.”
Zuma reassured senior investors by saying, “I am not the monster you think I am.”
The ANC conference will highlight the deep splits inside the party and the government.
But the solution will come from the struggles by workers and the poor.
That resistance, and the political movement that can grow from it, are the real challenge to neoliberalism.