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Check your running mate — the ANC’s chess games have begun

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Thamsanqa D Malinga is director at Mkabayi Management Consultants; a writer, columnist, and political commentator, as well as author of Blame Me on Apartheid and A Dream Betrayed.

So far, Cyril Ramaphosa has pulled some grandmaster moves, to the frustration of some comrades and their slates who have underestimated his mastery of the grand ANC chess game.

I have always contended that South Africa has a functional government for only two years of the five that are prescribed by the Constitution, these being the first two years. How so? After the general elections and the induction of the new Cabinet, we have a year of “getting used to portfolios” and generating policies. This is common in all portfolios as ministers seldom continue where a predecessor left off. As a result, we are always taking two steps forward and one step back.

The second year is the one when officeholders actually start rolling out the programmes their advisors have dreamed up. But two years after the national government elections, the country must hold local government elections. This renders the second year of national government another wasted year as parties begin to focus on electioneering and, worse, the ruling party is tempted to use government machinery for their campaigns, from deployed civil servants to budgets.

The year following the local government poll is the year the African National Congress prepares for its leadership change in anticipation of the next national government leadership vote. This is the year we see all those desperate for positions on the ruling slate getting busy with their campaigns ahead of the party’s National General Council and the elective conference later in the year. Again, government functionality is deployed as those preparing slates make their moves to try to position themselves. In this scenario, the South African electorate is merely what jurist Vuyani Ngalwana terms “sacrificial lambs at the altar of political expediency”.

After the ANC’s elective conference, you are likely to get a change in leadership that spills over to government leadership. This is the period when South Africa has twice experienced what I call “transitional leadership”. Such a transitional government is the child of factional ANC conferences. We saw this at the Polokwane ousting of Thabo Mbeki as party president, and it was repeated in the Nasrec ousting of Jacob Zuma. The action against them led to their recall as heads of state before their terms of office had come to a legislative end.

Thus for three years of the five that each elected government should serve, South Africa and her citizens and various government apparatuses become pawns in the chessboard strategies of governing party members who are strategising for positions for themselves or to put their principals in power. That time has come again as the party gears up for a showdown at its elective conference later this year.

What history has taught ANC presidents since that watershed Polokwane conference is that survival is key. This knowledge must be giving current incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa sleepless nights. Axes have been grinding for him since he took the helm, and he has been presiding over a house divided. It is a difficult battle — his comrades have gone so far as to accuse him of being a white monopoly capital stooge. It is an image he needs to shake off if he is to survive what befell his predecessors — though perhaps he will take comfort in the knowledge that they only fell in their second terms. In order to come out on top, Ramaphosa has no option but to resort to his own chess moves.

So far, he has pulled some grandmaster moves, to the frustration of some comrades and their slates who have underestimated his mastery of the grand ANC chess game.

First, he needed a move that would make the king-maker of the opposing clique, Secretary-General Ace Magashule, head out of Luthuli House into the wilderness. Magashule’s case in the Free State asbestos scandal will begin with a pre-trial in June. With litigation bound to be a media spectacle, it will no doubt drag on strategically usefully towards the conference, thus hindering his ambitions.

The second move that would destabilise Magashule’s power was to send someone with an axe to grind to lead a “unity and renewal” pow-wow with the Free State provincial interim council (PIC). It will be remembered that former president Thabo Mbeki’s Polokwane ambitions were blindsided by the Magashule-led clique of the Premier League, which included North West’s Supra Mahumapelo as well as Mpumalanga’s David Mabuza.

Mbeki’s chat with the PIC ended with a recommendation for member re-registration. The outcome drove the narrative that there is disunity in the province that can be attributed to those who have been leading it — and it came with a recommendation to get rid of “thugs” who had penetrated the movement. The level of support Magashule enjoys during his court appearances will show whether Mbeki’s sojourn as Ramaphosa’s Free-State knight in shining armour has been effective.

Besides Magashule, other potential pieces gunning for the king’s head need to be reined in. Let’s look at Lindiwe Sisulu’s recent attempt to launch a quest for the top post at Luthuli House. In her attempt to ride the wave of radical economic transformation rhetoric and position herself as a voice against white monopoly capital and its lackeys, Sisulu penned an attack on the South African judiciary, accusing some of its members of being captured and having a “house negro” mentality.

Her ambitious play was cut short by a diagonal move from the bishop that saw Acting Chief Justice Raymond Zondo calling a press conference to shoot down the minister’s attempt at getting the spotlight. Will the descendant of ANC royalty make a comeback? December, when the ANC normally holds its elective conference, is still months away.

David Mabuza, heir apparent to the ANC presidency and to the position as the republic’s number one citizen, seems to have outlived the many lives he should have been able to secure as the sly cat he is touted to be. It seems that his move to back Ramaphosa at Nasrec for which he was awarded the deputy presidency role — for both the ANC and country — has not worked entirely to his advantage. The man has been overshadowed by his principal.

He has also been most notable for his absence, from day one. He has not made his mark as the leader of government business in Parliament — a role that might have positioned him well. His recent request to take the helm at Luthuli House, a move that may have worked to his advantage in helping him reacquaint himself with his crony Magashule, was thwarted.

Ramaphosa was recently in Mabuza’s former stronghold, Mpumalanga, and using the power of the NEC, had the Provincial Executive Council dissolved. In what Ramaphosa might consider a coup, the regional task team convenor Mandla Dlamini — who is also jockeying for position himself — threw his weight behind the president.

Is Mabuza likely to return in any capacity? If he still has any of the qualities that made him the most feared leader in Mpumalanga, perhaps he will. But as it stands, he has quietly become a pawn of the Thuma Mina slate.

So far it seems like Ramaphosa and his “CR24 Again” players have been smart tacticians on the black, green and gold chessboard. The one piece still missing is a big name that will stand with him. He will need someone who is revered inside and outside the ANC.

Ramaphosa will recall Mangaung where Jacob Zuma, facing criticism and a media onslaught, was left needing a credible running partner. Ramaphosa himself has had his fair share of criticism and there have been calls for his head. In comes the name of Jeff Thamsanqa Radebe. Being an elder of the ANC, a veteran in government as well as being an ANC policy mastermind and trusted tactician, the mention of Radebe’s name serves the Ramaphosa faction very well. Whether this reflects the agenda of the fourth estate — which has been accused of being an ally to Ramaphosa — or it is the wish of the movement, or even a move by the Ramaphosa faction, for that we will have to wait for Radebe to state his position in this chess game.

It is said that Jacob Zuma is an avid and great chess player. His strategy in his litany of cases has often been praised by his brass band as being a reflection of his understanding of the game.

Being at the helm at the ANC requires one to know who are the ruthless knights, who are the advocating bishops, who is the queen — the kingmaker next to you — and who are the sacrificial pawns? By year’s end, the game will be clearer. DM

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