Tuesday’s decision by the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal to remove the executive leaderships of its two biggest councils, eThekwini and Msunduzi, could well mark a turning point in the party. They are evidence that elements in the ANC are trying hard to start a renewal process. Still, the decision to remove Zandile Gumede as eThekwini mayor is bound to exact a heavy price as KZN is likely to see more political turmoil in the near future.
In the difficult terrain that is currently the ANC, the piece of territory that is KwaZulu-Natal is crucial. Within KZN, the ANC’s biggest region of eThekwini has played the role of king-maker in the past (it was the region that first nominated Cyril Ramaphosa to be the deputy leader of the ANC in the run-up to Mangaung in 2012). The decision to remove someone who has strongly supported former president Jacob Zuma is significant.
However, such is the politics of the situation that it has been couched very carefully. Particular care has been taken to ensure this does not appear to be about Gumede. The official statement of the KZN Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) takes great pains to make the point that this was about the performance of those municipalities. It says there have been problems with the management of revenue, that the use of certain aspects of the law for procurement is “inconsistent with the current legal regime” (in other words, illegal) and that wrong decisions have been taken by the municipalities with no consequence management.
Considering that Msunduzi has been in administration for some time, and that there have been serious issues with eThekwini, none of this will come as news to those municipalities’ residents.
Several important facts will emerge from this decision. The first is that Gumede herself will be very unhappy. She has given every indication that she will fight to keep her post. She has spoken to supporters on the streets, there have been protests involving eThekwini councillors supporting her, and she has made veiled threats about taking the KZN ANC to court if it removed her from her position. It is also clear she still has a sizeable support in the province.
Similarly, there must have been a huge tussle before this decision was made – reflecting divisions in the ANC’s KZN provincial leadership. Those divisions are likely to now have been further entrenched. Those who supported Gumede will redouble their efforts to ensure no other members of their faction are made vulnerable in this way.
All of this could become very important when the ANC’s eThekwini Region of holds its next conference, the gathering that should include an election which Gumede is likely to contest. If she is correct about the amount of support she has in that area and wins, the provincial leadership will be in a very difficult situation.
There is plenty of evidence that ANC structures in which the leader of the province or region has also been the premier or mayor have been more stable. Gumede’s supporters will demand she must be reinstated and will point to her political popularity in the region.
At the same time, the risks of that conference being disrupted are huge. In 2015, the region’s conference had to be abandoned twice and the results of the third attempt were nullified. It was only on the fifth attempt that the result accepted by the then-National Executive Committee of the ANC.
Gumede has used the politics of disruption before (through the protests on the streets of Durban), and it is entirely possible she could do it again. This would destabilise the ANC in the region for some time.
However, it is important to note that the KZN ANC itself believes this will not be the case and that those who are losing their jobs have accepted their fate.
This was also a crucial moment for the premier of the province, and the ANC’s provincial leader, Sihle Zikalala.
He appears to be managing a slow and complicated dance. He was known as a Zuma supporter before Nasrec. At the same time, he has been making strong comments about a lack of tolerance for corruption in his province. The key moment was probably his acceptance last year of a leadership deal in KZN that instituted a “zebra” leadership. This saw leaders from the Ramaphosa and the Zuma camps serving together. Zuma himself tried to stop this deal, and while he was able to force a postponement, he was not able to stop Zikalala from accepting the deal.
This moment might be an indication that some of those who were in the Zuma faction are changing sides. Of course, it could also be that Zikalala is bowing to the political pressure that having an allegedly corrupt mayor would bring.
If Gumede had not been removed this could have called into question Zikalala’s leadership, leaving him weakened.
An important point is that it is unlikely that the decision to remove Gumede (and the other municipal leaders) would have been taken if Zuma were still president, and leader of the ANC. Gumede has been an ardent supporter of Zuma, and the former president showed little interest in removing allies who were accused of corruption. This suggests the ANC may be about to change significantly.
Time and time again there have been instances where an ANC government official has been accused of wrongdoing. And time and time again there has been a long tussle over what to do. Gumede’s is a high-profile case, coming at a time when the ANC is politically weaker than it has ever been. The results of the May elections show how close the party could be to losing outright power if it is not seen to be acting against corruption.
The decision to remove these municipal leaders can be seen in two ways:
If it is seen as simply an action to rectify problems in the municipalities it becomes just a local issue. But if it is seen as a precedent for taking action against a senior leader charged with misconduct, it will have far-reaching consequences.
For if any ANC deployee in any position has to resign (or be removed) after being charged, the dynamic in the party would be altered. Several ANC MPs have been accused of wrongdoing. Should they be charged, they could lose their positions. This would change the balance of power in the ANC caucus and the party everywhere.
More importantly, some of these MPs are the chairs of parliamentary committees. If Faith Muthambi, Mosebenzi Zwane and Supra Mahumapelo were charged for their alleged roles during the State Capture era they would have to follow the lead of Gumede and resign. This would make life easier for Ramaphosa and his Cabinet.
There is an important comment in the KZN ANC’s PEC statement. It says it is “concerned about a sustained public assault on the name and reputation of the President which is intended, ultimately, to weaken the organisation as a whole”. It goes on to say: “This offensive against the President is a clear objective to divide and ultimately displace the African National Congress as the leader of our people.”
This suggests that the ANC in KZN, in public at least, is able to agree to throw its weight fully behind Ramaphosa in the saga about the donations to his ANC leadership campaign. It shows that the party in the province is fully behind the national ANC’s statement last week that made similar suggestions. Again, it is a dynamic where the party throws its cloak around its leader, in the same way it did around Zuma during Nkandla and other scandals. This would bolster support for Ramaphosa.
Certainly, it will be interesting to see if the ANC in the Free State ever issues such a statement of apparent support for Ramaphosa.
The province of KZN is likely to continue to be ground zero for the internal politics of the ANC for some time. For the moment, it appears that the ground could be shifting. But there are many movements to come. Some could well be seismic. DM