POLICY CONFERENCE ANALYSIS
ANC’s step-aside rule – the central 2022 proxy battle for ultimate power
It’s about politics, positioning and power. And the step-aside rule is set to take centre stage as the policy proxy battle when the governing ANC meets for its policy conference, which begins on Friday.
The newly elected KwaZulu-Natal leadership didn’t mince its words at the weekend — the step-aside rule must go. Finish and klaar. Limpopo, at its provincial general council on Monday, seemed softer, with recently re-elected ANC chairperson and Premier Stan Mathabatha talking review and refine, rather than scrap.
While Limpopo is regarded as being in President Cyril Ramaphosa’s fold, KwaZulu-Natal isn’t. Heavily contested since its adoption at the December 2017 Nasrec conference, the rule that those facing criminal charges are required to step aside falls slap bang into those dynamics.
It’s a broad-sweep picture that goes beyond those two ANC provinces to other structures — and one that can still produce surprises as proxy battles are never straightforward.
It’s all there — from Taliban to Focus and the odd play on a name even in a parliamentary debate just before the Eastern Cape ANC elective conference, when a shout of “Buya Mabuyane” greeted Eastern Cape ANC chairperson Oscar Mabuyane, whose name roughly translates as “he who returns”.
In 2017, the proxy fight was over expropriation without compensation which that year’s policy conference kicked into touch by referring both proposals, against and for, to branches for further discussion. At the December 2017 Nasrec elective conference, the win by the so-called Radical Economic Transformation (RET) grouping came at the last minute and involved some scuffles on the floor and a crucial qualification on not endangering food security and economic activity in various sectors.
Some four years later, unprecedented countrywide public hearings and substantial parliamentary processes came to nought as the ANC failed to rally numbers for a constitutional amendment to pass the two-thirds threshold in the House in early December 2021.
The Expropriation Bill, which provides for “nil compensation” for certain categories of land, such as land that is held for speculation or is abandoned, remains in the legislative pipeline.
But the governing ANC is the master of proxy battles by policy. And in 2022 the step-aside rule goes to the heart of positioning, power and politics of a governing party that has seen its electoral support slide in the past four national and municipal elections.
The two-thirds majority the ANC held in Parliament during the Thabo Mbeki presidency has diminished from 279 of the 400 seats in 2004 down to 230 after the 2019 elections. The 2016 municipal elections also cost the ANC control of South Africa’s economic heartland, Johannesburg, the administrative capital, Tshwane, and the Eastern Cape’s industrial hub, Nelson Mandela Bay. In the 2021 municipal elections, the ANC slid to 42% support in eThekwini, needing a coalition for control.
Positioning for power and politics to hit the combination for popular appeal — short-term gains may well trump all — is top of mind. The 2024 national and provincial elections loom large already: ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile urged the KwaZulu-Natal conference at the weekend to go out campaigning to win the 2024 elections.
“We are faced with the very real possibility of losing the moral high ground and our position as the trusted leader of society,” said Mashatile.
At another level, the proxy battle by policy, the step-aside rule, is more granular and more personal.
For ex-health minister and ex-ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize, scrapping the step-aside rule is a must to pursue his presidential ambitions come the ANC’s national elective conference in December as the Digital Vibes Covid-19 communications tender scandal remains over his head.
For suspended ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule, in court for corruption and other charges related to his time as Free State premier, dropping the step-aside rule could clear his path back to Luthuli House.
For eThekwini ANC boss Zandile Gumede, elected in April 2022 despite being on trial for corruption, or for Mpumalanga treasurer Mandla Msibi who got the votes in June 2022, getting rid of the step-aside rule would mean a clear path to remaining in office and moving up the ANC echelons.
There are other examples, like the ex-Vhembe mayor Florence Radzilani, who after stepping aside over her role in the VBS Bank saga is back where she was in 2019 — the Limpopo deputy ANC chairperson. A year after stepping aside, Radzilani and Danny Msiza, a former treasurer, were welcomed back into the ANC provincial executive as they had not been criminally charged.
With the RET grouping not producing a clear leader at this stage, the fracturing of ANC factional positioning is complicated. The important, often fudged, reality is that the Ramaphosa camp isn’t defined, or set. Depending on the issue and the comment, for example, even long-standing presidential allies like ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe are seen as in — or out.
The impact of the Phala Phala farm forex saga has yet to play out fully. But sometimes a core of Ramaphosa allies, including Minister in the Presidency Mondli Gungubele and his deputy, Zizi Kodwa, together with Finance Minister Enoch Godongwana, pull the rug from under other presidential advisers. On Sunday that meant Ramaphosa was told to have a stiff upper lip and address the KwaZulu-Natal conference, never mind the boos. And so he did, although the fact that the Presidency of the Union Buildings, rather than Luthuli House, tweeted his address to the KwaZulu-Natal comrades is a dangerous blurring of party and state.
Prior careful choreography to pull off the political showcase of no-contest unity in 2022 meant ANC province after ANC province, from Northern Cape, Mpumalanga and Eastern Cape, to Limpopo, coming out with leadership regarded as pro-Ramaphosa. That’s even if the Eastern Cape had a bit of a quibble, resisting national interventions to make the contest between two broadly pro-Ramaphosa personalities for chairperson go away.
Many of those provincial leaders are on public record as quickly pronouncing themselves in favour of a second ANC presidential term for Ramaphosa.
The KwaZulu-Natal provincial conference, like the earlier eThekwini conference, bucked this trend, never mind Ramaphosa allies’ work in that province.
And scrapping the step-aside rule was put on the agenda of the upcoming policy conference, where all those dynamics are set to play out. By proxy. Because the ANC in its seemingly endless factional ruptures has learnt the art of kicking into touch and fudgy-talk.
It’s been almost five years since the step-aside rule was adopted — and it’s been contested almost from the word go. Amid claims it’s being used to eliminate political opponents, guidelines were drafted to clarify the rule requirements. A special ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting in April 2022 remained seized with this in the wake of ANC members facing criminal charges being nominated, and elected, for party office.
“[The rule] will be subject to ongoing improvement and refinement, guided by practice, policy and the provisions of the ANC constitution. Accordingly, the NEC mandated the national officials to investigate and make proposals regarding any further amendments required for the effective implementation of the resolution,” said the ANC on 26 April.
With such kicking into touch, the step-aside rule has become the perfect proxy battle by policy. But regardless of the rhetoric and the talk, it’s really about power and positioning — and a last-ditch push to keep control, come the 2024 elections. DM