One of the reasons that succession is such a fraught issue in the ANC is because it is taboo to discuss it publicly. The ANC prefers succession to happen naturally, from branch level upwards, and that leadership issues are not debated or planned. Well, that’s the idea in theory. The reality is that this gives rise to behind-the-scenes jockeying and plotting to conceal political ambitions and to manipulate ANC structures.
The damaging battle between camps aligned to President Jacob Zuma and former President Thabo Mbeki led to serious reputational harm to the former and the eventual recall of the latter. It also led to a breakaway from the ANC in the form of the now diminishing Congress of the People (Cope).
Since then, one would have imagined that the ANC would have tried to manage succession more professionally and have a more orderly and transparent system to chose leaders. However, the run-up to the party’s 53rd national conference in Mangaung was just as divisive, with battles raging from branch level all the way up the hierarchy.
The ANC’s method of choosing leaders happened by default when the party was in exile and most of its senior people were either in prison or in exile. Therefore, it was not possible to have proper leadership elections, or for people to campaign for positions. Strangely, the ANC has retained the system long after it was unbanned and still frowns on internal campaigning.
The ANC has three-and-a-half years to go before its next national conference. There is as yet no formal talk of succession but current events are bound to force the issue into the open.
Zuma’s recent ill health has led to the ANC and the Presidency announcing that he was taking time off to rest. Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, who recently returned to active politics and is new to government, had to take over most of the president’s public duties. The Sunday Times reported that the president’s ill health was due to a combination of heart disease, diabetes and hypertension. The Presidency played down the reports and told Reuters on Sunday that Zuma’s health is “fine”.
“What I can say is, the president is fine, attending to his duties and his doctors say there’s no cause for concern about his medical condition,” presidential spokesman Mac Maharaj told the agency.
On Sunday night the Presidency also announced that Zuma would be leading a government delegation to Equatorial Guinea this week to attend the African Union summit. Ramaphosa will act as President of the Republic for the first time while Zuma is away.
Despite the Presidency’s attempts to manage the issue, the president’s ill health and his new deputy’s ability to step into the driver’s seat quite proficiently will no doubt lead to public speculation about when a handover of power will come. If Zuma’s medical condition is manageable, it is highly unlikely that he will want to give up the presidency before his second term ends. He has a lot of damage control to do to repair his legacy and also, no matter how it is handled, an early exit might be perceived as a “recall” from office. Zuma will not want his legacy to emulate that of Mbeki’s.
The ANC is, however, in the position to manage succession this time around, provided there is relative consensus that Ramaphosa will be the next ANC and state president. (At present, there is no agreement that he will be.) However, more uncertainty about leadership could add to the instability around the economy and investor perceptions. A smooth and consensual handover of power will go a long way to settling anxiety about the political and economic future of the country, particularly if Ramaphosa starts playing a more prominent role rather than being a ceremonial deputy president.
Ramaphosa seems to be quite nervous not to be perceived to be too ambitious, as this will get the daggers drawn. Those who are also ambitious for the top job or believe his conduct is untoward might try to sabotage him even before he gets going. In all the interviews he has conducted over the past week, he has been careful to defer to the president’s judgment and always communicate that Zuma is definitely the guy in charge.
He went as far as saying in an interview with SABC television: “The depth of knowledge that the president has is quite enormous” – perhaps laying it on a bit thickly.
Ramaphosa might or might not end up as the ANC president in three years, or other contenders might rise before then. If the ANC maintains the modus operandi of suppressing debate around leadership and only allowing branches to discuss the matter ahead of the next conference, it is bound to lead to another round of factional battles and skulduggery. Technically, Zuma can run again for the ANC presidency, as the party’s constitution does not have a limit on terms. However, Mbeki’s attempt to do the same resulted in disaster for him and his network so Zuma is unlikely to go the same route.
As this is Zuma’s last term as state president, the ANC will also prefer to keep convention and align leadership of the party and government.
The presidency is, however, not the only position where new blood is needed. Five years ago, the ANC Youth League, at the time under the leadership of Julius Malema, began a campaign for a “generational mix” in the ANC top six, wanting Fikile Mbalula to replace Gwede Mantashe as secretary general. The campaign fell flat once the campaign extended to other issues and Malema and others landed in the dogbox.
However, after two terms as head of the ANC administration, there might be discussions starting about moving Mantashe out of the secretary general position to make way for someone younger and more avant-garde. The pressure is on the party to modernise and draw new members from younger generations. So far, the party has tried to preserve tradition, sourcing three successive secretaries general from the National Union of Mineworkers. Its top leadership has remained the preserve of those who were prominent in the liberation struggle.
But with the memory of the liberation struggle now receding and new ANC members concerned more with contemporary issues rather than its history, the party might need to look to younger generations in its ranks for the top posts. The trend worldwide has been for heads of state to be younger – late forties and early fifties – but on the continent, the trend remains that ageing men are in power.
The alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and trade union federation Cosatu, might also need to look to younger leaders to revive their appeal. The SACP has been stuck in time with the same leaders since 1998 and this is reflected in the lack of fresh ideas and any meaningful role in national discourse.
Cosatu’s own research has shown that its membership is also ageing and that it is not able to recruit new members because of the social distance between union leaders and members. A generational change in the leadership that reflects the needs and interest of a younger, more street-smart workforce could help revive the union movement generally.
The ANC and its alliance are at present lagging behind the visible changes in the opposition. In Parliament last week it was quite evident that the opposition benches have new younger, militant MPs – save for people like the Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Cope’s Mosiuoa Lekota – while the same (old) faces are in the ANC benches. While there are a few younger faces in the national executive, the ANC caucus is not much different from the previous term.
With a rigorous parliamentary session ahead and high delivery demands on the state, the ANC needs people who can keep the pace and also face-off against the new energetic MPs across the House.
It could embrace change, or it could remain stuck in its ways. It will be to the ANC’s own detriment if it thinks its timeworn methods of dealing with leadership will keep it in power in perpetuity. It might also be foolhardy to be caught off-guard by fate. The time to begin the discussion is now. DM
Photo: South African President Jacob Zuma (2-L) stands behind a bust of late former South African President Nelson Mandela (R) outside parliament before delivering his State of the Nation address, in Cape Town, South Africa, 17 June 2014. President Jacob Zuma is under pressure to deliver in his second term in office as he gives his State of the Nation address with the new parliament gathering following the April general elections. EPA/Schalk van Zuydam / POOL
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