2007 is the year Mbeki and the feuding ANC tread a thin line

What a heavy pen President Thabo Mbeki has held in his hand these past few weeks.

What a heavy pen President Thabo Mbeki has held in his hand these past few weeks.

He is the president of the ANC and on this day, 95 years ago, his party was formed.

Mbeki's pen is supposed to deliver the document that will tell the party's members where the ANC is to go this year and how it is to solve its problems and those of the country. Mbeki's pen is supposed to deliver the elixir of life to a party that is at war with itself; a party that seeks new direction and new purpose.

Who would want to be Mbeki on Saturday when he delivers this year's January 8 Statement in Mpumalanga? Who would want to be a man who is supposed to give direction to supporters who have walked out on him in the past few months while he addresses them? Who would want to be the president of a party that is so deeply split in half that leaders have even stopped talking to each other?

Every year for decades now the ANC's national executive committee has released, on behalf of this proud movement, a statement charting the way forward for the year.

Every cadre of the ANC would devour the January 8 Statement for direction, for sustenance that the leadership knew what it was doing and for clues to the way forward to achieve freedom.

"During the height of the apartheid era such statements mapped out the main activities for the year ahead and usually named the year with these tasks in mind," the ANC website said.

In a post-apartheid, free and democratic South Africa, these statements became a pointer to the ANC's policy direction and the route along which it wanted to steer South Africa.

January 8 statements before 1994 were traditionally bravura affairs. But behind the bravado one could decipher policy shifts. Just as they were letters meant to lift the despair of apartheid and to make the enemy believe that the ANC's cadres were ready and willing to overthrow the government, they also pointed to what the thinking in the ANC was strategically.

And they worked. In 1986, for example, ANC president Oliver Tambo delivered a statement that said: "The charge we give to Umkhonto weSizwe and to the masses of our people is attack, advance, give the enemy no quarter - an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth!"

It is a message that was needed in the dark year when the apartheid regime banned demonstrations, jailed thousands of children and undertook its most murderous and concerted assault yet on the liberation forces.

Many black South Africans were in despair. The ANC needed to encourage them to continue the fight.

Policy-wise, the ANC knew that many white South Africans were gatvol with apartheid.

They needed an alternative vision of the future. And the ANC masterfully recognised this.

In that January 8 Statement, Tambo said: "Once more, we call on our white compatriots, and especially the youth, to break ranks with the apartheid system, to refuse to serve in its armed forces and no longer to mortgage their future to a racist system that is doomed to destruction.

"Together, black and white, we will destroy the monstrous apartheid regime and, as equals, rebuild our country for the benefit of all its citizens."

It is instructive that in 1986 there was an unprecedented surge of support for the ANC in the white community, white universities and other institutions.

The apartheid regime also acceded to many of the demands that the ANC placed in its January 8 Statement. The pass system, for example, was scrapped that year.

Interestingly, too, the people on the ground listened to the ANC. The year 1986 will go down as one in which the apartheid regime actually had a "people's war" on its hands.

This was not just because people were angry. The ANC had told them, in numerous copies of the statement, that: "We declare 1986 the Year of Umkhonto weSizwe - the People's Army! Let this Year of the People's Army see us engulf the apartheid system in the fires and the thunder of a people's war!"

So, then, what was Mbeki thinking about when he wrote this year's statement? Consider his problems.

As Mbeki wrote, Jacob Zuma traversed villages, towns and cities giving speeches and casting aspersion on Mbeki's leadership. Leaders of his party, including - or rather led by - Cabinet members and their wives are deep in the trough of self-enrichment.

People are dying of HIV-Aids in the thousands every week. ANC branches are feuding, ANC leaders are feuding. The ANC's congress, where top leaders and a new president will be chosen, is coming up in December.

This is the year of a thin line for Mbeki and his party.

This is the year in which the ANC's feuding could begin to chip away at its support base.

This is the year in which an astute opposition party could begin to encroach on the party of Tambo and Pixley kaIsaka Seme.

But all that will not happen. The divides will rise up from within the ANC itself.

The truth and the stark reality that Mbeki must now face is that this is the year in which the party of Luthuli and Mandela could split into two.

The results of most leadership contests in the ANC, the latest of which is the Eastern Cape, show that the ANC is cleaved right down the middle. Mindful of this, would Zuma accept a leadership result that goes against him come December?

If Zuma leaves the ANC today, he would become the most powerful leader in the country after Mbeki.

Indeed, if an election were held soon, is it not possible that he would become THE most powerful leader in the country?

I would not like to be Mbeki today, writing that January 8 Statement.

It would be impossible to write it without being aware that Zuma could walk away and that a lot of disgruntled people would walk away with him.

That long walk away from the ANC is the spectre that will haunt it and our country this year. It might not happen.

If it does, however, expect everything as we know it to change dramatically.