The IFP emerges from the ANC's shadow

William Mervin Gumede discusses the IFP's new opposition style.

The Inkatha Freedom Party has set its sights firmly on pioneering a new kind of opposition politics in SA, more reconciliatory and nation-building in tone and style, yet critical of the ruling African National Congress government.

At the same time, the IFP wants to re-establish its distinct identity, which many IFP rank-and-file complain has been obscured by its coalition at national level and, since the 1999 general election, at provincial level in KwaZulu-Natal.

The IFP is looking at a suitable political consultancy or research institute to conduct a wide-ranging investigation into how it can become a new kind of opposition party that speaks for the black majority and is more in tune with the fluid political climate of the new democracy. Its objective is to appeal to black voters disenchanted with the ANC.

IFP president and Home Affairs Minister Mangosuthu Buthelezi has already adopted a new, elder statesman-like style as manifest in his constructive and dignified response to President Thabo Mbeki's State of the Nation address in February.

To that end the IFP will increasingly emphasise Buthelezi's and the IFP's credentials in the struggle against apartheid. Most importantly, the IFP will go all out in trying to shed its Zulu-ethnic tag.

The IFP's success in the 2000 local government elections, where it won 46 of the 53 local authorities in KwaZulu-Natal, raised expectations that its support could be dramatically expanded outside that province, provided it could adjust to the different kind of opposition politics of post-apartheid SA.

After the December 2000 local poll the party struck a co-operative agreement with the DA to form alliances and work together in all municipal councils in KwaZulu-Natal - to the chagrin of the ANC.

But IFP national spokesman Musa Zondi says the IFP's new opposition style would be in direct contrast to that of the Democratic Alliance and its leader Tony Leon, whose public speeches and statements are characterised by an unrestrained anti-ANC rhetoric.

The IFP believes the DA's "Westminster-style" opposition approach is unsuited to SA conditions. Zondi says: "Leon does not understand the collective psychology of black South Africans, who see that kind of opposition as talking down to black people. It only alienates would-be black supporters."

Carl Werth, who resigned recently from the DA, argues that it might to be "too early for the country's fledgling democracy to be subjected to a Westminster style in Parliament". South Africa, he states, "needs a patriotic opposition that supports the government when it is right and points out alternatives when it struggles to succeed".

There has been intense debate in the IFP over the past year about its future role, including its relationship with the ANC, which, after the rapprochement of the late 1990s, is once again at a low point.

As the IFP noted at its annual general conference in Ulundi last year, a major point of divergence between the two parties is the issue of the role, functions and powers of traditional leaders in local government. It remains a divisive point in IFP-ANC relations.

Buthelezi is still angry over the passing of the controversial Immigration Bill by the National Assembly recently, having had grave reservations about the bill and the last-minute compromise reached between negotiators from the IFP and the ANC. But a belated decision by the ANC to modify the text to excise the provisions providing for permit quotas on the inflow of skilled foreign workers seems to have eased the tension ahead of the June 2 deadline for new legislation to be in place.

Buthelezi is still bitter over what he sees as Mbeki's unwillingness to intervene in the stormy relationship between him and his Home Affairs Director-General Billy Masetlha. Suspicions remain that Masetlha, a former ANC intelligence operative, was placed in a key position with a brief to keep Buthelezi is check.

The simmering dispute over where the capital of KwaZulu-Natal should be still bedevils the IFP-ANC relationship, with the IFP saying its should be Ulundi and the ANC insisting it should be Pietermaritzburg.

The recent resignation of IFP leader Gavin Woods as chairperson of parliament's Standing Committee on Public Accounts (Scopa), because of "interference by the executive into the committee's work" has not helped overcome divergence between the two parties.

KwaZulu-Natal Premier Lionel Mtshali's announcement that the KwaZulu-Natal provincial government would make the anti-viral medication nevirapine available to HIV- positive pregnant women at public hospitals and clinics has further soured the relationship between the two parties.

Criticism by KwaZulu-Natal ANC leaders over the alleged "shabby treatment" of Zulu King Goodwill Zwelithini by the IFP provincial government has drawn a counter verbal barrage from Mtshali. He has taken out adverts in local newspapers denying the charges and publicly repudiating the ANC.

"All the political gains we achieved in 1994 are in danger of coming to naught," Mtshali observes of the dispute over the Zulu King. The ANC and the IFP are still arguing - more than five years later - over the drafting of a constitution for the province.
· In December last year, a meeting between senior provincial leaders of the IFP and the ANC failed to break the impasse between the two parties.
· The meeting was called at the behest of senior ANC leaders, including Mbeki and his deputy Jacob Zuma, who have been worried - despite their attempts to underplay it - about the increasing toenadering between the IFP and the DA.

Party hardliners such as premier Mtshali have been exhorting the party to formally end the relationship in which the IFP serves in the national Cabinet and shares power with the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal. But moderates, including Buthelezi and Zondi, believe the current arrangement should continue.

Zondi says the IFP has firmly rejected the idea of a possible "merger" with the ANC. The origins of that notion go back to 1996 when the then deputy president, Thabo Mbeki, embarked on a rapprochement drive with the IFP with the aim of eventually merging the two former political foes.

ANC insiders say Mbeki hoped an ANC-IFP merger could ultimately replace the ANC's current alliance partners, the Congress of SA Trade Unions and the SA Communist Party, should they break away to form a leftwing party.

Former IFP heavyweights, such as Frank Mdlalose and Sipo Mzimela (now an ANC member), were and are key supporters of Mbeki's goal.

Mdlalose (now ambassador to Egypt) is still keen on a marriage of the two parties, noting that Inkatha was formed in 1975 "along the basic founding principles propounded by the ANC founding fathers in 1912".

Mdlalose asks: "Is there not a way of putting together the IFP, ANC and PAC? Is there no way of setting up a new framework of SA politics based on the principles set out by our founders?"

Musa Zondi, heir apparent to leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, states, however, that a merger is "absolutely not on the agenda". In any event, Zondi says, co-operation between the ANC and the IFP, especially in KwaZulu-Natal, is at an historical low.

If an ANC-IFP union seemed feasible when the IFP joined the government of national unity in 1994, and after it entered into a pact for joint administration of KwaZulu-Natal after the 1999 elections, the prospects of that happening seem remote today.

The immediate origins of IFP's new direction go back to its national conference in Ulundi last year. Apart from the resurgence of party hardliners, the conference is an important milestone because Buthelezi admitted to the party faithful that the IFP's participation in government had come with a risk: loss of its identity and distinctive public profile.

Though the co-operation between the two parties has been widely credited for reducing violence and tension in the province, there has been a price to pay and, to quote Buthelezi, "that is the price of having to tone down our public profile".

Zondi makes much the same point: in exchange for being in coalition with the ANC, the IFP had committed itself to "tempering" public criticism of the ANC-led government.

The IFP leadership has, however, identified clear benefits for the IFP if it regains an independent political profile.

"The electorate is growing increasingly disenchanted with the lack of delivery and development by the ruling party [and] is becoming increasingly receptive to a party that is prepared to genuinely feel its pain and articulate its concerns," notes a resolution passed at the IFP conference.

Now the IFP plans a "rebranding" and "make-over" campaign to reposition itself as an "inclusive national party" beyond its KwaZulu-Natal stronghold. That includes a drive to change its negative image, and will entail beefing up its communications capacity so it can "rebut each and every item calculated to harm the image of the IFP".

The IFP will portray itself as a "development" party, caring for the poor, and is to establish a special "development office" at its Ulundi headquarters.

The rebranding will emphasise the "positive" and "selfless" role played by Buthelezi in promoting reconciliation, peace and stability in SA's new democracy. Buthelezi will be portrayed as a national statesman above petty party politics.

An important development in the IFP has been the ascendancy in the party of conservatives, led by Mtshali, who have been opposed to closer co-operation, let alone a full merger, with the ANC.

It is believed that these party hardliners, with the help of ambitious ANC provincial leaders, scuttled what was supposed to be the crowning achievement of Mbeki's rapprochement drive: the appointment of Buthelezi as Deputy President in 1999.

IFP conservatives have, moreover, backed the IFP-Democratic Alliance co-operative agreement signed after last year's municipal government elections, and - as important - want even closer co-operation with the DA.
The ANC government's alleged "reneging" on earlier agreements with the IFP on the role of traditional leaders at local government level has strengthened the hand of the IFP conservatives.

They have made much of Cabinet's rejection of the Immigration Bill drafted under Buthelezi as Minister of Home Affairs, arguing that the IFP is better off on its own as a publicly visible opposition.

Bob Mattes, political studies professor at the University of Cape Town, says there is much room for a black opposition to articulate tougher social policies, especially on abortion, crime and immigration - and the IFP is ideally positioned to take up that space.