The year 2019 will go down as a momentous year for the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP), the South African political party started by Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi as a cultural movement in 1975.
At its birth, the IFP also sought to fill the political void created by the banning of the country’s liberation movements, notably the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC), by the apartheid government in 1960.
Buthelezi adopted the black, green and gold colours of both the ANC and PAC, and recruited several ANC stalwarts into his fold. And after more than four decades in charge, in August 2019, Prince Buthelezi (90) eventually stepped down. This marked the end of an era, a long journey which was at times characterised by turbulent moments.
Among its successes, the IFP under Buthelezi refused to accept nominal independence for Kwa-Zulu, in line with the apartheid government’s strategy of giving black people limited self-rule in economically depressed ethnic homelands, denying them citizenship and political rights in the rest of the country. It once led the province of KwaZulu-Natal. On the negative side, it was implicated in deadly political violence ahead of the 1994 elections that ended apartheid.
It is irrefutable that, despite many challenges, Prince Buthelezi held the IFP together. He also ensured that the party bounced back time and again when commentators and political adversaries had written it off.
The IFP’s stronghold is KwaZulu-Natal. Over the years, it has used Zulu identity as its rallying point. But is has also attracted support from other racial groups and other provinces. The party has 14 MPs in the 400-member National Assembly.
As Prince Buthelezi signed off, it was the manner of the leadership transition that captured many people’s attention. Many thought that Inkosi Mzamo Buthelezi – no relation to Prince Buthelezi – who was elected as the party’s deputy president in 2012, would be the shoo-in. However, the top brass in the IFP had other ideas.
Instead, it was unanimously agreed that Velenkosini Hlabisa, a 54-year-old former school principal, would be the right person to take over from Prince Buthelezi.
The party’s constitution provides that the nomination of national office bearers – including the president – must have approval right through from the branches to the top. But this was not done in the nomination of its new president. Instead, Hlabisa’s name was proposed by the party’s leadership.
This deviation from this constitutional imperative raises two questions. The first is why the IFP leadership followed this route. The second is how this sits with the country’s broader debate on democratic governance.
Choice of replacement
The best way to answer the first question is to consider the political context in KwaZulu-Natal. Both the National Freedom Party (NFP), which split from the IFP in 2011 under the leadership of Zanele ka Magwaza-Msibi, and the ANC – the oldest political party in Africa which was formed in 1912 – have been struggling to deal with leadership squabbles triggered by succession politics.
Having watched mud-slinging in the NFP and ANC – epitomised by public insults and accusations among politicians as well as factional politics which dominated the media, the IFP leadership resolved to do all in its power to avert a similar situation in its own party. This explains the decision to propose a successor’s name from the top.
The extent to which this decision was a wise move will become clear as time goes on. The fact that the IFP’s elective conference endorsed Hlabisa vindicates the leadership’s decision. However, it does not refute the fact that the decision was not in sync with the IFP’s constitution and was, therefore, undemocratic.
The democracy debate
This leads us to the second question on how this episode invokes the debate on democracy. Two points are worth considering. The first is that there is a clear distinction between liberal (Western) democracy and democracy as understood and practised by Africans during the pre-colonial era.
While liberal democracy touts simple majority as a determining factor for decision making, Africans believed in consensus. Consensus meant that discussions would take longer as attempts were being made to win over those of a contrasting view.
So, if the IFP’s leaders sat down to deliberate on how to avoid a power struggle within the party as Prince Buthelezi stepped down, they may have opted for consensus and not simple majority per se. But the fact that branches were not part of this process raises a question on whether consensus was carried out properly. Being mindful of the dictates of representative democracy , the leadership deemed it necessary to take a decision on behalf of the party’s general membership. This is part of the debate.
Another important point worth noting is that the word “democracy” has different meanings. One of them relates to executing the will of the people. The fact that the IFP’s elective conference, whose delegates carried the mandate from their constituencies, officially elected Hlabisa as the new leader means that democracy was not undermined.
What triggers interest is that other members of the leadership structure were elected through normal channels. Candidates were nominated and then voted into office. This was in line with the IFP’s Constitution.
Within this context, although Hlabisa’s name came from the leadership structure and not the branches, it could be argued that the IFP’s leadership reached consensus on its preferred candidate but still left it to the conference delegates to elect the new leader.
But this process would have to be explained for it to pass the litmus test of a democratic process. Without such an explanation, the impression created would be that the leadership of the IFP acted undemocratically.
Action and democratic practice
The IFP’s action has unwittingly sparked a debate on democracy. Given that the IFP is rooted in African customary practices, consensus is an acceptable approach to democratic practice. But, such consensus needs to be inclusive of the party structures. The IFP’s Constitution embraces both liberal democratic practices and African customary practices.
It remains to be seen if other political parties will adopt this approach in future to avoid potential leadership squabbles. It will also be interesting to see if the IFP will follow the same approach when Hlabisa’s term of office ends in five years.