Daily Maverick

ANC’s state of perpetual contestation

ANC secretary general Ace Magashule speaks to journalists outside the ANC’s national executive committee meeting in Cape Town, 23 March 2018. Photo by Leila Dougan

On Wednesday, 20 June 2018 the National Working Committee of the ANC was due to meet to try to solve a problem that its National Executive Committee had been unable to. It was the tricky task of deciding who will be the next premier of North West. But at the same time, it is not only this particular province which is causing problems for the party. The problem is increasingly becoming an organisation-wide source of great political pain.

As has been widely discussed in this publication, and others, over the last few months, it appears that several of the ANC’s provinces are set in a perpetual state of rolling crises, an issue that is now becoming urgent.

The NEC, which is supposed to be able to arbitrate through all of these provincial disputes is relaying the impression that it is unable to deliver lasting solutions. That may also be simply because there are no permanent solutions anyway, only temporary fixes.

The ANC may, as a result, need to prepare to go into the 2019 elections in almost the exact same state that it is in now.

The clock is ticking for the ANC’s NWC. Under the Constitution, “An acting premier must dissolve the provincial legislature if (a) there is a vacancy in the office of premier; and (b) the legislature fails to elect a new premier within 30 days after the vacancy occurred.”

It is now nearly 30 days since Supra Mahumapelo announced his “early retirement” from the position of premier. The last day that the provincial legislature in North West has to elect a new leader is in fact on June 22. This should create a proper sense of crisis within the ANC.

However, what is particularly odd about this situation, is that that sense of crisis must have been part and parcel of the discussions at the NEC meeting on June 18. It surely should have been made clear to its members that time is running out. The consequences of an early election in North West are possibly too ghastly to contemplate, for the ANC, and possibly even the country.

It is important to examine this properly. There is simply no confirmation that the ANC would actually retain the province. In some ways, this could even, in a bad-case scenario, lead to calls for an early general election.

While the ANC’s critics might enjoy that, in the medium-term it could lead to much more political unpredictability, with the result that the policy changes needed for the improvement of our economy could be delayed further. And, depending on the result, it might mean they never happen at all.

All of that said, the sense of crisis might well work to the advantage of President Cyril Ramaphosa. He appears to be slightly stronger in the NWC than he is in the NEC, which may mean he would get things to go his way. In a crisis such as this, those who are in the strongest official positions are often better able to enforce their will.

And that might mean that he gets what he always wanted, his own person as premier in North West. Although that would still leave open the possibly much bigger question of whether the North West provincial executive committee should be disbanded or not. Either way, North West is still a major test for Ramaphosa, both of his political strength, and of his ability to navigate through the never-ending series of crises.

Those crises are likely to present themselves very soon. In the Free State the NEC “accepted and endorsed” the outcome of the recent election there. But in its official statement (an press conference that was expected on the meeting was, curiously, never held) the NEC also urged the “newly elected PEC and NEC deployees to make sure of available legitimate instruments to facilitate unity”.

In other words, they’re clearly worried about the possibility of court action. Should a group of members go to court to overturn the provincial election (which was clearly in the favour of secretary-general and former Free State premier Ace Magashule) it would be the second time a Free State provincial conference has been overturned in court. At best, the Free State ANC can limp on, but with questions about its legitimacy continuing to hang over it.

On June 20 it emerged that some ANC members in Limpopo were planning to go to court to stop the provincial conference, planned for the weekend of June 22-23, from going ahead. On June 18 the ANC had announced that Gauteng’s regional conferences ahead of its planned conference had been put on pause, to sort out some issues regarding members.

These are supposed to be two of the ANC’s least-problematic provinces.

But all of those particular problems pale into insignificance given the complexity and difficulties of the situation in KwaZulu-Natal. There the NEC said that it believes the National Dispute Resolution Committee must work with the current provincial task team (which is led by the former provincial chairman and contestant in the last cancelled conference, MEC Sihle Zikalala) to speak to the members who went to court to stop the event.

It went on to say that “In this regard, it would be possible to render the legal contestation redundant”.

The NEC was probably wise here to avoid using the word “hope”, if only because, politically, in KZN at the moment, there should be signs up on the N3 warning all who enter it politically to abandon hope.

It is in this province that Jacob Zuma is at his most powerful, and thus his most dangerous, for Ramaphosa. At the same time, it appears the tactic is to first sow discord, and damage the party. Then, when people are called out on this, or should Ramaphosa try to act against the troublemakers, he will be accused of being responsible for the discord, and for being “triumphalist” in that he is moving against people who lost at Nasrec.

It’s an old political ploy in the ANC. The question this time is what options are there for Ramaphosa to contain the damage that they might be causing.

The NEC appears to have shown that it is unable to make one important decision in the person who will be the premier of North West. If it cannot make that decision, how would it be able to make a proper input into who will sit in Cabinet next year’s election?

At the same time, the ANC spent all of 2017 in a state of internal contestation. It was able to survive that, but only just. And this was because the majority of South Africans appeared to welcome the final outcome. But the time may have come to ask, that if was just able to survive 2017, will it be able to survive a second consecutive year of such contestation? DM

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