The Mangaung game changers
If last month's ANC policy conference in Midrand is anything to go by, the ANC's 53rd national conference in Mangaung will be the mother of all showdowns over top leadership positions in the party - as well as economic policy. Despite efforts to present a united front and suppress the succession debate, the policy conference exposed fissures in the ruling party that are likely to rupture in a clash of wills at the December meeting.
The last ANC national conference, at Polokwane in 2007, saw an epic battle play out between supporters of President Jacob Zuma and his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. After that conference, some members of the newly elected NEC were of the firm view that the party would not survive another bruising battle in five years and that, in order to prevent another round of jockeying for positions, Zuma should remain ANC president for a second term.
But five years is a long time in politics and as the Zuma camp gradually disintegrated, proportionally to exposure of his weaknesses as a leader, so too did the resolve to avoid another succession battle.
The ANC Youth League under Julius Malema, leading a disenchanted lobby, introduced talk of leadership change as early as 2009 and has been advocating for deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe to replace Zuma and sports minister Fikile Mbalula to replace Gwede Mantashe as ANC secretary-general.
Mbalula's campaign ran into trouble as Malema's disciplinary troubles mounted and has now somewhat fizzled out. Motlanthe, on the other hand, appears a likely formidable challenger to Zuma - the policy conference displayed growing support for his candidacy.
Housing minister Tokyo Sexwale, who made a play for the presidency in 2007, is again in contention but is unlikely to measure up against the titans, Zuma and Motlanthe. A previous Gauteng premier, Sexwale seemed to have the support of his province in 2007 before he bailed out and threw in his lot with Zuma.
However, this time around the ANC in Gauteng is moving strategically to position itself as the power broker who would either negotiate consensus over a leadership slate or lead a significant lobby of likeminded provinces and other interest groups to the conference.
If there is anybody who can pull off a deal to prevent a nasty bun fight again, it's Paul Mashatile, the ANC chairman in Gauteng, and the provincial secretary, David Makhura. Both are political heavyweights who have earned their stripes by being patient yet strategic players in the party's power battles. Both are destined for national leadership positions in the ANC and their manoeuvres in the next few months are likely to see either Mashatile or Makhura in one of the top six positions.
The province proved its mettle in the ANC at the national general council in 2010 and at last month's policy conference by straddling the middle ground during fierce debates and trying to pull together diverse positions to broker consensus.
While not afraid to swim against the Luthuli House barons, Gauteng is also careful not to sway too much on the side of the defiant lobby, led by the youth league and Limpopo. The province weighs issues of contention and takes sides tactically in order to gain traction and support for the issues it wants to push.
At the policy conference, for example, Gauteng opposed the "second transition" concept championed by Zuma but was guarded on the issue of nationalisation. However, when crunch time came and a showdown ensued in the plenary session on the nationalisation issue, Gauteng was one of the six provinces that supported "strategic nationalisation" - these provinces are broadly fellow travellers supporting leadership change in Mangaung, whereas KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and Mpumalanga are backing Zuma's second-term bid.
Gauteng manoeuvred to secure unanimous support for its proposals on organisational renewal, something of a hobbyhorse of Makhura's. The proposals involve improving the skills and competence of ANC members, rooting out corruption by acting swiftly against deterrent deployees and performance monitoring for members serving in public positions.
They demonstrated their commitment to these resolutions last week by asking former Gauteng local government and housing MEC Humphrey Mmemezi to resign after he stood accused of a number of offences, including the abuse of state funds. By doing this, the ANC in Gauteng is so far the only party structure putting its money where its mouth is on corruption. It now wants the national conference in December to adopt the range of stringent measures to "clean up" the ANC and undo public perception of corruption in the party's ranks.
A Gauteng ANC insider says the province is passionate on the issue of organisational renewal because it wants to bring "decency" back to the ANC. He said the provincial leadership was worried that the ANC's historical moral high ground is being eroded and that civil society initiatives such as Lead SA are overtaking the party in leading mass social campaigns.
He said the organisational renewal proposals would also allow effective and thorough evaluation of the performance and abilities of ANC leaders. This would let the party decide who is best suited for senior leadership positions, including the presidency. If the succession debate has effectively been a personality battle up to now, Gauteng wants a more thorough evaluation of the candidates' track records.
This will not be good news for the Zuma campaign, since the incumbent would be found wanting even in the most lenient performance assessment. Though Gauteng appears to be backing Motlanthe for the presidency, it is not yet going for broke on his candidacy.
According to the insider, Mashatile and Makhura have been mandated by the provincial executive committee to "engage" with other provinces on issues of leadership and sticky policy matters. Though the ANC national executive committee has an embargo on succession talk until the nomination process starts officially in October, informal discussions are well under way.
In the run-up to the Polokwane conference, the chairmen of the nine provinces set up an informal caucus where they discussed and tried to negotiate agreements on some of the contentious issues. Then KwaZulu-Natal chairman Zweli Mkhize took a lead role in the caucus as one of the main campaigners in the Zuma camp.
However, after Polokwane, Mashatile has assumed the dominant role, referred to as the "chair of chairs". This caucus was responsible for convincing Malema and others in the youth league to apologise for their misdemeanours when they faced disciplinary charges. However, this group has since collapsed as Zuma-aligned chairmen backed out when they sensed Mashatile and others wanted to use the caucus to lobby against the harsh disciplinary action imposed on Malema and his cohorts.
But Mashatile is likely to revive the caucus in order to negotiate consensus on some issues ahead of the December conference. For example, the policy conference resolved to reduce the size of the NEC from 80 to 60 members. Provinces would have to reach some broad consensus on candidates for the NEC ahead of time to prevent an untidy scrap in Mangaung over a reduced number of positions.
This would give playmakers such as Gauteng the ability to trade off with other provinces: support for their NEC candidates in exchange for backing in the big game: the top six.
Indications are that Gauteng is likely to manoeuvre to secure either Mashatile as national chairman or convince Mbalula to back off in favour of Makhura as secretary- general. It would not be possible for both to serve in the top six so, depending on how the chips fall during the negotiations, the province would push for one or the other on the slate of senior officials.
If the starting point for other provinces like KwaZulu-Natal is the presidency, Gauteng is ready to deal on all top six positions, as well as the NEC. Both the Zuma and Motlanthe camps would battle to advance unless they get Gauteng onside, and both factions will be wooing the province by offering them a position on their slates.
If the Zuma-Mantashe crew proves too formidable to break, the baseline compromise as far as Gauteng is concerned is Makhura as deputy secretary general.
The game would be then lined up for the ANC's 2017 national conference.
Whatever happens on the road to Mangaung, the next generation of ANC heavyweights are ready for the big league and the Gauteng power brokers are already ahead of the pack.
This column also appeared in The Daily Maverick