It goes without saying that we live in cynical times. So cynical that some people believe the worst is about to happen. That a “certain someone” is about to steal the leadership of the ANC for his ex-wife, that the political situation is about to get much more disruptive and violent, that in fact what we are living through now is the calm before a very damaging political storm. At the root of these fears, correctly or not, lies President Jacob Zuma. So low has his political image in urban areas fallen that many people believe he is about to try to make a bid to literally steal the country. Quite a few of these fears may be unfounded, but, with some evidence now emerging that Cyril Ramaphosa is the above-board frontrunner for the ANC’s December leadership contest, it is worth examining what Zuma’s options actually are, and how events could play out. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
It is obvious to all that the stakes in the ANC’s December contest are incredibly high for those involved in it. For Zuma, it appears that he may be in a world of legal hurt, should he lose control of the National Prosecuting Authority. For Ramaphosa, on his version at least, the very soul of the ANC is at stake, so his own grouping has to fight incredibly hard.
In the real-world ANC, a practice employed at many previous provincial and regional conference is “gate-keeping” – the simple manipulation and creation of branches. It is a game both sides can play. It is probably happening right now. However, for this to really work, cash, and bucketloads of it, is needed. The cynics would say that state money is going to be used for this purpose, and that the Guptas have the cash to make it happen. Critics of the other side would point to the personal wealth of Ramaphosa.
The branch manipulation must happen in secret, otherwise the entire process is exposed to massive risk. If a branch decides it is going to nominate a certain faction for financial reasons, it would take only one member of that branch to blow the whistle. Nowadays, that wouldn’t even have to be Luthuli House. You could imagine the splash the media would make with the branch buying evidence captured on a cellphone.
So, it could happen, and probably will in some places, but it still is a dangerous proposition.
Then there is the manipulation of the actual delegates at the conference itself. Technically, the delegate goes to the conference with a mandate from their branch. But that mandate is not necessarily cast in stone – they can change that decision if circumstances change. This opens the door wide to dubious political transactions, and involving massive amounts of money. But this is probably an overly cynical reading of the situation – one hopes.
What would be easier is to control the delegates through the provincial chairmen (the use of “chairmen” is deliberate. Despite the fact the ANC may be about to elect its first-ever female national leader, there are currently no elected female leaders of an ANC province). We all know about the “Premier League”, who appear to have almost propped up Zuma in the ANC. But recently it seems Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza could be preparing to move over to the Ramaphosa side. From what can be seen (and there is much that cannot be seen), Mpumalanga is solidly unified behind Mabuza. His total control of his own province gives him the crucial role in the coming months.
For the Dlamini-Zuma side the imperative is obvious – make sure Mabuza is locked in. There are several ways this could be achieved. Considering the long-running claims of corruption against Mabuza (there have been no charges, and no convictions) it may be possible to simply threaten to let loose the criminal justice system. Or he could be bought, politically, through the offer of the position of deputy leader in the ANC. But this carrot-and-stick approach only works if Dlamini-Zuma is able to show confidence that they will win, no matter what. If Mabuza thinks for a second that Dlamini-Zuma could lose, then the entire proposal simply wouldn’t work; Mabuza could walk away from the table, never to return.
Another strategy that could also work quite well could be to simply disband the branches and regions that are going to support your opponent. So, if a region in KwaZulu-Natal wants to back Ramaphosa, the Zuma-supporting provincial leadership could simply disband them. City Press suggested this weekend that this may already be happening in the Western Cape. But, again, it is a complicated process. The national executive committee of the ANC could overrule these moves. Then there is the problem that you could end up with an ANC with no structures left standing at the end of it, which would make things even more ungovernable in the party than they are now.
It is now considered a fact of our political lives that our intelligence services play a factional role in our politics. The political sage Aubrey Matshiqi has written of how, a year before Polokwane, he tried to convince National Intelligence Agency officials to stay out of the ANC’s leadership race, but to no avail. Ten years later, journalists routinely have conversations only through encrypted means. For the political opponents of Zuma, this must now be second nature.
But, this is not necessarily the ace in the hole it may appear to be. While it would indeed provide advance notice of what your opponents are planning, it doesn’t automatically mean you can stop their progress. They can still campaign, still plan, still gather support, and crucially, keep the momentum going.
That said, it would be wise to expect many revelations about the personal lives and political histories of the enemies of those who have access to the intelligence agencies. Everything from the “truth” about their internet browser histories to claims of their dark secrets. Still, it would have to be something very deep and very dark to seriously change the race now. Perhaps it would be more effective to find a way to subject a politician to ridicule than to actually hope that some “secret” could stop them from gaining the top job. Ridicule can weaken a person, whereas a new “secret” may not be believed, and may not change the minds of those who are already critical of the incumbent faction.
What can also be expected is the kind of harassment of journalists and other critical voices. In many ways, the authenticity of the #GuptaLeaks emails has been proven again by the fact that groups like Black First Land First are harassing those who write about the emails (Conflict Alert: This writer is on their list of bad, bad people). It almost certainly shows that there is no other possible response, because, as the Rand Daily Mail said once about the Info Scandal, “It’s all true”. As this deluge of damaging information continues to flow, these attempts at harassment are likely to intensify.
Other attempts may well be made to distract the nation and the politically interested from what is really going on. This could include a bid to simply change the subject, or to make the narrative entirely about race, or wealth or inequality. Obviously, Bell Pottinger has already tried this to an extent. It may have gained some traction, but if someone is to use race in a divisive way for an internal party-political campaign, they essentially have to take on the legacy of Nelson Mandela. It sounds easy to get people to turn on each other, but in practice it may actually be harder.
Then there are other levers in government that can be pulled. If one was to judge every single government action only through the prism of the ANC’s December conference, one could suspect that Mineral Resources Minister Mosebenzi Zwane’s new Mining Charter and his new attempt to stop the awarding of mineral prospecting rights was an attempt to force the Chamber of Mines into an action that could be used for campaigning purposes. It would go like this – the Chamber gets pushed into a position in which it has to go to court to enforce the rights of its members. That case then becomes a massive cause célèbre which is used to demonstrate how “white people still want to control our minerals”. And of course Dlamini-Zuma would be the only person who can stop this from happening.
These issues can flare up very quickly. The case of the painting, The Spear, is a good example of how cultural issues were used by Zuma to shore up support for him incredibly quickly. It would be foolish to discount that ever happening again.
There’s also the two nuclear options:
These are wild times and the severity of the fight could lead to an altogether outlandish claim that the easiest thing for Ramaphosa’s opponents to do right now would be to simply remove him from the contest altogether.
In fact, that would be an incredibly bad strategy. If this were to happen – whatever the motive, means or result – the finger of suspicion would point to the other faction and the consequences, while difficult to predict, would be nationwide, and severe. But more important, Ramaphosa is not a person acting on his own, he is head of a much greater group. The strength of Ramaphosa is that it is not only his campaign – it is the other ANC leaders who are throwing their weight with him. If he were removed from the scene, there are others to replace him, so the entire exercise would have been futile.
At the same time. the Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma faction does not appear to have the same luxury, or depth of the bench.
And the final nuclear option: … Just cancel the entire ANC conference. Create a situation, either in the ANC, or in the country, in which holding it is just impossible. It’s a favourite scenario of the extreme cynics. But this also has huge dangers. It could allow Ramaphosa and the parts of the ANC to simply hold their own conference on the currently scheduled dates. It would be the end of the ANC, of course; the split would be the real moment that part of the ANC’s conference started. But it would strengthen the claim of those who believe Zuma has dictatorial tendencies and allow them to get a head start in the race to claim the ANC’s legacy and legitimacy.
In the end, while it is correct to be a little concerned about what could happen, it is probably wrong to be unduly worried. There are strong political reasons to believe that the worst options, on the most cynical reading of politicians’ motives, will not come to pass. In the end, what both sides want is control of a fully functioning ANC that can still win the 2019 elections. DM
Photo: ANC President Jacob Zuma, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and ANC Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC’s Policy Conference, 5 July 2017 (Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee)