ANC EC conference on knife's edge as Mabuyane and Madikizela factions do battle

Whoever emerges as the new leader of the ANC in the Eastern Cape will have won a closely contested conference where no faction was completely assured of its electoral might.

ANC supporters of Oscar Mabuyane and Babalo Madikizela sing outside the registration centre in East London ahead of the party's provincial conference on 6 May 2022. Picture: Abigail Javier/Eyewitness News

EASTERN CAPE - Whoever emerges as the new leader of the ANC in the Eastern Cape will have won a closely contested conference where no faction was completely assured of its electoral might.

About a week ago, it seemed almost certain that Eastern Cape premier Oscar Mabuyane’s former ally, turned political opponent Babalo Madikizela would emerge the victor. But political conferences are fluid in nature as allegiances change almost without notice.

This is because differences within the governing party are almost never ideological but rather depend on who has the deepest pockets to sway the delegates’ votes in their direction.

This became apparent on the eve of the conference, in East London, where Madikizela encouraged his followers on Friday night to “take the money” but still vote for him. This was a reference to possible bribes from the opposing faction.

The conference was delayed on Saturday afternoon after a faction aligned to Madikizela approached the high court in East London to challenge the participation of nine disputed branches in the conference.

The urgent application, submitted by five disgruntled members, signalled a panic in the Madikizela camp - that their buoyancy a few days earlier may have been premature.

The application was thrown out, with the judge pointing out that there was no urgency in the matter.

Just two weeks ago, those associated with Madikizela’s slate were already claiming victory, yet some in the ANC’s national executive committee (NEC), with keen interest on how this provincial conference would pan out, were observing a shift in support.

“The tide is turning,” one said to Eyewitness News.

This became evident just days leading up to the conference, with both camps admitting that the race to lead the ANC’s second largest province was neck and neck.

It is understood that the so-called “Chris Hani Cabal” - a reference to prominent leaders from the province’s second biggest region - were influential in working to ensure that Mabuyane returned to power.

The likes of Gwede Mantashe, Enoch Gondogwana and Mondli Gungubele hail from the region and were in attendance. Mabuyane is also from the same region.

It's also one of five regions who shut down the idea of last-minute negotiations with Madikizela's grouping to find a unity slate between the two opposing groups.

By the end of Sunday, a winner will have taken all.

“If they go to negotiations now, it will look like Madikizela saved the province. There is no way those in support of Mabuyane would allow that… attitudes have hardened now,” said one NEC member to Eyewitness News.

“You don’t negotiate at the door of the conference,” continued the political leader.

The NEC member was speaking to dynamics around the pair, explaining that attempts to unify them stretch as far back as last year, with ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa also having a go at attempts to help Mabuyane and Madikizela find one another.

But regardless of the outcome, Ramaphosa is likely to have the backing of the province. However, the bigger question will be who will be supported by the Eastern Cape to take over as a deputy.

“We are certainly not worried,” said another NEC member who’s a well-known Ramaphosa supporter.

The insider told Eyewitness News no threat, including attempts by the likes of former health minister Zweli Mkhize to build up a campaign to challenge the incumbent would succeed, unless those on his side failed to fully use their dominance to their advantage.

“We are working hard to make sure CR prevails, the only thing that can make him lose is when his people don’t take advantage of the dominance we enjoy,” the second insider told Eyewitness News.

The source said unlike Ramaphosa’s opponents they had a solid presidential candidate, while other groupings like the so-called “radical economic transformation,” and those backing Mkhize had not united on the issue of president.

“We are still searching for a deputy president. We are searching for her… ideally a female, who’s had some scars from this organisation, but they don’t even have a president to offer,” continued the insider.

Despite Madikizela’s public pronouncement of his support for Ramaphosa, the make-up of his Top Five slate has raised eyebrows - with the inclusion of known anti-Ramaphosa figures in the proposed line-up. These include Terris Ntutu, Andile Lungisa and Xolile Nkompela who are contesting for the positions of provincial secretary, treasurer and deputy provincial chairman respectively. The trio have also been mired in controversy, from serving jail time for assault, facing fraud charges to fighting with the ANC in the courts.

But the hard line by Ramaphosa’s faction - on the step-aside rule, is likely to turn potential supporters against him.

In Limpopo, the likes of Danny Msiza enjoy overwhelming support but now he cannot stand for the secretary post as he faces charges in relation to the VBS Bank scandal.

Msiza supported Ramaphosa’s bid for a second term, but that position may have been influenced by the enforcement of the step-aside rule.

“Our mission is to restore the historic dignity of the ANC, CR represents that, we must prevail,” argued the Ramaphosa loyalist.

The conference ends on Monday and Ramaphosa will deliver the closing address.