The ANC in the time of President Jacob Zuma has evolved into a compromised and weakened organisation hanging on to its liberation credentials. At the same time, ironically, the ruling party has remained powerful.
The ANC and its tripartite alliance partners are riven by self-serving factions. The ultimate feat for a faction has been to get on the president’s side, with little consideration of the implications for the post-Zuma order.
Factionists win fame and fortune, but insiders know that the wars are never definitively won. Unless the ANC president still needs the comrade’s future favour, past loyalty will not count for much.
As political time starts running out for Zuma, much of the political life in and around the ANC remains absorbed by Zuma the survivor, the seemingly master strategist for whom the ultimate achievement is miraculous personal survival rather than the reputation of the organisation, or the government, or the greater good of a once-great liberation movement in power. The ANC in these years became Zuma.
ANC succession politics have provided the first set of indicators of the road ahead. For much of 2014-2015, Zuma and his loyalists have been fighting for his security as president, largely through control over the ANC, and the attempted domination of other parties in Parliament.
They have been ensuring that his followers are continually positioned in a protective presidential cordon, especially in the security services; and also ensuring that his proxies enter favourable positions for succession. A shortlist of ANC presidential successor candidates is evolving, and a set of next-round, perhaps next-generation, candidates is assuming positions to await the completion of the rotation act.
All is set for a battle between Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, ANC treasurer general Zweli Mkhize and African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, with ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe as a powerful “dark horse” outsider candidate and the other hopefuls Baleka Mbete, speaker of the National Assembly, and Jeff Radebe, the minister in the presidency, jockeying for position. Some were aiming at the ANC presidency, others positioning for the deputy presidency.
Factors such as incumbency and grass-roots popularity, closeness to the president who still needs protection, the (infamous and often-abused) gender card, the finishing school of African Union service, the right province (read KwaZulu-Natal followed by Gauteng and the Eastern Cape), power over the provinces and branch organisation, the ANC staring into the face of popular decay – all these came up for consideration, as branches, and particularly the ANC’s headquarters, Luthuli House, prepare for the next round.
There are many contradictory signals about the state of Zuma’s ultimate power over succession. Signs of shrinkage were evident in the appointment of the May 2014 Cabinet when he ceded a large say in the appointments directly to the ANC, and specifically to Mantashe.
However, the way in which all the ANC national structures rose and closed ranks in September 2014 to protect Zuma against public protector Thuli Madonsela suggested that his power was holding.
Parliament’s question time in March and August 2015 confirmed that Zuma loyalists tolerate presidential denialism and partial truths about the nonsecurity, state-sponsored upgrades to the president’s Nkandla residence. The outcomes of the 2015 tripartite alliance summit, and the special national congresses of the South African Communist Party and trade union federation Cosatu recorded the early signs of change in Zuma’s power, but Zuma was still far from “out”.
Three mini-scenarios are possible as the ANC moves towards the elections in 2019. In the first, Zuma steps down as ANC president in 2017 and gradually scales down for the new ANC president to ease into the job and lead the party as presidential candidate into the national elections.
In scenario two, once the ANC has elected a new president in December 2017, Zuma declares two centres of power to be undesirable, taking his lead from the 2007 ANC resolution. He then steps down early in 2018, based on real or ostensible health (or other) considerations.
A newly elected ANC president then takes over as president of South Africa and provides strong, exemplary leadership to help the ANC move into Election 2019.
A third scenario is the prolonging of Zuma’s say over the ANC and an 18-month extension of Zuma’s ANC term so that ANC and government presidential terms will coincide. The latter is the best “Zuma protector” but will minimise new momentum and hope for a reinvigorated ANC in 2019.
Much of South Africa might be so relieved and so hopeful that a dark phase in South African politics is passing that the ANC might be disproportionately rewarded at the polls for a change in leadership.