/ 29 June 2001

ANC elections: No race in 2002

Tom Lodge

The last time an election for the African National Congress presidency was contested was 50 years ago when a minor chief from Groutville, Albert Luthuli, displaced the incumbent, James Moroka, at the ANC’s annual conference in 1952.

Moroka’s fall resulted from his decision to adopt a separate defence from his colleagues when on trial for the defiance campaign. Out of step with the militancy of the times, he had lost favour with the ANCYouth League kingmakers who had supported his election in 1949.

Whatever tactical considerations motivated his election, Luthuli’s authority was never challenged. By the time he died 15 years later the ANC was in exile and Oliver Tambo, elected secretary general in 1955, became acting president. Tambo was appointed full president in 1977 at the suggestion of the Robben Island leadership, with his appointment confirmed by a show of hands at the 1985 Kabwe consultative conference.

Constitutional proprieties were restored at the 1991 conference, the ANC’s 48th such meeting and its first since its return to South Africa.

Balloting was secret, organised by an independent agency, and undertaken by 2 244 elected delegates from the regions, the youth and women’s league and Umkhonto weSizwe.

With only 126 candidates for 90 positions, the election was competitive only in a limited way. Nelson Mandela encountered no challenges for the presidency and most battles for other positions were concluded through horse-trading at nomination stage. An exception was Cyril Ramaphosa, who won the secretary generalship, displacing the incumbent Alfred Nzo.

In subsequent years speculation mounted about Ramaphosa’s chances of succeeding Mandela, an option supposedly favoured by Mandela himself. Significantly, Mandela’s carefully written autobiography, published just after the 1994 founding election, accords Thabo Mbeki three perfunctory references in its 600-odd pages. Ramaphosa receives five approving mentions and a photograph.

During Mandela’s term ANC conferences delivered surprises. In 1997, despite pressure on potential candidates at the nomination stage, two executive positions were contested and the posts of national chairperson and deputy secretary general were won by Mosiuoa Lekota and Thenjiwe Mthintso, two people who did not enjoy the unalloyed support of the top leadership.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, though, failed to qualify as a candidate for the deputy presidency against the leadership favourite, Jacob Zuma. Nomination was dependent on 25% delegate support (a constitutional amendment had increased the proportion from 10%) and this had to be expressed by a show of hands on the conference floor.

By this time Ramaphosa was no longer a serious rival for the presidency (though he obtained the highest poll for his position on the executive). He had jettisoned his prospects when he turned down a ministry in Mandela’s Cabinet.

No other pretenders to the succession Tokyo Sexwale and Matthews Phosa were cited as nurturing such ambitions enjoyed Mbeki’s status with the ANC establishment. Phosa put his name forward in 1997 for the deputy presidency, in rivalry to Zuma, apparently with Mandela’s discreet support.

But Phosa was persuaded to withdraw. His subsequent displacement from the Mpumalanga premiership was his penalty for even intending to challenge Mbeki’s candidate.

Mbeki, by 1997, faced no rivals as Mandela’s heir. Since his eclipse in 1991 he had consolidated support within the ANC, eliciting backing from Peter Mokaba and Madikizela-Mandela, able to sway the votes of the 90 youth and women’s league delegates at the conference.

In reality, though, Mbeki had been groomed for leadership since his appointment as Tambo’s personal secretary in 1975, and by the late 1990s former exiles were once again ascendant.

Another constitutional amendment in 1997 lengthened the period between ANC conferences from three to five years; the next elections will be in 2002. What are the prospects for any serious challenges to Mbeki’s authority then?

Three recent events have fuelled speculation that serious opposition exists within the ANC to Mbeki’s serving a second term as ANC and state president.

Minister of Safety and Security Steve Tshwete’s accusation that Ramaphosa, Sexwale and Phosa were responsible for rumours about Mbeki’s complicity in the assassination of Chris Hani, and Minister of Public Enterprises Jeff Radebe’s attack on Saki Macozoma’s supervision of South African Airways can each be interpreted as efforts to clear the field of contenders for Mbeki’s re-election in the event of a delegate revolt next year.

The third incident was the spat between Zuma and Mbeki over the leakage of Madikizela-Mandela’s letter about allegations of presidential womanising that culminated in Zuma denying presidential ambitions.

If Zuma had nurtured such hopes probably no one other than Madiikizela-Mandela took them seriously the president himself regards Zuma’s ex-wife, Nkosazana, more highly (and more favourably) in the leadership stakes.

Ramaphosa and Sexwale represent more formidable threats to Mbeki and his protgs, at least in the long term. Powerful figures in the business world, neither is caught up in the intricacies of the ANC’s patronage politics and each has his own personal following.

The prospect of them returning to active politics at next year’s conference, though, seems unlikely. The hostility directed at them probably tells us more about Mbeki’s manipulative leadership style (Tshwete and Radebe are unlikely to have attacked prominent personalities on their own initiative) than it does about actual opposition to him.

Generally speaking, ANC conferences are stage-managed affairs. Most key decisions are made before delegates gather. Elections are honestly conducted, but only the brave stand for election against a candidate enjoying leadership sanction.

Given the openness of the nomination procedure, delegates supporting such candidatures themselves may risk ostracism and exclusion from office.

Madikizela-Mandela and the ANC Women’s League may throw a few wild cards into the voting stakes since she is currently at odds with Mbeki, but her own political survival may now be rather questionable.

ANC notables, men and women, seem agreed that her humiliation by Mbeki at the June 16 rally in Soweto was justified.

The youth league will fall into line; its capacity for independent assertion is now very limited, with Mbeki loyalist Malusi Giqaba’s retention of the presidency partly attributable to support from the ANC executive.

The ANC frowns on any effort to organise concerted support to supplant leadership. Doing so is perceived as conspiratorial factionalism. A contender who took such a risk would have to rely on the courage of delegates to keep any promises made beforehand.

To judge from the recent abject behaviour of the ANC’s parliamentary caucus such courage may be in short supply. Just as well then that nobody is talking about a third term for Mbeki: in the past few months, the ANC’s lawmakers have been weak champions of the Constitution which not so long ago they were so proud of writing.

Prof Tom Lodge is head of the political studies department at Wits University