South Africa


2022: Let the most consequential games of the ANC’s lifetime begin

2022: Let the most consequential games of the ANC’s lifetime begin
Ilustrative image | President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | Gallo Images / Daily Maverick / Felix Dlangamandla | Gallo Images / Luba Lesolle | EPA / Nic Bothma | Gallo Images / Fani Mahuntsi | Lehlomelo Toyane | A woman receives a food parcel in Fordsburg during lockdown Level 4 in 2020. (Photo: Gallo Images / Sharon Seretlo) | ANC flags. (Photo: Lehlomelo Toyane)

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. 

Lindiwe Sisulu’s extraordinary attack on South Africa’s Constitution

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


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Narrow self interest feeding poverty. Shame on them.

    • Thinker and Doer says:

      It is certainly going to be a very frustrating year with all of this circus leading up to December going on. Focus is diverted at least three out of five years, by either the build up to national or local elections, or the ANC leadership elections. No attention is paid to governance and critical issues facing the country during those periods. Hardly any actual governance happens. It is all focused on gaining and retaining power, and obtaining benefits, not about actual policies. Last year Parliament went on recess for three months, in addition to other ordinary recess periods, for local government election campaigning! Why is the National legislature allowed to stop working because of local elections? The country is facing so many crises, but they all take a back seat to all of the continual political wrangling. This circus is too exhausting and completely dysfunctional, and needs to be shut down.

  • Dennis Bailey says:

    One thing seems certain though, Stephen, the ANC will continue to rape and pillage the treasury. See what they were up to in Mphophomeni only yesterday – disaster management funding awaits filthy crooks making a last-ditch attempt at enriching themselves in the only DA run municipality in KZN. They have nothing to lose anymore so why wouldn’t they?

  • Geoff Krige says:

    It would be so pleasant to imagine an ANC national conference that has heated debate around the best policies to life the economy to provide jobs, how to ensure good health care and provision of water into the furthest rural communities, strategies to build a world-class education system. But alas, Stephen is of course right. We will see more of the sorry bickering and fighting around the feeding trough that the ANC has made of the South African economy, nothing more.

  • Glyn Morgan says:

    During this time (hopefully) of the demise of the anc, will the media pay any attention to the opposition options that have the potential to pull South Africa onto a normal national course?

    I will vote for the DA.

    Hands up who will vote for the Good Party!

    Any realistic centre-line suggestions DM?

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