A breakaway movement from South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) is gathering steam in the run-up to next year’s polls, threatening to dent the dominance of the party that led the struggle against apartheid.
Dissidents within the ANC are organizing a convention a week from Sunday to lay the groundwork for their splinter group to become an official political party.
They hope to launch the group in December, and plan a series of rallies to boost their support around the country, including one on Thursday in a shantytown outside Johannesburg.
ANC leader Jacob Zuma vowed earlier this year that his party would “rule until Jesus comes back,” but he appears to be taking the new challenge seriously.
The ANC has suspended key leaders of the breakaway movement, including former defense minister Mosiuoa Lekota.
Five provincial officials who organized rallies for Lekota in Cape Town were also suspended after thousands of activists turned out to hear him speak and tore up their ANC membership cards.
“They are trying to quell the type of general upsurge that appears to be developing as quickly as possible. I think there is a clear indication they are quite concerned,” political analyst Dirk Kotze of the University of South Africa said.
The rifts first broke into the open last December, when Zuma seized the party leadership from former president Thabo Mbeki at a conference in the town of Polokwane.
Zuma’s allies last month forced Mbeki to resign as president just months before the end of his term, in a humiliating blow to the man who succeeded former South African president Nelson Mandela as the country’s second president after apartheid.
The public infighting has dimmed the reputation of Africa’s oldest liberation movement. Even Desmond Tutu has voiced frustration over the feuding, saying that he might not vote in the next election.
“What has happened since Polokwane and since Mbeki’s resignation is the growing sense that the leadership within Mbeki’s group was mistreated,” Kotze said.
Only a few prominent ANC officials have so far followed Lekota, among them Mbhazima Shilowa, the premier of the country’s richest province, who complained the party has been hijacked by Zuma’s supporters.
Two former members of ANC’s national executive committee as well as a former leader of the powerful labor unions have signed on to help organize the party, though it still lacks a nationally recognizable leader.
Although the breakaway is gaining momentum, analysts say the new party stands little chance of actually defeating the ANC at the polls.
Zuma, closely allied with South Africa’s powerful labor unions, enjoys support from the millions of people still mired in unemployment and poverty 14 years after the end of apartheid.
Political analyst Aubrey Matshiqi said the party appeared to be aiming to win 20 percent at the polls, expected in April next year.
“That’s a huge ask. But if they win it, it will change the South African political landscape completely,” he said. “If the [current] opposition keeps its 30 percent, there are several things the ANC will have to negotiate — including who becomes head of state.”
Matshiqi said the new party’s biggest challenge would be its positioning, creating an independent identity separate from the ANC.
“Beyond this acrimony, voters will want to know what the new party will deliver for them,” he said.
The new party will also have to rush to secure financing and assemble a national organization in order to campaign for the elections, Matshiqi said.
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