2022: Let the most consequential games of the ANC’s lifetime begin
The dominant political issue of 2022 will be whether the ANC re-elects Cyril Ramaphosa for another term as party leader and the party’s face for the 2024 elections. It appears that two predictions can be made with a degree of certainty: more chaos in the party and the centre continuing to lose control.
It is very likely that this year’s ANC internal election will be much more open within the party, with candidates openly campaigning and members talking publicly about whom they support. The ANC’s claim that succession discussions should not be out in the open is likely to vanish.
What is certain to accompany this year’s machinations is a series of conspiracy theories, due to a lack of trust between factions and in the party’s 5,000-strong voting apparatus, which is growing increasingly cynical but is likely to remain extremely materialistic in its decision-making approach.
The start of this year’s ANC leadership contest began earlier than usual, with the Limpopo ANC chair, the province’s premier, Stanley Mathabatha, using the ANC’s January 8th event to say publicly his province would support Ramaphosa for a second term. The SABC reported that four Limpopo regions then publicly declared they would follow his lead.
A few days later at least one branch leader in Musina told SAfm he believed Mathabatha was out of order.
This is a simple indication of how the rest of the year may look, with leaders of regions and provinces making public pronouncements, only for them to be contradicted by those within their structures who have other ideas. This will be a continuation of a process that has been under way for the last few years, a process of decline in party discipline.
Ten years ago, in 2012, during the run-up to the ANC’s Mangaung conference, the party appeared to be able to maintain discipline and members did not speak out of turn.
There were several reasons for this. One was the simple fact that Jacob Zuma was coming towards the height of his power as president and there was nothing to gain from speaking out without strong support.
But another reason was that party members were afraid of consequences – the ANC was able to maintain a disciplinary system, one which had been able to expel Julius Malema as leader of the ANC Youth League just months before.
The situation now is very different – so deep are the divisions within the ANC that it appears almost impossible to maintain discipline.
This partly explains the actions of Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and her publication of the IOL piece insulting judges. She has done this with no apparent fear of disciplinary action being taken against her.
This would have been unthinkable during the Mbeki era of the ANC.
One of the likeliest reasons is that the political authority of the central administration of the party has virtually disappeared. There is, currently, no official secretary-general, as the person elected to the position at Nasrec, Ace Magashule, is on suspension. The deputy secretary-general, Jessie Duarte, is herself on sick leave, and it is not clear when she will return.
For the moment, it appears that the treasurer, Paul Mashatile, is acting in the position.
In 2017, the then secretary-general, Gwede Mantashe, played a key role in keeping the party together. It was partly because of the electoral architecture he created that the ANC was able to hold its election despite the toxic political atmosphere and the polar opposites fighting for supremacy.
Today it is not just that the secretary-general’s office is weak – it appears there is no elected official in charge at all.
The importance of this may well be demonstrated when branches start to hold their meetings. There is supposed to be a full audit process to ensure that only branches in good standing send delegates, and there is an immense amount of careful work that has to be done. And yet, in such a charged atmosphere, there is a great likelihood of hundreds of disputes.
These disputes will have the potential to disrupt the party’s electoral conference and could have an impact on its outcome.
It is a strange feature of ANC contests that while the meetings ANC branches hold before conferences can be immensely important, many members do not attend them. It is possible that this disinterest will grow, leading to more apathy than in the past. This would be another indication that the ANC’s branch network on the ground is growing weaker and that the minority members are the ones most active in their communities.
There may, however, be one important positive for the party in this contest.
One of the biggest criticisms of the ANC in the past has been the secretive nature of its leadership contests; members would not speak out in public and it was very difficult to assess what was happening on the ground.
The Nasrec conference saw the beginning of the end of this culture of secrecy, a culture which is likely to have disappeared completely by the end of the year. It is very likely that we will see a properly open contest.
Already, Justice Minister Ronald Lamola has said he would like to see a contest held out in the open. In the same interview, he said he would be available for the position of deputy leader of the ANC, if branches nominated him.
For such a young person to make this claim, in public, would have been shocking 10 years ago. These days it hardly raises eyebrows.
While this move towards greater openness is to be welcomed, it is also likely that there will be a massive increase in political cynicism and in conspiracy theories.
Every statement, every decision by every ANC leader will be viewed through the prism of the leadership contest. But so deep are the levels of cynicism now that even quite innocent actions will be given a more suspicious motive.
However, there are limitations to this.
During the Zuma presidency such theories were often given almost official sanction. It was Zuma’s government that claimed the then Public Protector, Thuli Madonsela, may be a spy for the CIA, and it was a sitting president who claimed several times that he had been poisoned.
There may be room to hope that this does not happen this time around, but it is still not clear what role the spooks will play. It is a matter of public record that they played a role in the 2007 Polokwane conference and the 2012 Mangaung conference.
Oscar van Heerden has written in his book Two Minutes to Midnight – How the ANC Survived Nasrec about how at the Nasrec conference Ramaphosa himself, while claiming to be on a daily walk around the complex, opened the door to a suspicious structure and appeared surprised to find people with surveillance equipment inside.
If it is the case that the National Intelligence Agency is being cleaned up, there may be some room to hope that it plays less of a role in this contest. Certainly, Ramaphosa has given no public indication, either through his political history or through his conduct in office, of an inclination to use the intelligence services to his political ends.
There may also be one underlying tension that plays out in important ways throughout the year.
Up until this point ANC leadership battles have almost always been undertaken with the absolute certainty that the person who won would control the Presidency. That is not necessarily the case this time around, especially after the ANC fell to less than 46% of the national vote in the local elections last year.
For the moment it appears that Ramaphosa’s status as the most popular leader in the ANC may well play an important role in the minds of voting delegates.
But, at the same time, those implicated in corruption, the RET faction, may now be growing more desperate. They fear prosecution. The Zondo Commission has already come out swinging and it is unlikely to pull punches in the coming months.
Having seen how Zuma was able to protect himself from prosecution while he was president, they have the strongest possible incentive to try to attain power themselves, turning the leadership election into a contest between the ANC’s 2024 electability and immediate desperation to avoid prosecution.
It is not certain which one of these dynamics will win. Desperation can lead to great ingenuity and immense hard work. Incumbency can come with advantages, as well as the disadvantage of being held responsible for everything that goes wrong.
This is shaping to be a year of surprises, unexpected and possibly contradictory statements and hastily built alliances. It is extremely unlikely to be boring. DM