South Africa

Analysis: A provincial turn-off on the ANC’s long and winding road to unity

By Stephen Grootes 18 September 2017

With just around three months until the ANC’s December leadership conference, something appears to be shifting. Instead of a simple two-horse race between those who support Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and his current boss President Jacob Zuma, a push for unity is gaining ground. This push, if successful, could have a massive impact, and may save the party, at least in the short term. But there are still important, difficult and possibly lasting obstacles, not the least of which is Zuma himself. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

On Saturday afternoon the Mpumalanga ANC held a Provincial General Council at Mbombela stadium. This is not necessarily an event that would make the front pages of the big newspapers the next day. It is well known that Mpumalanga ANC leader David Mabuza has a unified province behind him, which may allow him to play kingmaker in this particular contest. But then the list of people who were also attending emerged. And suddenly a picture started to circulate of who these people were.

The image features (from left to right) Free State ANC leader Ace Magashule, Gauteng ANC leader Paul Mashatile, North West ANC leader Supra Mahumapelo, KwaZulu-Natal deputy ANC leader Willies Mchunu and Mabuza. On this Saturday, in KZN, the funeral of former ANC Youth League secretary general Sindiso Magaqa was under way, presumably attended by KZN leader Sihle Zikalala. This means that Mchunu was there not on a mission of his own, but representing the KZN ANC.

This means that on the stage you had ANC leaders of five of the provinces in one place. The importance of this, and power, is huge.

For a start, up until this point, leaderships of ANC provinces have appeared to have very different views on the national ANC race. KZN, Free State and North West have been pushing hard for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. Gauteng has been behind Ramaphosa since before the start of the year and Mpumalanga has been pushing for a unity slate to avert a contest altogether.

Then there is the symbolism of this particular event. A provincial NGC, even in this tumultuous year, is not something that happens once in a lifetime. And, crucially, it is not a commemoration of a person or an event, which often leads to political rivals in the ANC sharing a stage to give a facade of unity. It is the ordinary nature of this event that gives this joint appearance so much power.

Now, you may ask, why would these seeming rivals come together now, what is it about the current context that is so important as to drive them onto this stage?

If you look back over the last 10 days, perhaps the most important event for the ANC has been the Pietermartizburg High Court decision to annul the KZN’s 2015 conference. It is obvious that this is causing chaos with a risk of spreading throughout the organisation. Already the currently annulled leadership has tried to say that they will appeal, and Secretary-General Gwede Mantashe (who warned before the conference in 2015 that they should not go ahead with it) has smacked them down. The national executive committee (NEC) itself is due to hold a special meeting to discuss it on Friday. In this meeting, this issue, like so many others, is likely to be a proxy for Zuma himself. If you support Zuma, you probably want to appeal the ruling, if you oppose him, you may want to rather install an NEC task team to run the province.

In the meantime, hanging over all of this is the fear of more intra-ANC violence in KZN.

Then there are the warnings made from the start of the year that the party itself is on the verge of splitting. In fact, it was Blade Nzimande from the SACP who warned before last year’s local elections that if the ANC went to a contested conference, “how do we know it won’t be a wholesale implosion next time?”.

So then, if the NEC is split over all these issues (and is really split over Zuma), the leadership contest is beginning to see mud being thrown, dirt made up and affairs embellished, and polls show the ANC is on the verge of the 2019 election anyway. What then are provincial leaders to do?

They can use the power they have as leaders of their provinces and try to head off a contest at the pass, or to make some sort of agreement they can all live with, and ensure their preferred person wins.

But they face the problem of having lost complete control over their delegates, as this time around the national ANC is breaking with tradition and allowing branches to send nominations directly to Luthuli House. At the same time, they may be beginning to fear that Dlamini-Zuma may lose so comprehensively that they themselves could become vulnerable. Mabuza, Mahumapelo, Magashule and even Mashatile have all been accused of corruption in the past. (They have not been charged, and nothing has been proved against them in court of law.)

Suddenly, their interests are all aligned. They need to avoid a split in the ANC, and they need to ensure that the party has a good chance of winning the 2019 election.

So, in this situation, perhaps the easiest thing to do is to prevent a contest in the first place, and so still retain some control. This may explain their sudden joint appearance, and the appearance that they are acting as one political unit.

What follows immediately from this is whether they will be able to make it happen, and could prevent the leaders of five ANC provinces from actually pulling it off.

The first major obstacle is likely to be Zuma himself. This surely looks like bad news for Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign. At the start of the year it seemed she could count on the almost complete support of KZN, the Free State, North West and probably Mpumalanga. Suddenly it looks as if all four of those provinces could be looking another way.

However, it is also important to consider that Ramaphosa was not at this event, and does not seem to have featured in any significant way (he was included in a series of video messages that were shown to the delegates, his supporters claim the shouting was loudest when his message was shown, but they’re probably not the most objective observers…). In other words, this was certainly not an endorsement of his campaign by these provincial leaders. And this is where things get interesting.

In the days leading up to this particular event, there was some evidence to suggest that the chances of Zweli Mkhize emerging as the unity candidate were growing stronger. The poor performance by Dlamini-Zuma so far, the Ramaphosa emails (which revealed that he was prepared to go to court to stop a newspaper) and the general state of the party, all provided the context. Then, Mkhize’s appearance at the annual Reed Dance, his careful message of the need for unity over the previous months (and in particular his thorough explanation of how provincial ANC leaderships have been meeting), and finally the KZN ANC judgment which revealed the depth of the party’s divisions, all joined together to suggest that a path was becoming just a bit clearer for him to take the ultimate crown.

However, there is a rather large “but” in all of this. And it revolves around the likely reaction of Zuma, and Dlamini-Zuma, to what happened over the weekend. The one person who may try to stop a unity deal may be Zuma, if he thought it was against his own interests. Mkhize may in fact need the KZN to officially nominate him, and that could mean having to make friends with both sides of the divide, not an easy task in these polarised times.

The end result could in fact be an even bigger contest than now, with a real race between Ramaphosa, Dlamini-Zuma and Mkhize, which would make things possibly more volatile and certainly harder to predict. But it would also increase the chances that, whoever ends on top, might do so with less than 50% of the votes cast, resulting in legitimacy problems for the winner in the longer run.

At the end, it may also be that these provincial leaders don’t actually want to prevent a contest at all, but are showing that they will have the real power to influence the outcome of the ANC leadership race.

It is too early to say whether these provincial ANC leaders will be successful in their quest to bring unity to the party. But it is important to remember that in many ways the situation in the ANC has less to do with personalities, and more to do with the changing dynamics of both the party and the country. And because of this, even if they bring about what Neville Chamberlain may have called “peace in our time”, it is unlikely to last. DM

Photo: In a show of unity, (from left to right), Free State ANC leader Ace Magashule, Gauteng ANC leader Paul Mashatile, North West ANC leader Supra Mahumapelo, KwaZulu-Natal deputy ANC leader Willies Mchunu and Mpumalanga ANC leader David Mabuza. Photo: ANC Twitter

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