The ANC must take stock of how it deals with the succession issue after the bruising leadership battle

The five-day ANC national conference ended yesterday with the new president, Jacob Zuma, at the helm.

The five-day ANC national conference ended yesterday with the new president, Jacob Zuma, at the helm.

Zuma's ascendency to power happened in the context of a highly divided ANC. Given the rifts that played themselves out before and at the conference, there have been concerns about whether the leadership will be able to unite the party post-Polokwane.

Of importance, however, is what lesson the ANC can learn from the whole saga of the leadership contest between former ANC president Thabo Mbeki and Zuma.

One key lesson the ANC can learn from the saga is that of handling its next succession debate. It is clear that the party failed to handle the Mbeki-Zuma leadership contest. When the media and other commentators asked if there was a succession debate, the ANC buried its head in the sand and blamed the media of trying to create rifts within the party.

Meanwhile, the Zuma election juggernaut went full-speed ahead. Mbeki on the other hand was constrained by his position as leader of government and could only make noises about being available for nomination.

In an interview with SAfm yesterday, ANC Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile admitted that mistakes were made in the handling of the succession debate. Mashatile said while not expecting the ANC to adopt the US system of campaigning - "where everybody who has money can run his or her campaign" - the party should consider a system whereby candidates are allowed to campaign by espousing the policies of the ANC. In fact, Mashatile suggested, the ANC should organise public meetings for the candidates where they could campaign.

This suggestion is a departure from what has been the ANC's culture, where individuals do not publicly campaign for leadership positions. The ANC's position has been that allowing people to campaign for office could lead to careerism. People, the ANC has argued, are identified as potential leaders and then deployed according to the needs of the party.

The party has also argued that allowing public campaigning a la the US would lead to a situation where the rich would win political offices simply because they used their wealth to run slick campaigns. This was one of the reasons why the ANC took a dim view of former Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale's presidential campaign - he declared during a BBC interview that he was being lobbied to stand and that he was available.

Having the ANC fund the campaigns could go a long way in dealing with the advantage that the rich candidates could have over their less economically fortunate counterparts.

The advantage of public campaigning is that the electorate become more informed and can therefore make informed decisions. The fact that the voters can engage and quiz the candidates in public could also reduce the possibility of having political opportunists voted into office.

One could even argue that it was the closed campaigning system that the ANC espoused that gave Zuma the advantage. Allegations about the Mbeki camp using bribery to win votes cannot be delinked from this approach.

The second lesson that the ANC could learn from the Polokwane conference relates to what the SACP said in their congratulatory message to the new ANC leadership yesterday.

"Let us devote energies to uniting around the tasks of transformation. However, unity can only be built if we are collectively prepared to reflect critically and self-critically on why a particular section of leadership, with all of the advantages of incumbency, has found itself voted out by thousands of ANC branches. What lessons must we all draw from this? How do we ensure that we do not repeat the same errors?"

Simply put, the SACP says the ANC and its allies must ask themselves what the previous leadership did wrong that there should be such a huge desire to relieve them of their duties?

Have they, for example, failed to implement the policies and decisions of the ANC in a manner that addresses the needs of the party's ordinary members and South Africa as a whole?

One of the issues raised in this regard is the relationship that some national executive members had with Mbeki.

"Some of these NEC members are cabinet ministers appointed by Mbeki - they therefore find it difficult to challenge him when it comes to certain decisions," said an ANC insider.

If that is the case then this is a massive challenge that the ANC has to deal with. More so because this scenario relates to the relationship between the ANC and government, and how that relationship could influence the effectiveness of the NEC.

One other major issue the new leadership has to deal with is the uncertainty that their election has created. One of the concerns raised is that the leadership could be tempted to purge from the ANC leadership all those individuals that had shown support for Mbeki.

The exclusion of ANC strategist Joel Netshitenzhe among the top six has raised such fears. This is because Netshitenzhe is regarded by many within and outside the ANC as an important resource.

Fortunately there have been some positive noises from some of Zuma's chief supporters in the the ANCYL, Cosatu and SACP. They have said there would be no purging and have called for unity.

It is in this context that news about Mbeki considering to step down as president of the country is disheartening.

Mbeki's departure will unfortunately send the wrong message that he has not found it upon himself to accept defeat like a statesman. His staying for the next 18 months will afford the ANC the opportunity to prove to the world that it can effectively deal with challenges such as two centres of power.