South Africa

South Africa, Politics

2017 ANC Succession Season: The Age of Equilibrium

It is understood by just about everybody that almost all of the politics and the policy arguments swirling within the ANC at the moment are tied to the anchor of succession/election/contest/battle/outright war. There is no doubt it is THE main question facing the country this 2017 AD. Up until the end of last year, it appeared that the playing field on which this battle would be contested favoured the groups supporting President Jacob Zuma, and thus almost automatically Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. But events over the last few weeks have suggested that while the balance may still be in their favour, the playing field is slowly becoming equalised. Which is what you should expect to happen when the secretary-general of the organisation may have picked a side. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

It seems undeniable now that there is a thick line you can draw inside the ANC between those who support Zuma and those who want him gone. And that that line is almost exactly the same line that you would draw between those who want his ex-wife to take over the party, and those who want “change” in the form of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. Up until a little while ago, it seemed that Dlamini-Zuma had the major advantages. Her “side” controlled things in most of the provinces, through the provincial leaders. This brought them power in the branches, where the race will ultimately be decided. They also appeared to have the most vocal cheerleaders in the ANC Youth League and the ANC Women’s League. The uMkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association would happily back Zuma, and his friends the Guptas, at every turn. And attempts by the other parts of the ANC, the veterans, the stalwarts, all of those people to change the party appeared to have run aground.

And on the other side, Ramaphosa himself was notable for his silence; there was almost no vocal hint of ambition at all. One wondered if we were in for a re-run of the kind of non-campaign that Kgalema Motlanthe practised in the run-up to Mangaung.

Well, as we enter the second week of February, things have started to shift.

It started, in of all places, Davos: “Now I am sleeping in the President’s bed” Ramaphosa said. That was as strong a sign as any that he wants to run, an indication to those who are thinking of supporting him that they should keep the faith. It was also the kind of thing that you only say if you actually have a realistic chance of running.

Then there are developments within the leagues. While the Women’s League appeared to have shocked most people in the ANC with their pronouncement on the eve of the party’s January 8th Statement that it was backing Dlamini-Zuma, as time goes on it appears Gwede Mantashe was right. Speaking just hours after their statement was released, he shared some previously un-known personal history, saying, “I used to be a sprinter in my youth, and there is such a thing as a false start.” They, and others, were eventually smacked down by the National Working Committee ruling that no one is allowed to name names yet in the leadership contest.

But something worse appears to have afflicted the Youth League. They, and their leader, Collen Maine, were seen as the most public voice of what was then known as the “Premier League”, the group of premiers thought to possibly have the power to determine the outcome of the ANC leadership election. They defended the Guptas (to their great embarrassment broadcast live on the SABC), defended Zuma, and appeared to almost speak for that faction. In December, the Ethekwini region of the League attacked ANC Premier Zweli Mkhize (who himself could be a compromise candidate, or a main feature on a Ramaphosa slate), and called on Zuma to fire Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Considering the situation around Gordhan, and the persistent speculation around his future, and that Ethekwini is the ANC’s biggest region, this was a significant step. But then the KwaZulu-Natal ANC themselves called in this region and made them retract the statement. It’s not so much that they had to retract it, it’s who forced them to, that is important. KZN ANC leader Sihle Zikalala had been seen as on the side of the Premier League, and certainly publicly backs Zuma. For them to act against “their” Youth League branch could be important.

But worse was to follow for the league. Last week the Gauteng ANC Youth League appeared brave enough to publicly take on Gauteng Premier David Makhura, and former Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu. They laid criminal charges against the members of their own party, in what was a blatant and transparent attempt to weaken Zuma’s foes. Luthuli House was furious, issuing a public crapping-on and a demand for an apology. But several hours later the Provincial League’s deputy chair Vuyo Mhaga had the gall/balls/stupidity to phone in to Redi Thlabi on 702 and claim that they were not being “opportunistic”. Just a few hours later they did the inevitable, back-tracking and following the time-honoured tradition of politicians in a hole, blaming the media for their own comments. Clearly, they believe in alternative facts.

All of this would be easy to laugh off if it didn’t show the damage that the proxy wars in the ANC are doing to the organisation. Communication at Luthuli House is managed through the Secretary-General’s office. Mantashe surely wasn’t going to allow them to get away with this. And the Gauteng ANC themselves no doubt had something to say to their league over the weekend as well.

What we could be seeing here is the way this game is being played. The league says something to advance the Zuma agenda, Mantashe uses his office to push back. Or, being the ANC in the year 2017, it could actually be far more complicated than just that.

At the same time, the national ANC Youth League is also refusing to say who it will back, just that it’s choice will “send shock waves through the movement”. While this statement could mean several things, it could also be an indication that the league, and the Premier League, has actually split apart, and that the Youth League is now waiting for the highest bidder to emerge. Or that the league is actually far more divided than that, and that the power of Oros is more diluted than we previously thought.

Meanwhile, something else is happening within the MKMVA. Last week Siphiwe Nyanya (General, retd) held a press conference representing a group of former MK generals. He was very careful to say that they respect the office of the MKMVA leader Kebby Maphatsoe. But his group believes that what really needs to happen is that the ANC’s NEC should actually be disbanded during the consultative conference which is scheduled for the two days prior to the policy conference in June. This is so that an interim leadership could actually manage the elective conference in December.

It’s a cunning plan, because it would remove all the advantages that the weight of numbers behind the Zuma/NDZ faction have on the NEC. And for that exact reason, it’s almost impossible to see how the NEC could actually vote to disband itself. That said, were there perhaps to be some kind of major ruction within the ANC between now and June (say… just hypothetically… a certain minister were to be sacked…) the number of people opposed to Zuma in the NEC is now so large that a massive joint resignation could be on the cards, which could give some people a chance to argue it is impossible to continue.

However, while it’s incredibly unlikely that the NEC would go that route, there is another aspect to consider. The days just before a policy conference have a habit of determining the outcome of that conference. In 2012, Zuma spoke at a Free State ANC conference (the result of which, incidentally, was later annulled) just a couple of days before that policy conference started. It was then that we first head the phrase “second transition”, which became the major focus of that event. This time around, the veterans are likely to use the consultative conference to make absolutely certain that they can all determine the focus of the policy conference. If a group of former leaders with headline power ask difficult questions of the ANC in the two days before the policy conference, it would be very hard to stop delegates from actually wanting to answer those questions. Which may not be a very comfortable process for the Zuma/Dlamini-Zuma side of things.

In some ways, all of these divisions in the groups thought to be supporting the Zuma/Dlamini-Zuma faction could be seen as only happening on the periphery. But, there is some evidence that Ramaphosa’s supporters are becoming bolder. The provincial secretary for the ANC in the Northern Cape, Zamani Saul, told the Sunday Times over the weekend that he will support Ramaphosa in December. Saul is also expected to take over from John Block as the leader in that province soon. The fact he is making this point now, before he has won that position, suggests he’s confident that the majority of his province agrees with him.

The Northern Cape is tiny in terms of the size of its delegation. So while it may not mean much mathematically, it could tell us something else. If you are a tiny province in a situation like this, you may find life easier if you go with the flow, you make sure you are on the winning side, because you can be so easily punished if you get it wrong. So perhaps the Northern Cape has an understanding about which way things are going to go that it’s not necessarily telling us at the moment.

And then there is the situation in KwaZulu-Natal itself. It does not appear to be unified on the succession issue either. Mkhize could well play the key role here. He certainly seems unlikely to appear on any slate that is headed by Dlamini-Zuma. Which means that if he is able to split the province in some way, it could lose the massive king-maker status it assumed during the Zuma years. This may be much easier than it looks, considering that its biggest region, Ethekwini, had its conference four times, and the KZN conference that saw Zikalala taking over was heavily contested.

If all of this wasn’t enough, Mantashe appears to have managed to push through a major change to the way the leadership election is actually going to be run. Instead of provincial leaderships playing a role in managing the branch decisions and then holding provincial meetings to decide who to back, as they did in the past, branches will send their nominations straight to Luthuli House. This could be a huge shift, because it will take the provincial leaders out of the process. And we know, through a report leaked last year, that many branches and regions actually wanted Zuma and the NEC to resign then. Taking the provincial leaders out of the process could really weaken Zuma and Dlamini-Zuma. But of course, it’s unlikely the NEC would have agreed to this if both sides hadn’t thought they could still control the process somehow.

We are still many months away from December. The playing field is going to swing back and forth several times between now and then. Zuma still has the power of incumbency, and he has no choice but to use it. The key dynamic is probably going to be the unity of those who want Dlamini-Zuma. If they can remain unified, then they could remain formidable. But if they can’t, the field may well open up for Number Two to indeed “sleep in the President’s bed” more regularly. DM

Photo: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa with Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma at XIV World Forestry Congress, 7 Sep 2015 (Photo: GCIS)