x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Old crusader heralds new beginning

Lekota, who initiated move to split the party, slams Zuma and his supporters for undermining the values of South Africa's young democracy.

At Rosebank Union Church, a singer in a Mosiuoa 'Terror' Lekota T-shirt warms up the crowd ahead of an address by the ANC dissident and former party chairman.
At Rosebank Union Church, a singer in a Mosiuoa 'Terror' Lekota T-shirt warms up the crowd ahead of an address by the ANC dissident and former party chairman.

JOHANNESBURG // Dancing and singing, their hands waving in the air, Johannesburg's young rich turned out in a revivalist atmosphere for the old freedom fighter now looking to start a new revolution in the African National Congress.

Rosebank Union Church is one of the bigger, wealthier places of worship in South Africa's economic capital, its auditorium lined with almost 1,000 comfortable seats and two large video screens to project images of the preacher. But Mosiuoa "Terror" Lekota, 60, was bringing the crowd a secular gospel. "Long live the spirit of Oliver Tambo, long live! Long live Nelson Mandela, long live!" went the chants before he spoke. "Viva disciplined South Africans defending our democracy, viva! Forward to the convention, forward!"

Mr Lekota, who was jailed on Robben Island alongside Mr Mandela during the struggle against apartheid, later becoming the ANC's intelligence chief and, in the democratic era, the party's chairman and the national defence minister, is the figurehead of a move to split the movement that has governed the country since 1994. It is due to hold a national convention next weekend, which is expected to give the go-ahead to form a new political party.

The catalyst for the divide is the sacking of Thabo Mbeki, the national president, by the ANC under its new leadership, headed by Jacob Zuma. Mr Zuma is wildly adored by his supporters, who see him as more in touch with the people than the dry, aloof Mr Mbeki. But he is also intensely controversial, with corruption allegations still hanging over him even though charges were thrown out by a court last month. The arms deal to which the charges relate could yet potentially embroil many figures from the Mbeki administration, including Mr Lekota himself.

To the political congregation in church, he portrayed Mr Zuma and his supporters as threatening the values of the country's young democracy that the ANC itself had inspired, sought and won. "As long as men and women walk the surface of the globe, there will always be a struggle for good as opposed to evil," he said. "That struggle is unending. It has come down history. "Many have been times when South Africans have had to take momentous decisions if South Africa was to know a better future. It was men and women of that character who struggled to bring us where we are today.

"We will not win the struggle for anything unless it's based on the truth. Politics is not intrigue. That's why when Nelson Mandela said to our people it's ideals that inspire me and if need be, I'm ready to die for them." He harked back to the Freedom Charter, drawn up in Soweto in the 1950s and much of it now incorporated into South Africa's constitution. "In a democracy, a people shall govern. There shall be equality before the law for all.

"I have seen members of the executive committee of the ANC saying, 'We want a political solution to pending criminal charges against the president of the ANC.' What has happened to the principles that we paid for over the years, some with our own blood, others with tears, others with lengthy prison terms, others with even longer terms in exile? "They have stood on public platforms and called the judges of our country, legally installed by this democratic government, counter-revolutionaries. Where is the principle of the rule of law?

"If you don't say these truths, the democracy for which we struggled so hard will evaporate like snowflakes in our hands. There will be no possibility for development for our people. The moment is now. The time is now." He condemned Mr Zuma for allowing his supporters to don T-shirts reading "100% Zuluboy", raising the spectre of the tribalism that has blighted so much of Africa, and reserved special criticism for his campaign anthem, Umshini Wami, the struggle song Bring Me My Machine Gun. "Essentially, we are the same people. This is wrong. It's dangerous. Why do you allow this? The constitution of our movement does not allow this. The history of our nation shows why it is wrong. Why do you allow a poison to spread among our people?

"This is the phase of peace. This is the phase of national reconciliation. It's the phase of democracy. Why are you teaching young people songs that call them to war at a time when we need to mobilise the youth towards education in schools?" For the crowd it was a joyful night of hope, a far cry from the stultifyingly dull spirit of Mr Mbeki's monotonous addresses, and they rewarded Mr Lekota with raucous cheering and applause.

Sipho Nghona, 30, a businessman, said the new party should be formed as soon as possible. Admitting that it was hard to leave the ANC, he said: "Because of the winds of change we have to make a decision." But the supporters in Rosebank were almost all drawn from the top end of the black middle class, representing only a small fraction of South African society, and the question remains whether Mr Lekota and his allies can generate mass appeal.

"He's done a lot better than I thought initially," said Patrick Laurence, a veteran analyst and commentator. "It seems to me there's one fact that may count in his favour: there are as many if not more disgruntled, angry, resentful people in the ANC than there are dedicated cadres. "I think it will attract enough people to give itself some viability; it looks to me very much as though the support is very much in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape, where they are Xhosa-speaking people, there's no doubt they are very resentful of the way Mbeki was dismissed."

Even so, the ANC can still draw on a huge reservoir of support and organisation. An earlier Lekota meeting in Orange Farm, an impoverished section of Soweto, was besieged by furious loyalists, roaring threats and fury. "Terror Lekota is nothing," said one, giving his name only as Bernard. "We don't want sell-outs here. They claim to defend democracy; we fought for that democracy." sberger@thenational.ae