Sihle Zikalala’s trouncing of KwaZulu-Natal Premier Senzo Mchunu as ANC chairman at the eighth provincial conference in Pietermaritzburg yesterday is a strong pointer to the entrenchment of regional “slate” politics which impact massively on South African national political dynamics. By CYRIL MADLALA.
The sheer numbers of KwaZulu-Natal delegates at ANC national conferences have meant that the province has been able, over the years, to leverage its considerable electoral influence to “persuade” other provinces to endorse particular leaders for the national executive committee of the organisation – and consequently the President and Deputy President of the Republic.
Never mind that the ANC does not formally recognise any “kingmakers”, real or assumed, the reality is that powerful regions in KwaZulu-Natal set the scene well before the national conferences. The groundwork loops through various preceding organisational electoral and endorsement processes.
The weekend KwaZulu-Natal provincial conference was one critical stage.
Sihle Zikalala is a tried and tested player on such a stage – understanding as he does, the kind of groundwork that needs to go into electing ANC leaders.
That is what would have given him the confidence to take on Senzo Mchunu for the chairmanship despite the usual convention that provincial chairs serve for two terms before moving on to bigger things nationally.
Critically, he won over to his side a very senior member of Senzo Mchunu’s executive, Willies Mchunu, to continue to serve as deputy chairman. New treasurer Nomusa Dube-Ncube was Zikalala’s deputy as provincial secretary.
Understanding the importance of the politics of the regions, Zikalala roped in the chairman of Moses Mabhida Region, Super Zuma as provincial secretary, while Mluleki Ndobe, the chairman of the Harry Gwala region has come in as deputy secretary.
The vociferous provincial Youth League lost no media opportunity to declare openly that it was time for Zikalala to replace Senzo Mchunu. Persistent calls for the abandonment of provincial government positions which had been endorsed by the provincial executive council (cabinet), were clear indications that Senzo Mchunu’s authority as premier was being undermined.
An example was the government’s stance on wasteful expenditure and cost-cutting measures. It capped expenditure on public meetings, thus saving thousands of rands on the costs of marquees, transport, catering and entertainment. The affected service providers complained to the Youth League about the drying up of government funds, and the Youth League undertook to get government to mend its ways.
A matter of weeks before the conference, the Youth League promised to ensure that all young people working as interns in government were given permanent employment. Their voices, in terms of directives to government, and indirectly against the leader of that government, were becoming strident by the day.
It was perhaps with this in mind that, in his political report to conference, Senzo Mchunu remarked that KwaZulu-Natal had a long and historic profile in influencing ANC national politics.
“There are a number of reasons for this, which we need not mention. These factors make us both assertive and attractive beyond our province and its boundaries. Furthermore, they are factors that make us who we are as a province and we need to continue to utilise the position we hold in the body politic of the ANC to influence both provincial and national developments.”
He went on to say: “Understandably, the ‘palace’ has been simmering for some time. In the simmering, unity, cohesion and stability came under threat. Of great importance is that we have begun the process of identifying and addressing prevailing problems. The provincial executive committee remained fully functional until now, even though as a simmering great palace.”
He lamented the emergence of “selfish” tendencies that are alien to the ANC. He added: “The time has come for us to take a stand against these tendencies because, clearly, it is not enough to just mention them. Precisely because the ANC in government has access to state resources there are those who have made it their mission to ascend the rungs of power by hook or by crook, only so that they can have unfettered access to these resources.
“One of the things this conference needs to consider is whether our criteria for membership, including criteria for comrades to stand for leadership positions, is rigorous enough to ensure quality membership and the production of upstanding cadres who can take the revolution forward. Our province must, at the next policy conference of the ANC champion a position on this serious issue.”
Of course, way back in 2002 former President Thabo Mbeki suggested at an ANC policy conference a similar approach. “We are permanently interested in increasing the size and strength of our movement. Nevertheless I am convinced that we must also pay particular attention to the principle – better fewer, but better,” he said.
As the phenomenal growth of ANC membership in KwaZulu-Natal over the years has shown, before this year’s dramatic dip, Mbeki and Mchunu’s views about quality rather than quantity would not sit very well in very powerful quarters. There is a prevalent school of thought among influential, leading figures in the ANC in the province that the organisation should entrench its position as the strategic centre of everything that happens in the province – that its influence should be felt in every sphere of life, be it civic matters, religion, sport or entertainment.
When this thinking extends to the running of the affairs of the State, it almost blurs any distinction between party and State, to the extent that it would have been expected that as Premier Mchunu would have virtually been micro-managed from party headquarters.
Although the South African Constitution gives the Premier the prerogative to appoint and dismiss members of his executive council, Mchunu’s perceived lethargy in acting decisively to whip his team into line would have cost him dearly in his public standing in the face of an escalating number of service delivery protests.
He had hardly tinkered with the team he found in place when he became Premier, and remained unmoved when the Youth League called for the introduction of “fresh blood”.
Now Mchunu is in an untenable and unenviable position.
Firstly, as head of government, he should make a plan to accommodate Zikalala. As provincial secretary, Zikalala was on the ANC salary bill as a full-time employee, whereas the chairmanship is not a full-time job. Secondly, Mchunu will have to take orders from the provincial executive and carry them out expeditiously.
At the best of times, among the best of comrades, that is a difficult relationship.
Thirdly, the election contest would have left Mchunu’s executive council polarised to the point of paralysis. Now, how is he supposed to work with colleagues who have demonstrated such profound lack of trust in his leadership ability?
Or worse still, will Zikalala want to lose any momentum in deploying his own people in key government posts to deliver on his electoral mandate?
One thing is clear: while Mchunu might dream of “better fewer, but better”, Zikalala has always worked tirelessly to grow the size of the ANC in the province and will most definitely want to do even better. That is his strength – to the extent that his detractors as provincial secretary often suggested that he even exercised undue influence over branches and regions.
Mchunu could have been referring to him indirectly in his political report when he said the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal committed itself to playing their role in rooting out “bad tendencies”, in particular: “Manipulation of individuals, systems and procedures at branch level, up to the offices of the organisation in some cases, to manufacture pre-determined results in the run-up to elective conferences. This tendency, in particular, is sadly sponsored and powered by people coming from upper structures. Let democracy thrive there at branch level. Le there be no henchmen or henchwomen who impose their will on branches.”
Notwithstanding Mchunu’s views, it was generally accepted in KwaZulu-Natal that Zikalala worked very closely with another former youth leader, Thulani Mashaba, who led the Musa Dladla region and was earmarked for the position of provincial secretary before his tragic death in a car accident a few months ago.
His supporters had vowed that they would ensure that Zikalala’s team carried his work forward even after his death. Mashaba’s mission was not only to entrench the influence of KwaZulu-Natal in national politics, but to enhance its capacity to do so through growing the size of its membership.
The work he had done in the regions, and the success of his and Zikalala’s “slate” means the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal will be “king-makers” for a while yet.
That has considerable implications for any pretenders to the post-Zuma throne. DM
Photo: Sihle Zikalala (Photo: Khaya Magenu/News24)