[OPINION] ANC Leadership Race: Transparency v. Opacity

It would appear there are two separate races playing out ahead of December at the moment. There is the race to win between the players, the Nkosazana Dlamini Zumas and Cyril Ramaphosas. And then there is the race to predict who will win. It’s a game almost as dangerous, for reputational reasons, as the main event itself. But over the last few days we have received a few datum points that may start to present a picture of at least how the final outcome could be predicted. However, just the fact that the data could actually be available may in itself have implications for what happens, and whether the ANC’s conference is held at all.

Over the last weekend, branches of the ANC started to have their branch general meetings. It is at these meetings that members of the branches decide who they are nominating to what position in the party, and thus who they want to be leader of the ANC. In other words, the branch will decide who it is supporting, and thus the delegate from that branch will be sent to the conference with a mandate to cast their secret ballot for that person. The process in each branch can be fairly torturous. In 2012, many branches held their meeting for an entire day just to reach a quorum, and in the end many branch decisions were taken by just a handful of members. Some of these meetings require intense security and are the site of violent contestation.

By Tuesday morning, a series of WhatsApp messages started to do the rounds, claiming that certain candidates had won the support of branches from certain areas. Some people reported that Ramaphosa had won the support of seven branches in Joburg, while Dlamini Zuma received one, and that in Tshwane she had received support from another branch but Ramaphosa had won 14. Of course, the reports from KwaZulu-Natal were very different, while other provinces also presented varying pictures.

In the past it has been difficult for outsiders to piece together the inside story of what’s happening in ANC branches. In 2012, ahead of Mangaung, it was obvious that President Jacob Zuma was going to win another term as ANC leader, and much of the excitement was around whether Kgalema Motlanthe would stand against him, and the process around nominating/anointing Ramaphosa as deputy leader. As in Polokwane 2007, the process was quite different than it is today, with the provincial leaderships having a much more central role to play.

Nevertheless, the system appeared opaque in both of those processes. The visible action took place at the provincial level, while the branch process was difficult to follow. This appears to be changing, and it looks likely that by the end of the nominations process we may actually be presented with what looks like near-reliable totals of how many branch nominations each candidate has received.

One of the main reasons for this would be that at least one of the candidates is going to attempt to gain higher ground by an appearance of their lead being unassailable.

At the same time, if you are running the Ramaphosa campaign, one of your bigger fears is likely to be the prospect of Zuma, and his allies, trying to influence the process in an improper manner. Or, to put things more honestly, what’s keeping them up at night is they believe Zuma may try to steal the conference. Thus, if they believe they have a greater number of nominations, then they will proclaim that loud and proud, to narrow Zuma’s tactical space.

There is surely much value, for all of us South Africans, in having a clear picture of what could happen at the conference, before it actually happens. Our politics has had a tendency to shock in the last few years, and generally speaking, shocks are bad for business and bad for any country, let alone one that’s been under much stress of late. The markets are likely to be much happier if they can make a more accurate prediction of what will happen. And of course, South Africans will be in a better position to make up their own minds about how they feel about the ANC if they have a very clear picture of how the final leadership battle played out.

That said, there must also surely be a risk to having a very detailed picture.

There is a great deal of cynicism at the moment about the real motivations for Zuma’s actions past, present and future. His reshuffle last week appears to have been designed to appease the Russian government, his appointment of Des van Rooyen in 2015 was obviously about helping the Guptas, and he must feel an acute fear of a sheep-less National Prosecuting Authority. His grip on the security cluster of government, particularly around the State Security Agency and the Police Intelligence Unit, is a cause of great concern among his opponents, who to Zuma’s own mind often include bystanders such as journalists and other public figures.

This means it is possible that he could soon be presented with a scenario in which he, and the rest of the country, will know that Dlamini Zuma cannot win. It is at this point that several things can happen. The cynics will say that the most likely option is for Zuma to play dirty and for Ramaphosa’s security detail to be on very high alert. Slightly less cynically, it may be time to prepare for an ANC conference that either does not happen or is deliberately disrupted to a point of collapse.

These are all rather worrying scenarios. In the short term, that could end with a vote in Parliament against Zuma, and possibly even an early election. Of course, that string of events would be incredibly difficult, turbulent and painful; it could end up in Zuma trying other even more worrying options.

But there are also easier scenarios. If the picture is made very clear to everyone in the weeks ahead of the conference, each player would be acutely aware of the power they yield. In other words, it could be time to negotiate. It is entirely possible that before the conference, some kind of negotiated outcome would be discussed. Obviously Zuma’s opponents have the “go to jail” card. But he also has the “normal transition” card, and could promise to make the transition easy in return for a trouble-free retirement. That said, so deep are the divisions and high the tensions that any negotiation would be fraught.

Of course, it is still entirely possible that the branch nominations process yields a result where the person who commands a large lead is Dlamini Zuma. In that scenario, Ramaphosa would have very few cards to play, if any. That could lead to a conference which would rubber-stamp a decision to keep Zuma in the Union Buildings, and cement the succession by Dlamini Zuma. However, that would have its own implications and make the SACP special congress in January much more interesting.

Still, the more public the ANC’s branch nominations process, the better. That way, voters will know what has happened, and why it has happened, and that will help them to make properly informed decisions in 2019. Transparency trumps opacity. Always. Almost.

This column first appeared on Daily Maverick. Go to www.dailymaverick.co.za for more comment and analysis.

Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of SA Politics Unspun. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes