party at conflict

The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania will be celebrating its 50th birthday anniversary next year - but all those years have not been a bed of roses for the organisation that Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe so proudly founded.

The Pan Africanist Congress of Azania will be celebrating its 50th birthday anniversary next year - but all those years have not been a bed of roses for the organisation that Robert Mangaliso Sobukwe so proudly founded.

The PAC has been marred by conflicts and the emergence of splinter groups - prior to its banning, in exile, and after it was unbanned along with other black political formations in 1990.

This month's decision by the party's old guard to break away, led by former secretary-general Thami Ka Plaatjie, is the latest of many splits. The faction organised their own conference after PAC president Letlapa Mphahlele excluded them from the controversial congress held in the Eastern Cape last month, saying they were not PAC members.

Having split from the ANC in 1959, for some time the PAC enjoyed the reputation of being the most effective organisation against apartheid after the ANC. But today it cannot claim such a status after being overtaken by other political parties.

But certainly, when the history of black resistance is recorded, the PAC will feature prominently alongside the ANC and the Black Consciousness Movement.

Founded on the principle of pan-Africanism - inspired by its strong disillusionment with the multiracialism espoused in the ANC's Freedom Charter, the PAC initially pursued the land issue as its main programme. The organisation still claims credit for organising the 1960 anti-pass protest that tragically resulted in the apartheid police shooting to death 69 people in the massacre at Sharpeville.

The PAC's military strength was far surpassed by that of the ANC, but underground military activities by Poqo, forerunner for Apla, forced the PAC to be noticed. Its military post-1990 bombing campaign against soft white targets was seen as "opportunistic" and "too little, too late" in some quarters.

As with the ANC, PAC military camps in Tanzania were swelled by the youth who went into exile in 1976. But the camps were completely disorganised and filled with ill-disciplined recruits.

Many of the 1976 exiles in Tanzania were disappointed by all the infighting under the leadership of Potlako "PK" Leballo.

The suspension of the PAC constitution to settle political differences did not start with the current leader Letlapa Mphahlele, but was used as a weapon in political tensions while in exile.

A new breakaway group known as the "Sobukwe Forum", consisting of members aggrieved by the expulsion of some of the party leaders, emerged just before the PAC was legalised in 1990. In the same period the party had three acting chief representatives, namely Ngila Michael Muendane, Nyembezi Mzotane and Vuyani Mngaza, all divided along factional lines.

When the PAC was unbanned, it continued to be haunted by intrigues that took place during exile - and by new leadership challenges. A group of disgruntled members in the Border region formed the Positive Action Council and roped in then expelled Clarence Makwetu, a former president, as their leader.

The organisation never managed to acclimatise to the new democracy nor to groom a visionary leader to unify the party. As a result it fared badly in the 1994 first democratic elections, getting a paltry vote of 1,2percent - and about 0,7percent in subsequent polls.

It lost a significant number of its able leaders when deputy president Dikgang Moseneke, Maxwell Nemadzivhanani and Muendane left.

Makwetu and Nemadzivhanani, the general secretary, were unceremoniously removed through political engineering by Paso, the PAC's student wing, in 1996.

The PAC's strategy to elect Stanley Mogoba, a Methodist bishop, in Makwetu's place, failed to bring the votes the party so badly needed. The cleric was replaced by Motsoko Pheko, who was elected at an acrimonious congress in June 2003.

There is a strong view that the party made a huge mistake in not elevating Patricia de Lille to president because, had it done so, the support that De Lille currently enjoys as leader of the ID, would have gone to the PAC.

The PAC is also believed to have made two other major blunders. First was its rejection of a Patriotic Front option with the ANC, fearing being devoured in the belly of the mighty ruling party.

Second was its failure to take advantage of the ANC's drift towards the right after 1994 - when the SACP and Cosatu left a void on the left by becoming part of the governing alliance.

Parliamentary floor-crossing devastated all opposition parties in the country, but the PAC was among the hardest hit.

Today the PAC has only one seat in parliament - occupied by Pheko, who ironically was expelled from the party last year after allegedly embezzling funds.

Mphahlele, who was elected in 2006 amid popular support, especially from the youth, is accused of deepening divisions. Last year he disbanded the entire NEC, suspended the constitution and ruled by decree.

Today there are two PACs - one led by Mphahlele and one led by Ka Plaatjie. The two groups held simultaneous meetings last weekend - Mphahlele's group in Johannesburg, while Ka Plaatjie's faction gathered in East London.

Whether Mphahlele's strategy to start rebuilding the organisation afresh - without the old guard - will bear fruit, remains to be seen. But one thing is for certain - the PAC has never been truly united - as it was under its revered founder.