On Friday the ANC’s provincial conference in KwaZulu-Natal was stopped from going ahead by a court order. The move had been widely expected, because it was obvious that the province simply was not ready to proceed. At the same time, former president Jacob Zuma had uttered warnings in public that he should not be provoked, and was not “Jesus” and thus had more freedom of action to move against his opponents. This result reveals exactly how strongly the upper echelons of the ANC are still fighting for power, and that very little is certain, even if President Cyril Ramaphosa has the upper hand.
However, another real problem is looming for the party: the time is beginning to run out. KZN is going to be key in the 2019 elections, and what happened on Friday could be hugely damaging for the entire party in the longer run. There may now also be questions about how much damage Zuma is prepared to do to the ANC in order to protect himself, no matter how flimsily.
Zuma was always going to use the aftermath of his brief court appearance on Friday to warn his opponents. As happened so often during his court appearances in 2007 and 2008, the real story was not what happened in court, but what was said outside.
However, this time around he was surrounded, not by the great and the good of the ANC and the alliance, but by a group of people who can only be given the collective noun of a “scandal”. Carl Niehaus, the liar and fraud, Des van Rooyen, the Weekend Special, Faith Muthambi, she who had an SABC journalist fired for asking her tough questions, “that wonderful person called Hlaudi and North West Premier (in name only) and everyone’s favourite character witness, Supra Mahumapelo.
It is a measure of how little national support Zuma enjoys that the only real person of political substance who was with him in court was Sihle Zikalala, still a chair of the ANC task team which is supposed to run the party in the province and ensure there’s a successful conference.
Zikalala had been hoping to be formally re-elected chair of the KZN ANC over the weekend. But instead, a group of ANC members who appear to support Ramaphosa in the province went off to court and a judge agreed to stop it on procedural grounds.
This is surely (another) huge smack in the face for the secretary-general of the ANC, Ace Magashule. It is he who is supposed to take responsibility for the management of the party: he is the one who’s supposed to ensure that all of the right procedures have been followed when a conference like this one is held. If he signs off on it, and a judge then finds that things were not ready, he is the one who allowed it to happen.
It is probably correct to wait for the formal hearing on the matter before passing judgement here, but this could reveal that Magashule gave the go-ahead for political reasons. This could give him much more trouble in the longer run, and may lead to questions about his suitability for the role. At least, it will remind people of then Police Minister Fikile Mbalula’s famous tweet before Nasrec: “Ace Magashule is a definite no-no, the man will kill whatever is left remaining of our movement. He will kill it.”
At the same time, his predecessor, now ANC Chair Gwede Mantashe, was booed when he tried to speak at he conference. Instead of listening, delegates sang Wenzeni uZuma, or “tell us what has Zuma done”. But instead of backing down, Mantashe said that he would continue. This may well have been an attempt to assert the authority of the national ANC. It may well have been Mantashe saying that he had been sent by Luthuli House to address the conference, to represent that national office there, and that is what he would do, he would comply with the instructions he had received. In the process, perhaps, he was demonstrating how the other side, those interrupting him, were breaking ANC rules. This may well strengthen his position and weaken the disrupted when this matter comes before the NEC in the future.
The Sunday papers were full of reports that this all happened because a deal that could have secured unity in the province, that would have been acceptable to both sides, was scuppered on the orders of Zuma. They claimed that the person he really wanted to protect wasn’t so much Zikalala, but the person who was the provincial secretary, Super Zuma. If this is true, and it certainly looks like a reliable report, this could indicate that Zuma is, once again, perfectly happy to damage the ANC in the pursuit of his own interest.
It could also be argued that it is more than the ANC that is being damaged. There has been a spate of murders linked to political positions in KZN. While they have involved office-bearers in the IFP and the NFP, they are also surely linked to the problems in the ANC. While it is by no means certain that a unity deal would have stopped those killings, it would surely have helped to cool the political temperature. Zuma appears to be showing that he is prepared, in fact, to keep stoking those tensions rather than cool them.
At the same time, there are still persistent claims that Zuma and his allies will try to somehow damage the ANC in the 2019 elections. One reports suggests that a new party would be established that would then see the ANC losing support in the national picture, while voters would be told to support the ANC in the provincial election. Then, the party would go into a coalition with the ANC nationally, in an agreement brokered by Zuma, which would then give him some significant power.
There are strong reasons why this kind of plan has severe limitations. First, it is not at all clear that voters would agree to be used like that. Our previous elections have shown that there is an incredibly close correlation between who they vote for on the national ballot and on the provincial ballot. It is almost always the case that people vote for the same party in both elections. This is also because they are voting for both in the same process, in the same little private booth. There is also the problem of what such a party would stand for, in terms of how it would be different to the ANC. It would surely be a party only of patronage, where it would stand and fall on the popularity of its leaders. And despite the best claims of people like van Rooyen, Muthambi and Hlaudi (he who still only needs one name), there is very little evidence of any swelling of national support for them. Which means it would all rest on the name of Zuma, a man whose polling data, while he was president, had sunk to around 20%.
All of this means that what we are really seeing is the politics of bitterness. Zuma was always going to be angry at the way he was forced out of power by Ramaphosa. He is also a very different man to Thabo Mbeki, who at least took his punishment in relative silence (and resigned in a dignified manner). He is clearly prepared to continue in the role of being a “wrecking ball” in the ANC, perhaps because he really doesn’t have much other choice.
The real problem for the ANC itself is that in fact it needs to resolve all of its outstanding issues, and quickly. It is facing massive problems of unity in both KZN and North West. In North West, Mahumapelo is still technically the premier (albeit that he is on “long leave”). The only reason for this is that it has been proven to be impossible for the party to find someone who can take over, and is politically acceptable to all the sides in the ANC. A planned sitting of the provincial legislature for Friday to elect a new premier was cancelled as a result of this lack of basic agreement. This means that the party is going to have to go to elections when it is obvious that it is badly divided at North West level.
KZN is likely to prove to be a much bigger problem, though. It is a province whose voters have previously revealed they are willing to change their political choices. In 1994 it was won by the IFP, before the ANC was able to finally take the province only ten years later. It became dominant in 2009 largely thanks to the effective campaigning there by Zuma as ANC leader. But in the 2016 local government elections several municipalities swung back to the IFP, despite that party having done little to win voters back. At the time it was interpreted largely as a reaction to the rule of Zuma. Without foreseeable resolution to the ANC’s tensions, those same voters there appear to up for grabs in 2019.
This means that campaigning in 2019 is going to be a real headache. And so large is KZN in terms of population that while the ANC is likely to retain it in the provincial elections, it could have a significant impact on the national picture.
There are very few solid predictions that can be made about what will happen next in this tussle for power. But it is obvious that the longer this all goes on, the longer the political temperature is raised in KZN, the worse it could be for the ANC, and the country. DM
Jimi Hendrix was a private in the 101st Airborne in 1962.
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