South Africa


Party at the crossroads — just 24 hours before the ANC’s pivotal conference, questions abound

Party at the crossroads — just 24 hours before the ANC’s pivotal conference, questions abound
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma voted against President Cyril Ramaphosa during the debate on the Section 89 Independent Panel Report at Cape Town City Hall, 13 December 2022. (Photo: Shelley Christians)

The unprecedented public defiance of ANC instructions by four of its MPs, including, crucially, Cogta Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, may pose significant risks for the party. If it is unable to maintain discipline and, in this case, punish the offenders, it could lose what coherence it still has. Doing this could be difficult, however.

Cogta Minister Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma’s action in Parliament on Tuesday may have been designed to serve as a provocation for delegates at the Nasrec conference — some may want to punish her, and some may want to defend her. At the same time, it should be remembered that there are important boundaries around what delegates can do at the conference, simply because of the risk that it could collapse, leading to the end of the ANC.

Standing up and uttering the phrase, “As a disciplined member of the ANC, I vote yes” is unremarkable — until we add the context. This was the first person to ever openly defy the ANC’s authority, in Parliament, publicly, while representing the party. For South Africa’s post-1994 politics, it is breathtaking. It has simply never happened before.

Dlamini Zuma was followed in voting for the adoption of the Section 89 Phala Phala report by fellow ANC MPs Mervyn Dirks, Supra Mahumapelo and Mosebenzi Zwane.

Tandi Mahambehlala first said she was voting “yes”, against ANC instructions, then tried to change her vote to “no”, but it was recorded as a yes. 

Lindiwe Sisulu and Zweli Mkhize, the people who would be leaders of the ANC, were both bravely absent during the vote.

Immediately after the proceedings, ANC Chair Gwede Mantashe promised that there would be disciplinary action against those who had defied party instructions.

It is not clear what form this will take. It is also not clear how, or when, this will happen. The current National Executive Committee’s (NEC’s) term expires on Thursday, 15 December. Conference delegates will be in control on Friday.

Dlamini Zuma’s contradictory statements

At the same time, Dlamini Zuma’s statements harbour many contradictions.

First, it was she, in 2017, who told ANC members that while the party was democratic, once a decision had been taken, they all had to defend that decision.

More recently, she stated that the ANC’s step-aside resolution was wrong because it meant people were being treated unfairly. And yet the moment the Phala Phala parliamentary panel made a finding against President Cyril Ramaphosa, she demanded that he resign.

It is also surely true that she would not have accepted an argument about a principle from any ANC MP who publicly voted against Jacob Zuma when he was president (those votes were by secret ballot).

In interviews after the latest vote, she said that the NEC meeting that took the decision to vote against the impeachment process ended without everyone being able to speak, and, thus, it was not a proper debate.

She also said it was not about removing the President, but rather continuing with a process that would allow him to clear his name.

 However, her critics will argue that this simply reveals her politics are not of principle. It may also reveal that those who believed she was not politically joined at the hip with former president Jacob Zuma were mistaken.

Many have argued that to say that she was a proxy for Zuma was simply being patriarchal, because of their previous marriage. But that misses the fact that two people can still operate as one political unit with the same agenda.

Ace Magashule and Zwane surely work together and probably have similar views on any given political topic. So it now appears to be with Zuma and Dlamini Zuma.

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Serious questions for Zwane and Mahumapelo

Zwane, too, has serious questions to answer about his vote. If this week’s vote was about principle, where was that backbone when he helped the Gupta family take control of the Optimum coal mine? And why did he fly to meet Glencore boss Ivan Glasenberg in Switzerland on their behalf in the first place?

There are massive questions for Mahumapelo, too. He has shown inconsistency in the past, telling ANC members never to take their party to court, and then he did exactly the same thing himself.

This public defiance by four MPs in the National Assembly is the first time this has happened in Parliament.

But one of the features of the ANC from at least 2013 has been ANC councillors defying ANC leaders in council votes. What started in Tlokwe spread to other municipalities, including Ditsobotla in North West. That resulted in the town with “two mayors”, and the by-election held there on Tuesday.

While that has been difficult to deal with, it may not threaten the party existentially. However, MPs voting in Parliament about the future of the President surely does.

What would have happened to the ANC if enough of its MPs had voted to remove Ramaphosa on Tuesday?

It is for this reason alone that the party may well have to act here and be seen to act to prevent similar events from happening in the future.

The importance of self-interest

With the ANC’s conference less than 24 hours away, this self-interest in keeping the party together could become more important over the next few days.

While there has been much speculation about possible “surprises” and “shocks” at the conference this weekend, this self-interest may put some boundaries around this.

Generally speaking, in normal times, any political shocks can be managed through structures. Leaders can call meetings of the NEC or the National Working Committee or the Top Six officials to make decisions. These meetings can be fairly tightly controlled.

Thus, these structures may sometimes act as shock absorbers, meetings can be delayed and postponed, and smaller groups of people being involved may allow cooler heads to prevail.

This also allows those with authority, often the chairperson or secretary-general, to control events. Arguably, this happened when the current chair, Gwede Mantashe, closed an NEC meeting last week, during discussions about the Phala Phala scandal.

These are not normal times

However, an electoral conference is very different, and these are not normal times.

The conference will involve about 4,000 delegates in one room at the same time. This is much harder to control, and there are no shock absorbers, as the then chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota found out in Polokwane in 2007. If there is, say, a surprise nomination of Paul Mashatile for the position of leader from the floor, it is not clear how delegates will react.

Of course, it is true that people have been nominated from the floor many times. But the ANC has probably never been as fragile as it is now, and tensions may be higher than ever before.

At the same time, if the conference collapses, all factions lose. This may place some limits on the shocks delegates can produce. Unless, of course, they involve deals with many constituencies and have broad agreement.

For reasons of simple self-interest, the conference could produce a result which is generally accepted and it may well include some kind of unity leadership.

But that will still leave difficult issues on which to reach an agreement —  starting with how to discipline people who defy the party’s instructions in Parliament and ending with deciding on which direction South Africa should take. DM


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Jeremy Stephenson says:

    The Constitutional framework — including Members of Parliament’s (MPs) oaths of office — does not permit ANC MPs to vote according to the party’s wishes if they believe that to do so would be against the interests of the people of South Africa.

    It mystifies me that Gwede Mantashe continues to get away with openly threatening MPs with punishment for voting with their conscience.

    This determination to preserve party unity at all costs is at the heart of the parliamentary dysfunction that allowed state capture to take root, and Gwede Mantashe will hold this line to his dying breath.

    • Alan Paterson says:

      Unfortunately the ANC as a collective and throughout its membership does not actually possess a conscience. I think it may have had one briefly in the early Mandela era but very rapid evolution took care of it. It is just a hindrance during trough feeding.

  • Cunningham Ngcukana says:

    Indeed it would be dangerous for the country and in particular the institution of parliament if the ruling party caucus would be divided. However, it was the same journalists who were advocating for the ANC caucus to join opposition in the vote of no confidence in 2017. I have to see Stephen Grootes write up about each of the 37 rebels including Derek Hanekom, Mondli Gungubele and Pravin Gordhan. As a Ramaphosa journalist, he feeds us about those who voted for the adoption a report instituted by parliament. He fails to point out the Nkandla judgement on voting with one’s conscience and the threats that Mantashe was making against the MPs are a criminal offence by him and unconstitutional. The ANC will be challenge in court if it seeks to take on the five MPs and lose. These are not starving councillors they bully around. These have money to take them to court and win. Otherwise the oath they take in parliament is meaningless. Yes it does not detract from the fact that the ANC needs the unity of its caucus all the time not when it is Ramaphosa on the frying pan. It is how this is managed by the ANC through its relevant parliamentary processes not the lavatory mouth of Gwede Mantashe and legally illiterate Lamola.

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