The conundrum that is ANC’s provincial politics

By Stephen Grootes 24 April 2018

Young protester from a township called Top Village is seen with a sling shot attached to his head as protesters blocked the main road leading into Mahikeng. They are demanding employment opportunities and better infrastructure in the township in addition to calling for the removal of the premier Supra Mahumapelo. Picture: GroundUp News

The current chaos and violence in North West has served as a reminder of what can happen when the governance of provinces descends into a Mafia-style state, or even a failed state. And while there are still question marks over whether Supra Mahumapelo will actually survive this, the situation in North West is actually an indicator of the ANC’s, and South Africa’s, much bigger set of problems.

If you browse through the provinces one by one, it is pretty clear that many of them contain the same, or similar, elements of serial instability which led to the situation in North West. This does not mean that they will all end in the same way, but it does indicate exactly how divided the party is.

As Monday dawned, it was clear that the violence that has wrecked parts of Mahikeng had quietened down. On the same day, the ANC’s national working committee met with representatives of the party in KwaZulu-Natal to discuss whether it could go ahead and hold a provincial conference. Meanwhile, in Cape Town, the party’s elections head, Fikile Mbalula, was announcing that Ebrahim Rassool would now be in charge of the party’s 2019 campaigning in the Western Cape.

All of this occurred on one day. Generally speaking, the problems all come down to the same issue: different groups and factions are contesting for power in provinces and the conflicts are pretty much impossible to sweep under the carpet of unity any more.

The situation in North West is just last week’s manifestation of this. Mahumapelo may well have a strong case to answer in terms of the corruption allegations against him. But recent history has shown that a leader can actually withstand a withering criticism and attacks, so long as he/she does not face strong opposition within the party. It seems Mahumapelo does, and thus this has now become a problem. Additionally, it seems no matter what your view on whether Mahumapelo should stay or go, no one has any idea of who could take over from him. And that alone points to one of the ANC’s real problems in the province: it is simply not unified.

Unfortunately for the ANC, almost all of the other provinces are divided as well.

While ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule claimed on Monday evening that KZN was ready to go to a provincial election, the fact is, tensions are running high in the province. Just two weeks ago there was an armed standoff in Howick, in the ANC’s Moses Mabhida region, when a group of people tried to force their way into a meeting. If you have paid this website any attention at all over the last year, you’ll know that these tensions go back to the provincial conference in 2015, the results of which were annulled. But in fact, they go back further, to the collapse of the Ethekwini Regional conference in the same year. This means that it will not be easy to resolve this situation, almost no matter who wins in the provincial election, should it actually be held.

The situation in the Western Cape does not get many headlines, simply because the ANC in the province has ceased to be a proper political player. Its membership has dropped to the point where it is now the smallest province in the party, despite playing host to the second biggest metropolitan area. Its recent history includes a leader who was removed from his post after attempting to sexually assault a young woman, a provincial secretary found guilty of assault by the ANC’s national disciplinary committee but then acquitted by a court, and long-running claims that it failed to resolve tensions between members of the coloured and the black communities in the province.

Interestingly, when it last held the province, its then premier, Rasool, was accused, and seemingly convicted by party processes, of paying journalists for favourable media coverage. It is now to Rasool that the party is turning to run its elections campaign in the Western Cape.

A quick trip through the other provinces does not reveal an easier picture. In the Free State there is a new premier, replacing Magashule. Sisi Ntombele has already felt it necessary to claim that she will be her own person while in charge of the province. But such is the strength of the machine that Magashule has built up there that it seems incredibly unlikely that she was not hand-picked by him. This means he may well be running the province via remote control.

The situation in Mpumalanga is rather similar, as David Mabuza has now become the Deputy President. There, Refilwe Mtshweni is still learning the ropes. Again, it is unlikely that Mabuza will not still have his finger on the pulse.

In the Eastern Cape there is stability of a sort. It appears the side led by Oscar Mabuyane, who won last year’s provincial conference, no longer have to worry about any challenges to that outcome. But they are not happy with premier Phumulo Masualle, who led the Zuma-supporting side that lost. Already there are rumblings that they will try to have him removed. The fact that Mabuyane is now in the provincial legislature surely does not make for a comfortable sitting for Masualle.

There is a similar situation in the Northern Cape, where the provincial ANC is less than happy with premier Sylvia Lucas, after a bruising leadership battle there in 2017. Meanwhile, in Limpopo, there are also claims that someone will gun for premier Stanley Mathabatha.

It is only in Gauteng that the picture appears to be of relative stability. There has to be an election of some sort to replace Paul Mashatile, who is now the ANC’s national treasurer. However, so close is his relationship with the premier and deputy leader of the province, David Makhura, that it seems obvious Makhura will just move into the top ANC job in the province.

The chaos in the provinces has been a long time coming. Some of the first warnings of this phenomenon were rung as far back as eight years ago. It has its roots in the fact that to be in charge of a province is to exercise very real power. The growth of patronage has led to situations where people have been able to stay in a particular position for a long time, entrenching their networks. This has led to arrogance, greed and a general drop in governance standards. But it has also led to resentment, which in turn emboldens the opponents to strike.

An example of it: the violence in North West over the last week.

But there are other elements that have led to this. It now seems that the ANC is almost locked in a kind of permanent election cycle. Sure, it only holds national elections every five years. But it now seems that there is always a part of it that is about to go to conference. As power has moved from the centre (where it was almost solely based in 1994) to the provinces, so each province has become more powerful than it was, and the stakes have risen. At the same time, it may be that there are interlocking power structures. So, a provincial leader in one province could well become more or less powerful depending on what happens in another province. And various national leaders are affected by this too. This means that there is always a political contest on the go. The net result of this is obviously bad governance. Everyone becomes short-termist, no one ever gets to start a programme and implement it, everything is done with an eye on either extraction or political advantage.

Unfortunately, it seems unlikely that there are any easy fixes to this problem for the ANC. Any plan for a moratorium on conferences for, say, two years would surely be met with howls of protest. Instead, the only solution is likely to be the long, hard slog of building up the capacity within the party, and essentially forging some kind of national unity that then seeps down into the provincial level. For the moment, that direction seems unlikely. DM


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Since its release, Pieter-Louis Myburgh’s book Gangster State, has sparked numerous fascist-like behavior from certain members of the public (and the State). There have been planned book burnings, disrupted launches and Ace Magashule has openly called him a liar. And just to say thanks, a R10m defamation suit has been lodged against the author.

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