For those working in the political reporting field, the last three weeks or so had a not so subtle Groundhog Day hint. Every week starts with claims that it will be the last for Supra Mahumapelo’s premiership in North West. And yet every week ends in the same way, with a dramatic cliffhanger of Mahumapelo still hanging on to power while his opponents attempt to stamp his bleeding fingers. While this specific drama has more to do with the internal ANC power dynamics than with anything else, it also contains a subplot made of other, external problems, many of which the party could face soon. So finely balanced was the Nasrec conference’s outcome in December 2017 that every provincial or league conference occurring in the coming months will matter greatly. Bluntly, what happens over the next six months might determine the fate of the current ANC leader’s entire legacy.
It has been claimed in the past that the ANC’s real worst enemy is itself. That instead of facing pressures or threats from outside the party, the real problems are divisions created by a factionalism within. There is much truth to that, when you consider what could have happened at Nasrec, and how close the party appeared to come to splitting. It is for this reason that so many people spend so much time gazing at the ANC’s navel, rather than considering what is happening outside the party.
To move the lint aside and peer through and examine would could happen over the next few months is… sobering.
Between now and the end of 2018 there are supposed to be provincial conferences in Limpopo, KwaZulu-Natal and the Free State. Meanwhile Gauteng has to elect a new leader and deputy leader (current Chairman, Paul Mashatile, is now the ANC Treasurer-General) while Mpumalanga has to elect a new leader (to replace David Mabuza, who has graduated to Deputy President). To add to the fun, the ANC Youth League is also overdue for a conference – it has become obvious that Oros does, in fact, have a sell-by date.
Under normal circumstances, this would be a busy few months for the ANC. It would mean a level of contestation that could quickly become uncomfortable. But these coming elections could be more than just uncomfortable. While President Cyril Ramaphosa is consolidating his power in the ANC, and appears safe from recall or some other move against him within the national executive committee (NEC), at some point he is going to need the support of the provinces. If only to get elected to a second term in 2022, he will need the provincial leaders to be on his side. But even before then, such is the way that power is projected, and such is the seriousness of the problems he is forced to tackle, that Ramaphosa will often need their public backing.
Where this year’s conferences may be different to what has happened in the past is that probably never before has the ANC come out of a conference with power so finely divided, making every single provincial or league conference matter.
Consider the position of ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule. He will obviously want to remain in his position, and will need all the help that he can get to achieve that. This means he must ensure that his Free State base is controlled by people who will support him. So important will this be to him that he might be forced to use measures he would not normally use.
The same goes for people like Mabuza. While much is made of his supposed power as a “kingmaker”, he is unlikely to be feeling total confidence. He is not enthusiastically welcomed by the Ramaphosa-supporting provinces, who had to merely tolerate him to get their man into power. And he must surely have raised the ire of the provinces that supported now Presidency Minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma at Nasrec, because for all intents and purposes he has betrayed them. Mabuza will want Mpumalanga to be solidly and unquestionably behind him as well.
Then there are the local dynamics that make this coming battleground even more complicated. KZN has experienced incredible difficulties going back at least three years and which have much to do with the factional tensions in that province. Add those local issues to the pressure being exerted by national political forces and you have the potential for an explosive mess.
In some ways, it could almost look as if the two camps who fought it out at Nasrec will simply continue their fight through all of these conferences. In other words, 2018 could simply be a drawn-out, localised Nasrec 2.0. Which, of course, is a golden opportunity for the Zuma faction to attempt regrouping. If they could get control of a few important provinces, they would be able to use that power to try to stop any ANC reforms that could dry out their patronage streams. Even if they cannot win outright control of the ANC (and it is unlikely that they could), they would be able to frustrate any proper clean-up.
That said, it is important to remember that Ramaphosa and his team do have serious advantages. The first is obvious – access to state power, which always makes a difference. Second, the Zuma faction is in genuine danger of looking like losers without hope for the future. Perceptions obviously matter in these types of battles, and being close to, say, Magashule, might not be seen as the best long-term political strategy. From his side Ramaphosa will still have the network of coalitions and agreements that helped get him into power in the first place, only now with an added benefit of being able to use the power of the South African state. The real contest will be one of organisation. The grouping that is the best organised, and galvanised, will win in the end.
There are likely to be several yardsticks along the way. Momentum may turn out be a factor as well, and much may well depend on who wins the first conference, or who doesn’t lose by too much (no one seriously expects Ramaphosa’s group to win in KZN for example, so the margin of victory could be what’s important). The way the losing sides are treated could also be important, because that may determine how strongly that side fights in the following conference.
But perhaps the safest prediction to make is that the ANC is likely to remain in a state of flux for at least the next six months. It is only after all of these conferences are over that the actual power of Ramaphosa will be clearly understood. And it is only then that the party could turn its attention away from its own navel and start to campaign effectively for the 2018 elections. DM
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