Stakes high as ANC's battle for power gets underway in Nasrec

As the ANC’s most crucial indaba yet gets underway, the stakes are higher than ever. It’s not just the battle between Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for the top job.

Members of the ANC NEC on a walkabout of the Nasrec ahead of the start of the party's national conference on 14 December, 2017. Picture: @MYANC/Twitter

JOHANNESBURG - The decision by the African National Congress (ANC)’s outgoing national executive committee (NEC) to ditch plans to have two rounds of voting for the party’s top positions has effectively torpedoed a bid to break the hold that slate politics has over the party.

Slate politics has become the name of the game in the ANC, where party bosses draw up a list of names for top positions and then persuade voting delegates, by fair means or foul, to vote for them in a block.

While those contesting for power coyly talk about the will of the branches in electing new party leaders, slates actually take away members’ right to choose new leaders.

As the ANC’s most crucial indaba yet gets underway, the stakes are higher than ever. It’s not just the battle between Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma for the top job.

It’s also about powerful factions; politicians who want to keep their patronage networks intact, some of whom fear they may end up in jail if their side doesn’t win.

So, will this conference see a break with slate politics?

Political analyst Ebrahim Fakir: “There’s a portion of delegates who are seized with the idea that the future of the ANC hangs on their ability to be conscious about whom they choose.

“There are others who’re going to be subject to inducement, bribery, government jobs etcetera and even duress, some of them are afraid of what will happen if they don’t vote in a particular way.”

The plan to stagger the voting, with the positions of president, national chair, secretary general and treasurer general to be decided first, and only after those were declared the positions of deputy president and deputy secretary general was a bid to break the slates.

It would have allowed for the losing presidential candidate to be nominated from the floor for deputy president, for example.

Political analyst Raph Mathekga: “It’s actually to say to people, there is always a fall back (position), you can end up being part of the Top Six as part of a reconciliation manoeuvre, to make sure that those who lost don’t leave the party.”

But the ANC’s outgoing NEC has decided to ditch this plan and delegates will vote for all top positions at the same time, setting the stage for a winner take all outcome and the deepening of divisions.

RAMAPHOSA ON THE LEAD?

Ramaphosa won a majority of the nominations to become leader of the party, but delegates at the 16-20 December conference in Johannesburg are not bound to vote for the candidate their ANC branch nominated, meaning it is unclear if he will actually win the post.

Ramaphosa has recently stepped up his criticism of Zuma’s scandal-plagued government, while Dlamini-Zuma has said her priority is to improve the prospects for the black majority.

To his supporters, Ramaphosa’s business success makes him well-suited to the task of turning around an economy grappling with 28% unemployment and credit rating downgrades.

In contrast, Dlamini-Zuma is seen as a fierce campaigner against racial inequality whose hostility to big business has rattled investors in South Africa.

“The outcome is difficult to predict. This creates considerable uncertainty that is reflected in significantly increased volatility for the rand,” Elisabeth Andreae, analyst at Commerzbank, said in a note.

Growth in Africa’s most industrialized economy has been lackluster for the last six years, and the jobless rate is near record levels. Analysts say the ANC leadership battle has made it hard to reform the economy and improve social services.

Zuma cracked jokes at an ANC dinner on the eve of the conference and said that “it has been a worthwhile experience” and that he looked forward to stepping down as leader. He is expected to make a more formal speech at the start of the conference. He can remain as head of state until 2019.

The 75-year-old president has denied numerous corruption allegations since taking office in 2009 and has survived several no-confidence votes in parliament.

“People can’t wait to see his back,” political analyst Prince Mashele said in a newspaper opinion piece.

(Edited by Leeto M Khoza)