Some readers may not reach the end of this somewhat complex analysis, so let me begin with my conclusion: Anyone living in the hope that a vote for the ANC will contribute to a strong reform mandate for President Cyril Ramaphosa is out of touch with reality (to put it gently).
If you want to know why, read on. Otherwise, just believe me.
The first point is obvious. We don’t vote for a president. Nor even for a constituency MP, where voters choose between specific candidates within a particular geographical area.
We have a list system. Voters must choose between the “collectives” that each party offers in the form of its election lists, at a provincial and national level.
The different methods parties use to select and rank these lists determine who will be elected to represent voters. And that, in turn, determines the “factional balance” within the party’s caucuses. This balance of forces, especially in a list system, sets boundaries for what any party leader (including a president) can achieve — and how far he can push the envelope before putting his own position at risk.
The fine balance between the two major factions in many of the ANC’s structures (including — and especially — the National Executive Committee) is often cited as the reason for President Ramaphosa’s reluctance to move more boldly to excise corruption, root out incapacity, and reverse growth-crushing policies.
It is also the stated reason for the decade-long silence of reformists inside the party, while Zuma used the fig-leaf of “black economic empowerment” to loot and destroy institutions. His opponents were, apparently, constrained by the “balance of forces”.
The pendulum may now have swung the other way, but only by the slightest of margins, due to a last-minute tactical shift at the 2017 Nasrec elective conference by former Mpumalanga premier David Mabuza. He is anything but a clean-governing reformist. His primary objective is to become South Africa’s president.
He was a strong Zuma man, until Nasrec, where he adjusted his game plan. Sensing voters might not respond positively to another Zuma in the presidency, he hitched his wagon to Ramaphosa’s star instead. His purpose was not to support reform and eradicate corruption. It was to ensure that the ANC continued winning elections, putting himself in pole position for the succession.
Shrewd man that he is, Mabuza also chairs the ANC’s deployment committee, responsible for “deploying” premiers and other key executive office-bearers after the election.
The chattering classes usually miss these crucial details (but to be fair it isn’t easy to unravel the complex strands of the ANC’s internal workings).
It is, however, incumbent on political analysts to explain how such processes shape the battle for domination of the ANC’s lists, a battle which will be concluded long before the first vote is cast in May 2019.
By then, ANC voters will have no way of influencing the party’s internal balance of forces.
It will be impossible for anyone to work out how many people voted ANC to advance reform; or how many are foot-soldiers in Zuma’s “fightback” campaign; or how many support Deputy President Mabuza, awaiting their “turn to eat”.
The big difference between Zuma, the tactician, and those traditional DA supporters who believe a vote for the ANC is a vote for Ramaphosa, is a basic knowledge of how the ANC’s internal election battle is waged, and where it will be won or lost.
While analysts and businessmen pontificate over a beer after work, Zuma is busy mobilising his base in branches of the party’s strongest provinces, to dominate the list conferences currently taking place throughout the country.
Even those analysts who understand this will have difficulty evaluating the balance of forces on the ANC’s lists when they are announced in March 2019, because up to 60% of the names may be untested newcomers, of which 50% must be women (with 20% candidates aged under 35).
The ANC’s selection process is a combination of a popularity contest in branches and a quota system, with some final tinkering by the National List Committee and the provincial list committees.
It is wide open to manipulation. But, of course, this unfolds behind a film of fine-sounding phrases. The power exercised by branches is framed as “democratic”, when in fact it is the core of the ANC’s internal corruption, complete with vote-buying, membership rigging, and ghost branches.
What’s more, determining whether these branches are “in good standing” lies with the ANC’s auditors that report to Ace Magashule, former Free State Premier and staunch Zuma ally.
There is a good reason for the old ANC saying that “no secretary-general ever lost an internal election” in the party. It was on Gwede Mantashe’s watch as secretary-general that Ramaphosa managed to (narrowly) beat Zuma at Nasrec. Mantashe played a key role behind the scenes in securing that outcome.
This time around, this influence vests with Ramaphosa’s opponents.
What’s more, after the last ballot is cast, the composition of the ANC’s National Executive Committee (NEC) will remain unchanged.
This is the party structure responsible for ensuring that the ANC in government executes the party’s Nasrec policy resolutions, such as amending the Constitution to facilitate expropriation without compensation, and the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank.
The NEC, which was also elected at Nasrec in 2017, continues in office until 2022. It is almost equally divided between the ANC’s opposing factions. And it is scheduled to hold its mid-term policy conference after the 2019 election to monitor government progress in implementing the Nasrec resolutions.
It has far more power over the direction of the ANC than voters who believe that a vote for the ANC will strengthen Cyril’s hand.
And even more important (at this stage of the electoral cycle), the NEC gets to appoint the ANC’s national list committee that oversees and influences the composition of the ANC’s list.
An additional argument doing the rounds on the “vote ANC” cocktail circuit is the myth that it will reinforce Ramaphosa in his battle with the EFF.
It won’t, because the most influential proponents of racial nationalism and “radical economic transformation” remain inside the ANC.
Anyone wanting to save constitutionalism in South Africa must understand that battle against the background of a broader canvas.
The fundamental ideological contestation in South Africa is between non-racial constitutionalists (who, despite some ambiguity, are still most clearly concentrated in the DA) and racial-nationalist populists (unambiguously embodied by the EFF).
One of the DA’s key strategic errors, in my view, was to confuse this clear polarity by agreeing to “governance arrangements” with the EFF in two Metros. But, despite this, the alternative ideological options for South Africa’s future are still embodied in the contestation between the DA and the EFF.
The ANC straddles this great divide, with one foot on each side, almost evenly split between both broad camps. The dividing line in SA politics, (between the clear ideological positions of the DA and the EFF), runs right through the middle of the ANC.
Slowly, over the next decade or more, the ANC will inevitably disintegrate, not as a single event, but as a gradual process interspersed by some catalytic moments. This is nothing new. In fact, it is already a decade old, having started with the breakaway of Cope, followed by the EFF, on different sides of the divide.
Although Ramaphosa’s election has stalled the process, it will inevitably gain momentum again, especially as Zuma has elected to continue his fight-back from within ANC structures, rather than stage a break-away now. And with Mabuza in the mix, the battle is far from over.
What observers often fail to understand is that the ANC is an organisation of interlocking patronage networks competing for control of the “party machine”, which offers access to resources. Voters in a general election have no impact on this internal contest.
The closest analogy I can think of is the Cape Flats ganglands, where rival groups compete for “turf” and the lucrative market in illicit goods this control brings. The difference between winning and losing is the difference between a life of luxury or destitution.
With the exception of a few outstanding individuals, the ANC’s internal contest is rarely about principle and policy. It is about power, influence and control. And that is the battle being waged right now.
During the early 2000s, the DA was heading in the same direction as the ANC, because the relative numerical strength of branches determined the outcome of the list contest.
Inevitably, at least a year before the start of an election cycle, prospective candidates would focus almost exclusively on membership recruitment in order to bolster their branch representation in the selection processes to ensure themselves an electable place on the list. Very soon this was accompanied by membership fraud, fake membership lists, membership-buying and an internal system of manipulation that belied the values that we were presenting to our voters.
One of the DA’s most important reforms was to end this structural corruption. We now have a three-stage process. The first step involves an electoral college, comprising branch representatives selected on the basis of a formula designed to discourage “membership farming”. The electoral college interviews prospective candidates and selects a pool, that goes through to the second stage.
This is where the pool is ranked, to create a list. This crucial step is undertaken by a panel of experts, comprising experienced insiders (who are not standing for any position in the election) and outsiders of stature and ability.
This panel holds in-depth interviews with each candidate, and scores them on the basis of clear criteria, based on the party’s values and principles.
Finally, a score for past performance is added to the mix, and the lists are presented to the provincial and federal executives, which are permitted to make some marginal adjustments, within strict rules.
It is not a perfect process, but it is far better than any other party’s system at curbing manipulation and corruption while promoting diversity, excellence, and the party’s values.
In the long term, the critical requirement to save South Africa is a realignment of politics that will bring together constitutionalists from all parties into the same political formation to build a new majority. We only need to agree on four core principles as the foundation to do so. These are:
Constitutionalism and the rule of law.
A market economy to maximise growth (with safety nets for those who cannot take care of themselves).
A clear separation between party and state (without which it is impossible to build a capable state).
Indications to the contrary notwithstanding, the DA is the only party that currently stands firmly behind these four principles. There are many individuals in other parties who support them too.
The best way to hasten a realignment of politics aimed at building a new majority around these four values is to strengthen the DA’s hand in preparation for the ructions in the decade ahead.
A strong DA is also the best way to support Cyril Ramaphosa and other reformists in the ANC, who need to know that when the ANC inevitably disintegrates, the DA will offer the ANC’s reformists a strong and stable coalition partner to prevent the EFF and its allies seizing and abusing power.
I end this analysis with a true story to illustrate my point. Shortly before the last elections, I went to Pretoria with a Western Cape colleague for a meeting with members of the national Cabinet. As I waited in the venue, alone with my colleague, a prominent ANC minister entered, a few minutes ahead of the rest of the ANC delegation.
He walked straight up to me, looked me in the eye, and said:
“Helen, all the best for the elections. In the interests of South Africa, the DA must do really well.”
I was aghast. Here was an ANC minister telling me the DA had to do well in the elections. What was going on?
“What do you mean?” I responded.
“Things are bad,” he replied. “Few people know just how bad”.
Since then, the State Capture revelations have given us all an inkling of what he was alluding to.
What the minister was saying was this: If the DA does really well in the elections, it will strengthen the hand of reformists inside the ANC.
I will never forget that interaction. I will not betray the minister by revealing his identity, but I am grateful I had a colleague with me who witnessed the entire interaction. Otherwise, no one would have believed it had happened.
Despite the ructions since then, the fundamental analysis remains the same today.
To strengthen reform, and to defend non-racialism and constitutionalism, the best (and in my mind the only) option is to vote DA.
It is also the only unambiguous way to offer strategic, long-term support to Cyril’s reform agenda. DM