JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The party that has governed South Africa for decades since apartheid appeared stronger than ever recently in ousting a president. But the African National Congress (ANC) now faces a new threat from a splinter faction seeking to undermine its huge support base.
The political rebels — who held their first meetings this past weekend — could present the ANC with its first real challenger since South Africa held its first multiracial elections in 1994.
The new faction is led by former Defense Minister Mosiuoa Lekota, who quit his post in September when former President Thabo Mbeki was forced to resign just months shy of the end of his second term.
Mbeki has distanced himself from Lekota’s campaign, but he recently sent a letter to ANC leader Jacob Zuma expressing concern about disunity within the ruling party and saying a “cult of personality” emerging around Zuma must be stamped out.
Given the ANC’s overwhelming popularity, the new party is unlikely to keep Zuma from winning next year’s presidential elections. But the new party does promise to highlight growing disenchantment with the ANC.
With South Africans facing massive unemployment and poverty, many are tired of corruption-tainted politicians who appear to be enriching themselves and their cronies.
Lekota has accused senior ANC leaders of being undemocratic, fanning ethnic tensions and making a naked grab for power — arguments that tap into concerns about whether the ANC can fulfill its promises to bring more prosperity and democracy.
“The support they are getting is an expression of different shades of dissatisfaction with what is happening in the ANC,” political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said.
Tensions have increased ahead of Lekota’s weekend meeting. Images of people tearing up ANC membership cards have incensed some in the governing party. ANC members have crashed the faction’s meetings to chant “Kill Lekota.”
ANC leaders have urged restraint, saying the opposition should not be seen as the enemy.
“We welcome the fact that many new political parties may be formed in South Africa,” ANC spokesman Jessie Duarte said at a debate organized by a Johannesburg radio station that also drew Lekota and other political leaders.
Many see the new movement as a sign that South Africa’s fledgling democracy is maturing.
People are excited about the possible shift away from a “very monolithic ANC, which has for several elections now secured a result of which there was virtually no argument,” Sandra Botha, parliamentary leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance, said during the radio debate.
The ANC is Africa’s oldest liberation movement, founded in 1912 and credited with bringing down the apartheid system of white-only rule. But tensions were seen as inevitable among the ANC’s diverse elements — whites and blacks, communists and entrepreneurs, leftists and traditionalists, those exiled during apartheid and those who struggled at home.
A radical element broke away in 1959 and became the Pan-Africanist Congress, arguing that whites had too much influence in the ANC. Another splinter group — the United Democratic Movement — broke from the ANC after apartheid. The two are now among several opposition parties.
It is unclear if the newest splinter party, which has yet to be named, will offer policies that differ from the ANC’s. Most members are either current or former ANC members.
The weekend conference featured a broad policy debate to prepare for the new party’s launch, and was not intended as “an ANC-bashing enterprise,” said Mbhazima Shilowa, who quit the ANC to become Lekota’s chief organizer.
“We are not talking about where we’re coming from. We’re talking about how we’re coming forward,” he said. But he acknowledged that even siblings who part ways can “never get rid of the fact that they have the same DNA.”
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