When Thabo Mbeki was voted out of the ANC presidency in Polokwane in 2007, there was speculation about how long he would last thereafter as president of the country. Would he be allowed to finish his term? Surely he would, said journalists who were there; the ANC wouldn't let such internal power battles destabilise the government. No, said the more hard-nosed, he would be kicked out sooner rather than later – such was the sense of triumphalist revenge running through the anti-Mbeki coalition that won Jacob Zuma the ANC presidency.
Who was right? It did not take long for Mbeki to be "recalled". Several of his Cabinet ministers, sniffing the wind, resigned; other Mbeki supporters either found themselves another political home or sank beneath the parapet.
Now, as the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung looms, so too does the prospect of similar purges in government once the conference has settled matters of party leadership. Zuma himself said recently: "There will be a change of gear when we return from Mangaung ... There will be consequences for ill discipline after Mangaung." Ill discipline may be seen to refer to anyone opposing Zuma or refusing to follow instructions from the top on who should be nominated – just as "unity" is code for "vote for the incumbent" and "divisive" is code for "we don't like you".
The run-up to Mangaung has seen vicious infighting, organisational chaos and accusations of fraud and manipulation at ANC branch level. This shows how desperately contested positions of power in the party are. The atmosphere is poisonous: battle lines have been drawn, weapons sharpened and enemies marked for retribution.
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe is off the Zuma "slate", replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa. Despite Motlanthe's rejection of "slates" and his refusal to offer himself openly as a candidate for the ANC presidency, it is as though the Zuma camp has decided he is not to be trusted and must go. Perhaps because he did not declare strongly enough his support for Zuma, he is now an enemy: you're either for Zuma or against him. There are no middle paths here.
Likewise, as we report this week, there is talk of ousting various government office-holders after Mangaung. People seen to have campaigned against Zuma will be dumped from their positions. Among the names mentioned are Cabinet ministers such as Tokyo Sexwale and Fikile Mbalula and provincial leaders such as Thandi Modise, as well as the mayors of two major cities, the entire executive of the ANC Youth League and possibly the entire provincial leadership of at least two provinces.
The proponents of such dire purges argue that this will create stability and unity in the ANC. But this is unity achieved by excluding and punishing anyone who does not toe the winning clique's line – and the stability achieved will be that of a dead hand weighing down on the possibility of open challenges to existing leadership, any dissent or even meaningful discussion.
It certainly won't bring stability to the government. We already suffer from ministers who keep their positions because they are Zuma loyalists and not because they are good ministers (Angie Motshekga and Tina Joemat-Pettersson spring to mind; in this regard Zuma is much like Mbeki).
After Mangaung, the country and the government are likely to suffer from the purging of anyone who looked askance at the idea of another five years for Zuma. We will probably also see the elevation of those who have played key roles in sewing up a Zuma victory at Mangaung.
Again, party and government are being conflated by the ruling elite in the ANC and the boundaries between them fudged. Our already stumbling state will be further battered by the repercussions of the governing party's inner conflicts. Stability? We don't think so.