ANC conference season upon us again

By Carien Du Plessis 3 October 2011

Provinces slugging it out among themselves, newspaper headlines on battle strategies and a President showing his face around small and far-flung communities to check on his government’s service delivery – these are all early symptoms of the ANC’s elective conference. By CARIEN DU PLESSIS.

Newspaper front pages over the weekend said it all: “Zuma alliance attacks” (Mail & Guardian) and “Zuma challenged” (Sunday Times), with the latter reporting on an unofficial briefing note being circulated in ANC Gauteng ranks touting Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as Zuma’s possible challenger.

Housing minister Tokyo Sexwale or defence minister Lindiwe Sisulu are mentioned as possible deputies, while arts and culture minister Paul Mashatile’s name was touted as a candidate for party chairman.

The province has denied that such a document officially exists, but this is the same province that has in the past called for a more open debate around leadership succession as well as a more transparent nominations process, and it is likely that at least a few individuals are talking in this direction.

Although their power certainly isn’t in numbers, ANC members and leaders from Gauteng consider themselves the “brains” province of the party with the power to persuade others to follow their stance.

The Sunday Times front page reminded of a similar one in the same paper almost five years ago, in January 2007, saying that Sexwale was planning to project himself as a compromise candidate in the battle between Zuma and former president Thabo Mbeki.

A few months later, Sexwale came out, announcing his availability, but withdrew when it became clear that he might only serve to split the vote against Mbeki.

The wrangling ahead of next year’s conference – set to take place in December in Mangaung – seems to have started a lot earlier than it did the last time around, and it seems to be even fiercer – perhaps in part because the ANC’s alliance partners, Cosatu and the SACP, will be choosing new leaders too. The new leaders of these two organisations will be pointers towards what will happen in the ANC’s conference later.

Another important battleground is the provinces. The Mail & Guardian this weekend reported on interesting manoeuvres by Zuma’s camp in the North West, Limpopo and the Free State to strengthen the President’s support by various means, including a disciplinary hearing, the delay of a provincial conference and the fight for at least two premiers to stay in power.

Both Limpopo and the Free State are scheduled to have elections for new provincial ANC leaders before the ANC’s national conference in December 2012, and fights can be expected as Zuma and his possible challengers move to secure their power bases. It’s also important for both camps to make sure the support in other provinces swing in their favour because the secret to success in ANC conferences lies here (and more specifically in the support of those who lead the delegates from the provinces to the national gathering).

Clashes are taking place in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape too in the form of the party’s youth wing disbanding its pro-Zuma structures in the coastal province in the east and trying to resurrect the disbanded structures in the west. Obviously the plan by the ANC Youth League’s national leadership is to find someone who is as pro-Julius Malema as possible, or at least anti-Zuma, but the provincial faction fighting seems to drown out the national battles.

Meanwhile Zuma had been back from his overseas trip for over a week now and has still failed to act against allegedly dodgy appointees like police chief General Bheki Cele (for misadministration in the awarding of police leases worth more than R1.7 billion). He also seems to be taking his time devising the terms of reference for the arms deal inquiry he announced two-and-a-half weeks back.

But mindful of the value of the provinces, Zuma has visited the Eastern Cape last week, where he went to the barely functional King Sabata Dalindyebo Municipality (better known as Mthatha) with an army of ministers to report back on the work done since 2009 to get the municipality functional.

One could argue that simply doing the job would have done the job, but the visit was also important strategically as this is one of the areas where Zuma’s support in the ANC is still strong, and he would presumably like to keep it like that.

He also went to Port Elizabeth to speak to automotive bosses and workers there. This is the same Nelson Mandela Bay Metro where his party barely managed to scrape through the last election with a majority (it had 51%), and where tensions between the ANC’s regional leaders are at an all-time high.

This week Zuma will be going to Qwaqwa in the Free State to “assess the efficacy of rural development programmes” as part of the presidency’s programme of performance management. (Interestingly the focus is now on performance monitoring, but in Mbeki’s time imbizos were all the rage. These were large community gatherings where ministers would listen to problems in order to effect service delivery.)

He will be flanked by provincial Premier Ace Magashule, as well as various ministers and MECs.

In these turbulent times, he’d want to be seen to have others by his side. DM

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