The ANC is negotiating its standing in electoral stakes internally and externally, simultaneously. Internally it is working to engender a unity project that will help it to enter a period of tough public governance – it will have to forge new policy positions in a state that is battling to maintain its reputation for constitutionalism. To crown this difficult task, the unity project has an overlay of Zumaist participants who are laden with suspicions, allegations and under-oath statements about corruption and capture.
Externally the ANC has to persuade voters that it is a united party-movement, that it is “the ANC” and not a tenuous alliance of two ANC factions, in which recognition of ANC electoral outcomes (marginal as they are) is fair game. It will have to persuade voters that it still carries the ethos of a liberation party, while it is capable of governing ethically.
To shape this “unity” project the ANC is harnessing the public narrative of the salience of unity in its midst, in the most challenging of circumstances. It is the era of intense and ongoing factional warfare (as testified to by plots and subversive, or at best ambiguous, statements from the Zuma faction). Gone are previous times when the ANC had a safe edge of electoral majority and could afford split-offs like the Congress of the People and the Economic Freedom Fighters. Another split, of either of those magnitudes, is virtually guaranteed to push the ANC below the level of an outright electoral majority.
Thus, for the ANC at this time it is unity or bust. But it cannot be an unconditional unity.
The last two weeks brought the determined unity thrust to the fore, in powerful ways. The trigger was the revelation of the Zumaist “Maharani plot” against Cyril Ramaphosa (said to entail legal measures to undo the Nasrec ANC election outcomes). Ramaphosa waited for the Cosatu 13th national congress platform to respond:
“Our people want to see a united ANC; we have to focus on renewal and unity. Even those comrades who did not love one another, it is time to unite now…We cannot go to those  elections with a divided leadership… Any attempt to divide the ANC will be counter-revolutionary. Let us move forward as a united army. Those who want to divide the ANC must be exposed.”
This was reprimand No. 1 to Ace Magashule, seated in the front row.
At the memorial lecture for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela Ramaphosa, on Sunday night and fresh out of the ANC’s 3rd regular NEC meeting of 2018, issued reprimand No. 2:
“(Madikizela-Mandela) understood that unity was vital and necessary if the ANC was to remain at the forefront of the liberation struggle.”
He stressed that unity is central to the just-completed NEC deliberations. “I can assure you the majority of the discussion (was) about unity.”
“The discussion that has raged the whole day has been about how we can forge unity and how we can make sure that whatever may be areas of difference can disappear so that we unite the ANC. I can assure you, we are finding each other.”
The unity baton was handed to ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, when he led the ANC’s post-NEC media briefing on Monday. It was tough going, also because the corruption angle became superimposed on these discussions. The ANC crisis of unity was epitomised by the fact that Magashule (aka agent Maharani) led the discussion, as is usual, along with ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe (who oversees “the junior official” who issued a statement second-guessing the SA Reserve Bank). In attendance too was Zizi Kodwa, head of the ANC presidency, probably to see that the Ace-Pule nexus complied with the unity line.
Magashule’s statements had a repeat on the ANC being “focussed on unity”. A duck-and-dive act followed. Magashule side-stepped the question on what actions specifically were implemented to get unity:
“This is the time to plot against poverty, this is the time to plot against unemployment, this is the time to plot against inequalities.”
“We’re working together and united. We’re not focused on rumours. There are no international drivers who are going to detract us from our focus.”
The refrain was, in exactly these vague terms:
“We have always focussed on unity.”
When push came to shove, Magashule even uttered the words:
“Cyril Ramaphosa is the president of the ANC and it is a pleasure to serve under him.”
The statements that emerge from the NEC and media briefing are often ambiguous, but also significant in what they do not suggest. It is clear that the Zuma plot brigade did not win at the NEC forum – even if the reconciliation overtures are tentative. The NEC is seized clearly with this inescapable need for compromise against the Zumaists. In itself, this may be achievable.
The relentless stream of light, however, shone on the recent past through the Zondo and Nugent Commissions, means that the ANC’s options are more fraught than “simple unity”. Ramaphosa reportedly told the NEC that divisions might deepen as the contingent of implicated, senior ANC leaders grows. This is on the minds of many of the implicated ones, including the ANC’s secretary-general. Magashule, at the media briefing, affirmed that he would testify at the Zondo forum if required to (without breathing a hint of wanting to go to help place on record the truth about capture.)
The ANC’s need to win Election 2019 could therefore be the glue that holds the ANC together, and overrides factional animosity. Yet, the process of unfolding election messages and composition of ANC candidate lists for 2019, adds a dense layer of complications. The immediate and unfolding wind tunnel to test the commitment to forging a united ANC – but also an ANC that will be clean of the ravages of corruption and capture – will be in the candidate lists. Could there be, on this front, a budding anti-Ramaphosa project of capture of the post-election 2019 ANC?
How heavily will this weigh on the minds of voters come April 2019? The question is a reminder that unity in itself, essential as it is to sustain the ANC, can also be a self-defeating ANC project. DM