Elders could bring warring factions to heel

ITH running power struggles in the ruling ANC alliance, it came as no shock when ANC general secretary Gwede Mantashe announced the formation of another arm in the 97-year-old movement - the ANC Veterans League.

Knowing the critical role played by party elders in the past, one could be forgiven for welcoming the announcement as the establishment of a voice of reason to rein in the squabbling siblings.

The announcement came in the wake of ANC national executive committee member and Deputy Minister of Police Fikile Mbalula's public spat with party veteran Kader Asmal over the latter's disapproval of trends that appeared intent on militarising the police.

In this climate, it had become common for any youth organisation aligned to the ANC to take pot shots at Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, without any elders reprimanding the offending youth.

Not long ago, the Congress of South African Students, in its defence of Jacob Zuma's indiscretion to have unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman, called on Tutu to make public his own sexual history before criticising Zuma.

After six decades of service to the ANC, former president Thabo Mbeki remains fair game for the ANC Youth League and the Young Communist League, with the latter recently calling for Mbeki to be charged with genocide for the 330000 people who died of Aids-related illnesses during his tenure.

The list of true sons of the soil who have fallen victim to the venom of the ANCYL and Cosatu includes Trevor Manuel, former Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni, and most recently former speaker of parliament Frene Ginwala.

Ginwala recently poured out her frustration to Sunday Times, when she said: "When he (Julius Malema) was speaking the way he was, a number of people stopped me in the street and said, 'How do you allow that boy to speak to elders in this way?'

"If he was engaging in political debate in the national executive committee, no one expects him not to speak his mind. But publicly ... you could still put the ideas across with some respect for your elders. Now that is where we are running ourselves down."

Perhaps more importantly for the country and the millions whose dreams and aspirations hinge on the stability of the ruling party, the ANCVL would have helped to manage the increasingly bloody succession battles in the ANC.

Already, just eight months after the general elections, a succession debate is threatening to derail Zuma's spirited service delivery mission.

There are no neutral players to call the rivals to order.

Zuma compromised his neutrality when he winked at Cosatu's suggestion that he should run for a second term of office.

Had he maintained his decision to serve only one term, he would have risen above petty party squabbles.

At face value, the ANCVL is that voice of reason.

Take for instance the intervention of the elders in internecine battles between Mbeki and the late Chris Hani for the position of ANC deputy president on the eve of the ANC conference in Durban in 1991.

In his best selling book Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC, William Mervin Gumede captures the moment as follows: "The looming battle between the two long-standing rivals threatened to split the ANC at one of the most critical junctures in its history.

"The elders, appalled at the prospect of division on the eve of tough negotiations with the apartheid government, proposed a compromise that saw both candidates withdraw in favour of the ageing Walter Sisulu."

It was during the Mbeki years that the role of elders diminished, with the folly of undermining the role of ANC stalwarts playing itself out in the run-up to the Polokwane conference in 2007.

ANC elders withdrew from commenting about the organisation or the divisive succession battle between Mbeki and Zuma, resulting in the polarisation of the organisation.

The elders could have also played a more prominent role in the decision to recall Mbeki.

As the ANC prepares to celebrate its centenary in 2012, it makes sense to formalise the role of ANC veterans to help manage the premature succession race.

Elders could play a major role in ensuring unity ahead of the party's 100th birthday.

Already, the youth are campaigning for Mbalula to replace Mantashe at the next ANC conference.

It would take a strong leadership of the ANCVL to stop a conflict between the ANCYL and Cosatu over the matter.

Such a task requires men and women who have enough political clout to rock the boat.

In its declaration at the end of its conference in Kempton Park, the ANCVL said it would "serve as an axis for unity, reminding those of the younger generation that despite the necessary vigour of democratic engagement, the unity of our organisation remains the backbone of our struggle going into the future."

But it would be a huge task to expect Sandi Sijake as president, Thandi Cecilia Memela as deputy president, Natso Khumalo as secretary, Wesi Mochubela Seeko as deputy secretary, and Fanele Mbali Herbert as treasurer, to rise to this challenge.

Where are ANC veterans like Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Ginwala, Asmal, Ahmed Kathrada, Zola Skweyiya and Mbeki?

The ANC failed to seize the moment when it elected "unknowns" to lead its house of elders.