South Africa, Politics

Analysis: ANC at the Crossroads

By Stephen Grootes 12 December 2016

As we come to the end of a tumultuous year, one thing is almost certain: next year could be worse. Political contestation outside the ANC has increased, the DA is on the march, Julius Malema is sounding ever more bellicose. And the ruling party appears hampered, possibly incapable, of managing the process of electing a new leader, without causing huge divisions. It is now trite to say that the most important signal of what will happen in the 2019 elections will be the way the ANC survives 2017 and the leadership contest in December 2017. So then, how are the frontrunners looking? By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Despite all of the political noise of this year, the Nkandla rulings and the NEC motions and the local election results, in one important aspect we end it as we began it. The two front-runners for the position of ANC leader still appear to be Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. It says much about the ANC at the moment that despite all of the political shocks of this year, this is still the case. But we should not be surprised. At the end of 2012, Ramaphosa was elected as the deputy leader of the ANC. Just several months before, the company of which he was a director had been heavily involved in the Marikana shootings. Despite all of the national and international outrage over that incident, the ANC’s decision was affected not a jot. Which suggests an impressive level of insularity.

Back then, in 2012, three significant political events were scheduled that had the potential to change our politics fundamentally. Cosatu had a national conference, the SACP met in Richards Bay, and the ANC went to Mangaung. To have three such important gatherings in one year would normally indicate that change is possible, and could even be on the horizon. In the end though, despite all of the speeches and politicking, almost nothing changed. Zwelinzima Vavi, Blade Nzimande and Jacob Zuma were all re-elected as leaders of Cosatu, the SACP and the ANC.

But 2012 was a year of containment; nothing changed on the surface, but all those involved would have known of the currents beneath. Four years later, these currents are causing riptides that everyone can see. Vavi has been expelled, the SACP has become highly critical of Zuma (this weekend Nzimande himself publicly criticised Zuma for the first time), the ANC NEC is divided, possibly hopelessly. This would suggest that 2017 is going to be very different from 2012; the problems that were ignored then cannot be stopped from boiling over any more.

At the same time, there has only been one contested ANC leadership since it has became the ruling party, in 2007. And Polokwane damaged the party severely.

All of this then suggests that, unless some kind of compromise is reached that results in a conference without a contested leadership, or the way that election, and the campaigning that goes with it, is changed fundamentally, the risk of a permanent trauma being inflicted on the ANC is very real.

It may well be this prospect that led to Gwede Mantashe saying that it’s time for these campaigns to be conducted in public, and that branches should nominate people out in the open and give reasons as to why they are nominating them. But he could still expect a backlash from those who have an interest in keeping things behind closed doors.

In some ways, the real battle for the soul of the ANC in 2017 could be the fight over what should be in public and what should be kept secret. The “reformists/urban” side may prefer bright sunlight, the “patronage/rural” faction would prefer to “follow tradition” and keep things in smoke-filled rooms.

Before the local elections, it appeared the Premier League would be almost unbeatable. The group of Premiers who control blocks of votes from Mpumalanga, the North West and the Free State, plus the votes of the ANC Youth League and the ANC Women’s League, and a sizeable part of KwaZulu-Natal, seemed unbeatable. Add to that the fact that they have so much patronage at their disposal, and the almost complete refusal by Ramaphosa to say anything of political significance, and you would have a recipe for a rural victory.

But things have changed since then. The elections show us that on top of the loses in big metros, the rural vote cannot be taken for granted any more by the ANC – in many rural areas the party lost between 10 and 20 percentage points.

But also below the surface something has shifted within the ANC. We are so used to the public speeches of the Premiers that we forget that they are only supposed to derive their political power from the people they represent. And the people they represent seem frustrated with Zuma’s style of governance. That internal report that showed that most ANC branches and regions want Zuma and the NEC to step down suggests there is great distance between the leaders and the led. This means that while these Premiers go around leading efforts to retain Zuma as President, the people who voted for them disagree.

This suggests then that another real contest that will occur in the ANC’s conference is between the real will of the party’s members, and gate-keeping. It will be about whether those who want to control outcomes are able to, or whether the machinery that the party ostensibly has in place the stop mechanism which actually works. Because, based on that report, it would seem the party’s members don’t want another Zuma. Which is exactly what the Premier League is urging on the party.

The other factor that has changed things significantly is the now public opposition to Zuma, both from within the Alliance and inside the party itself. Presumably all of these people in the ANC who are critical of Zuma now are preparing to back Ramaphosa. Cosatu has already said it wants to back him, while the SACP is probably preparing to do the same (those who trying to cut down on their daily irony intake may well need to a take moment here, and prepare themselves for the SA Communist Party backing a plutocrat). This means that a campaign is beginning. It is not fully formed yet, but momentum is building.

Probably the surest way for Ramaphosa to give his own campaign a kick forward is to break ranks with Zuma. And though there are signs that he is preparing to do so, he may need to think very carefully about the timing of such action. He may also want to wait for one more Zuma scandal, which would allow him to kick Dlamini-Zuma, and her backers, while they are down. And Zuma is surely running out of the political capital he would need to take any kind of revenge on Ramaphosa.

Then of course there’s the powerful ANC Treasurer, Zweli Mkhize. Mkhize is in an interesting position. This publication has already noted how he could be the one person who could, if not keep the party unified, keep it from splitting now. As all of these dynamics continue to play out, the push for the removal of Zuma, the continued attacks from outside, the possibility that the Premier League loses more steam, the chance that Ramaphosa continues to splutter along, then it may be that Mkhize’s chances start to become very real. Party elders, such as any still exist who have not taken sides, may well be looking for a compromise candidate. Mkhize is probably an ideal candidate in such a situation.

Still, for that to happen, both sides would have to accept that they have a strong chance of losing everything, and thus agree on an acceptable solution that would not break up the party.

Still, there are other outside possibilities. There are those who believe that the Premier League has never really wanted Dlamini-Zuma in the first place, that she is still seen as too close to Thabo Mbeki (she stood on his slate at Polokwane, in opposition to her ex-husband’s slate). And that their real candidate is Baleka Mbete. It’s possible, but highly unlikely. If just because her public image after so publicly ejecting Julius Malema and his merry band from Parliament so often is that she is less than democratic (she also believes Parliament needs more security if such a thing is possible, and has referred to Malema as a “cockroach”). If Malema and Mmusi Maimane had to chose which candidate would make them stronger, Mbete could be high on their list.

In the run-up to Polokwane, nearly a decade ago, Mbeki’s right-hand man, Smuts Ngonyama, used to claim that “there are no divisions within the ANC”. A year later, he had joined Cope. This time around, no one in the party would dare say such a thing. Which is an indication of how much has changed, and how fraught the current situation is.

The issue of who will lead the ANC is one of the most important political questions of the moment. But the other could well be this one:

Can the ANC survive its 2017 conference at all? DM

Photo: From upper left – Jacob Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa, Zweli Mkhize, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.



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