South Africa

ANALYSIS

ANC Eastern Cape may soon dominate the party again — here’s why

ANC Eastern Cape may soon dominate the party again — here’s why
Delegates gathered during the nomination session of the top six candidates at the 54th National Conference on December 17, 2017 in Johannesburg, South Africa. (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Felix Dlangamandla)

As the ANC goes through a series of provincial and league conferences that will elect the party’s leaders and representatives, a dynamic may be emerging that could dramatically change the geographical power balance within the party.

It is probably the case that there are three major factors that determine the political power of an ANC province or region. The first is branch numbers, and how many votes that entity will have at the national conference. The second is whether it is divided or speaks with one voice. And the third, which may be the factor that soon will matter the most, is whether it is still controlling the government in that province.

There are some signs now that KwaZulu-Natal, so dominant for so long, is going to become dramatically weaker. And in other provinces, because the party may soon lose power there, the power equation may be about to change.

It looks entirely possible that over the next few years the Eastern Cape will again become the most important province within the ANC structures. That could elevate the leadership election, due to be held there in the next few days between Premier Oscar Mabuyane and Babalo Madikizela, into one of huge impact on the party over the longer term. The stakes in this election could indeed be much higher than they currently appear

That said, the recent elections in the ANC’s eThekwini region and Mpumalanga province serve as a reminder of how important regional and provincial dynamics are within the party. They also indicate how the political importance of provinces and regions can change over time. 

eThekwini, which used to almost predict the future of our politics, can no longer claim to have that power. Mpumalanga, which suddenly had the second-highest number of branches before Nasrec, is no longer under the control of one person, David Mabuza.

It is likely that this process will in fact speed up and that certain provinces may lose political power in the party altogether as they lose power in the provincial legislatures — see the example of the Western Cape ANC.

To trace this process, it may be helpful to start in the eThekwini region and the recent election of Zandile Gumede as the ANC’s leader there. Just 10 years ago the region had the power to dictate who the deputy president of the ANC would be (Cyril Ramaphosa, it turned out).

Much has changed since.

Part of the foundation of eThekwini’s power, that it was the biggest region in the province with the highest number of ANC branches, has dissipated. This is not so much because of the number of branches, but more because of internal divisions.

It was in 2015 that the region found itself unable to hold a conference  because of the intense divisions there.

The ANC’s eThekwini-type problem: Is the genie out of the bottle for good?

By 2017, the KZN ANC, while still having the highest number of branches in the party, did not win a single position in the top six of the party at the Nasrec conference.

This suggests that while provinces and regions can have high branch numbers, the internal divisions will lose them political power.

While much of the focus in the aftermath of Gumede’s victory has been simply on the fact that she won (despite the ANC’s “step-aside” resolution), it may be important to remember that this was a relatively close race. Thabani Nyawose lost after receiving 181 votes to Gumede’s 210.

This suggests it is likely that these divisions, as close as they appear to be, will be demonstrated again at the KZN ANC’s provincial conference, later this year.

If this does happen, it may indicate that the KZN ANC will go into the December national conference divided, and thus again will not be able to have an important influence on its outcome.

Before 2007, the Eastern Cape ANC was seen as a kingmaker, having the highest number of branches. Thabo Mbeki, a man originally from that province, was the president.

As KZN grew to have the highest number of branches, so did Jacob Zuma grow, becoming SA president in 2009. And when KZN lost some of its power because of its divisions, so did the candidate that Zuma backed to stand against Ramaphosa at Nasrec, the present Cogta minister, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

By this stage, some two weeks before the national conference, it was becoming clear what would happen. Provinces would have their meetings and declare which candidate they would support. Many of the provinces used to be so united that precise predictions could be made. Certainly, in 2012, it was obvious that Zuma would be re-elected.

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In 2017, it was more complicated because the provinces themselves were no longer united.

In fact, one of the key questions leading up to that conference was the size of a minority in KZN that would back Ramaphosa’s candidacy.

More recently, something much more complicated has happened.

When Ramaphosa won in 2017, it was really a combination of support from a variety of provinces. The unity within provinces that was so prevalent in 2012 was long forgotten.

Now, something important may be about to happen in a way that could disrupt this dynamic dramatically.

While it is not certain what will happen in the national elections in 2024, it seems highly possible that the ANC could lose power in several of the provincial elections.

The ANC will remain in power for many years after 2024 – here’s why

In Gauteng, for example, the ANC won only 36% of the votes cast in last year’s local elections. It seems unlikely that it could outright win that province in 2024. Of course, one must be careful with these comparisons — while provincial and national elections tend to overlap almost completely, there can be differences between local elections and provincial elections.

In the Free State, the ANC won just 50.61% of the votes cast, in KZN 44.44%, and in the Northern Cape 50.55%.

While it was both a local and a pandemic election, these results still suggest the ANC may no longer be in outright control in at least some of those provinces in just two years’ time.

This has happened only once before, when the ANC lost the Western Cape in 2009. Since then, the influence of the Western Cape ANC has waned dramatically, to the point where it appears to have virtually no influence at all on the national party.

This suggests that should the ANC in provinces like Gauteng or Free State lose power, they could also lose influence in the national leadership.

That dynamic, along with the divisions in KZN, may well lead to a situation where the Eastern Cape once again becomes the most important province for the party, or the province with the most influence. It would have a large number of branches, be in power in the provincial government and possibly be relatively unified.

Of course, it could still be divided and this issue may turn out to be the biggest variable of its possible power.

Should all of this happen, it may hasten a process where the ANC becomes more powerful in the rural areas than in the urban areas. It would be out of power in the provinces with the big urban centres. This would obviously change which provinces have political influence in the party and thus change its character importantly. At the same time, there is a large migration of voters from the rural areas to the cities, which could also lead to important political effects.

Of course, nothing is written in stone. But it may be that those who contest for power in the Eastern Cape once more find themselves to be the kingmakers. DM

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