Factionalism in politics is almost as old as politics. It has never been restricted to one political party and is usually based on personalities rather than policies.
The focus is on factionalism in the ANC because of the implications this has for the leadership vote at the organisation’s elective conference, which starts in Joburg today and is expected to end on Wednesday.
Who wins the ANC presidential vote will indicate which faction - or slate as it is called within the ANC - is strongest: those supporting Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or former AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Or maybe it will indicate who had the most money to spend.
As far as I can remember, there have been factions in the ANC and related organisations. When we were involved in Struggle in the 1980s, we were all identified as belonging to one or other faction. More than 30 years later, we can hardly remember what our factions stood for and we are all friends.
I think that the main difference between our factions was based on our approach to organisational democracy. The one faction believed in democratic centralism while the other group supported federalism. Each faction had a leader whose name became synonymous with the faction.
But the factions were also based on the areas in which you lived. When I moved from Hanover Park to Mitchells Plain, I was seen as being in another faction.
I had been a youth leader in Hanover Park and, when I attended the funeral of a youth member a few months after moving from the area, I was shunned by some of my former comrades in Hanover Park.
Nowadays, factionalism seems to be more about the individuals involved and what they can offer their followers, than about policy matters.
The factions appear to be more fluid, with some people being prepared to die for their leader the one day, and being his rival a few years later.
We have an ANC presidential candidate who, a few years ago, stood as deputy president on the slate that lost to her former husband, who is now the party and the country’s president and her biggest supporter.
Politics has become a game of survival and I have often seen comrades vacillating between supporting one leader over another, with the only reason being that the one is offering more security in terms of employment and remuneration than the other.
It was not too long ago that Thabo Mbeki lost the ANC presidency to Jacob Zuma and some of his supporters left the ANC en masse to form Cope. Many of those who left returned to the ANC soon after, with some of them now supporting Ramaphosa. Cope is a shadow of the party it was in its prime.
Ramaphosa was a rival of Mbeki and, according to some, was Nelson Mandela’s choice as deputy president but Madiba was overruled by the ANC faction that had been in exile, and chose Mbeki instead.
While Ramaphosa remained a member of the ANC’s national executive committee, he decided to focus on business while biding his time to make his presidential bid.
He got his opportunity at Mangaung, when he became deputy president as part of Zuma’s slate after Zuma’s former deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, decided to challenge him for the presidency.
Ramaphosa’s assumption was probably that Zuma would support his bid to become president .But now Zuma has decided to back his former wife to become ANC president and possibly president of the country.
But factionalism is not necessarily a bad thing. It could show that the party is not one-dimensional and allows and encourages debate.
The ANC has a good opportunity, as the dominant party in South African politics (at least for the moment), to show it can put aside factionalism and work together in the interest of the country and not only the members of a faction or of the party. I suppose one can always live in hope.
(First published as a Thinking Allowed column in the Weekend Argus on Saturday 16 December 2017)