PHALA PHALA ANALYSIS
In the toxic wake of Phala Phala, and too close to Nasrec, ANC will likely play for time and cooler temperatures
As the ANC’s national executive committee is due to meet to discuss the way forward for the party (and President Cyril Ramaphosa), there is now a long series of issues that decision-makers need to address. It has been said many times over the past few days that it is difficult to predict what will happen. Many politicians are themselves operating with few facts and decision-making is very difficult.
At the core of the problem may be the fact that the ANC main conference is due to start Friday week, which means that its delegates could overturn any decision made by the current NEC, whose mandate is about to expire in 11 days. And the delegates themselves, due to the explosive developments of the past few days, may no longer have clear mandates from their structures, making any kind of political organisation very difficult.
The findings of Parliament’s Phala Phala panel that President Cyril Ramaphosa may have committed serious violations of the law and the Constitution through his unexplained possession of US dollars have removed many of the knowns in our politics. In its place, there is a big collection of known unknowns, and possibly some unknown unknowns.
But bubbling dangerously underneath all of the variables is the closeness of the ANC’s 55th National Conference. Before the panel’s findings, ANC branches had met, and more than 2,000 of them had nominated Ramaphosa for the position of leader. Presumably, those branches then gave the delegate who would represent them a mandate to vote for Ramaphosa accordingly.
Given the difficulties many branches have had in trying to hold a branch general meeting in the first place, it is unlikely that most would be able to hold another meeting in the period between the panel’s findings’ announcement and the conference itself.
As branch delegates are given a mandate by their branch, but allowed to be lobbied at conference and vote in secret, this means that the real question facing the ANC, and South Africa, is what those delegates will do.
And while political leaders will be furiously organising and communicating with them, it may be difficult even for them to get a proper sense of where the balance of power is, making it even more difficult to make decisions.
The longer this goes on without a clear decision by Ramaphosa or the NEC and the closer the start of the gathering becomes, the better the chances of the NEC or Ramaphosa deciding to simply wait for the conference itself.
In other words, one possible scenario is that Ramaphosa’s allies simply say there is no point allowing Ramaphosa to resign now and allowing David Mabuza to become president only for there to be another leader elected at the conference, and then having to have a third president elected through Parliament.
The argument would go that it would be much simpler, and less dangerous, to allow Ramaphosa to fight it out at the conference, one way or another… and then to either stay on or resign, following that outcome. Certainly, it would mean one change of power rather than two.
But this is all based on a presumption that Ramaphosa’s allies believe he could still prevail at Nasrec, that delegates believe their branches still back him despite the panel findings.
That is a big assumption.
Ramaphosa’s opponents could vociferously argue that the longer he stays in power, the worse it will be for the ANC, and that he should not be allowed to use the power of incumbency to try to influence delegates.
They would also say that for Ramaphosa himself to be consistent with his own promises, he must resign. And that a resignation delayed is tantamount to trying to remain in office immorally.
All of this underscores another massive variable facing ANC decision-makers.
The general elections
Just 18 months after this year’s conference are general elections. While there was some evidence that Ramaphosa gained the ANC votes in 2019, so much has changed that it is uncertain this would happen again.
The fact is that any polling now will probably be premature; it can take a while for findings and scandals to work their way into the public mindset. And thus it may only be early next year before any public reaction to Phala Phala can be accurately polled.
Within all of this uncertainty may be the problem with the ANC’s options here.
It is of course true that other leaders could be elected at the conference to take over from Ramaphosa. But who?
Supporters of Zweli Mkhize claim that his resignation from Cabinet as health minister shows his commitment to the ANC and the country.
But he only resigned when it became clear he was about to be fired, and hours before a Cabinet reshuffle. And how can it be claimed that he has served the penance of losing a ministerial office for just a few hours while he is now campaigning for the top job?
In other words, on their version, he was so overcome with guilt at his own actions he resigned from a Cabinet position, but that same conscience is advising him to run for a higher office?
It would also mean the ANC has lost one person because he cannot explain where US dollars came from, and replaced them with another who oversaw government money going to his former personal assistant, and that money then going to his own family.
All of this, during a pandemic, and while minister of health — all in all, more than $11-million.
And this is not the end of it. Mkhize has also been implicated by Scorpio for receiving benefits from deals involving the Public Investment Corporation.
Of course, this leaves the third option, the current ANC Treasurer and acting secretary-general Paul Mashatile, who has the most to gain from this situation.
But this may be a hard sell for the ANC on the election trail too.
First, he does not have the national name recognition that both Mkhize and Ramaphosa have.
Second, those with memories in Gauteng will start to ask questions about the Alexandra Renewable Project, which was being investigated by the Human Rights Commission. It is well known that Mashatile is very close to Cogta MEC Lebogang Maile, who once famously refused to answer questions from the commission about what happened to the project.
And of course there was the infamous monorail project in 2007 where it appears Mashatile (and former Gauteng Transport MEC Ignatius Jacobs who has since died) were duped by a foreign investor. This may raise questions about Mashatile’s judgment.
If it is the case that decision-making is difficult for the ANC at the moment because of all of these unknowns, it may take some time for the situation to become more certain.
It may be that regional and provincial leaders can take the temperature of their members and delegates over the next few days to allow them to determine what to do next. And it may be the tone of these leaders that gives the first hints of what could happen next, and what is possible.
Also, as happens in politics, the balance of power will become clearer in the cold light of day. Some options, such as installing Mabuza as president, may suddenly appear potentially destabilising. Others, such as waiting for the conference, may appear less dangerous.
And still others, such as finding some kind of compromise candidate, or compromise slate, may slowly emerge as the least-bad option.
This means that it is possible that instead of a quick-fire series of announcements, it may actually be in the ANC’s best interests for this to burn more slowly, until the conference itself, and for delegates to decide.
This may work for the party, but it is also fraught with danger. Delegates may well decide overwhelmingly for one candidate.
But they could be divided and there could be a close race between two candidates. Or even three candidates. Which would mean that the winner would have a relatively limited mandate.
Or even if on the conference floor delegates are unable to vote for one reason or another, with a bigger potential for chaos.
All of these options are now possible, which is why it may be that those who have to make the choices in the ANC will decide the best option is to play for time. DM