ANC divided on how to win back the support it has lost

Contested: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are competing for the post of ANC president.  (Ihsaan Haffejee/AFP, Thapelo Maphakela/Gallo Images)

Contested: Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are competing for the post of ANC president. (Ihsaan Haffejee/AFP, Thapelo Maphakela/Gallo Images)

Where to now for the ANC? This was the question on everyone’s lips after the party’s devastating defeat in three key metros and other smaller municipalities in the 2016 local government elections.

Some have gone so far as to predict that those polls may spell the beginning of the end for the mighty ANC. President Jacob Zuma’s line on the matter was that, 22 years into democracy, the ANC was bound to experience a decline in support.

At the rate that things continue to deteriorate, it’s hard to see how the governing party can reverse the electoral decline ahead of the 2019 general elections. It is evident that ANC leaders are divided on what approach to adopt to deal with the difficulties the party faces, in particular how to restore the confidence of South Africans in the ANC.

In one corner is a small group of influential and credible leaders in the ANC’s national executive committee who strongly believe Zuma must step down as the country’s president to arrest the party’s electoral decline. 

The group includes Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom, Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi, Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor, Public Works Minister Thulas Nxesi, Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan, Higher Education Minister Blade Nzimande, deputy Health Minister Joe Phaahla and former National Assembly Speaker Max Sisulu.

They have pointed to the public protector’s damaging State of Capture report, which implicates Zuma’s close allies, some in his Cabinet and even more in state-owned enterprises, in corrupt activities. They also regard the Constitutional Court judgment, which found Zuma had failed to uphold his oath of office, as another cause of the increasing loss of confidence in the ANC.

In the other corner is a dominant group known as the Premier League, which is determined to defend Zuma at any cost, despite his many scandals. The group, led by Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza, North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo and Free State Premier Ace Magashule, has argued strongly against Zuma’s removal, saying this would affect the ANC’s performance during the 2019 general elections, given that he still enjoys significant support, particularly in his home province of Kwa-Zulu-Natal. They also cite the fear that Zuma’s removal might result in violence in the country and another split in the party.

The division in the party lies firmly in the ANC’s elective conference in December 2017 to pick a successor to Zuma. Zuma supporters appear to have the upper hand in determining who replaces him as ANC president.

But indications are that this group is not doing so well in the court of public opinion.

Zuma and his supporters prefer his former wife and African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, whereas the opposing faction want deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa to succeed him.

With Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma having indicated their interest in contesting for the party’s top position, it is inevitable that party leaders will put their energy into campaigning for their preferred candidates rather than finding ways to reverse its electoral decline.

Not that the party is oblivious to the reasons behind its decline, including perceptions that it is arrogant‚ self-serving‚ soft on corruption and that it has become increasingly distant from its social base. Many of the ANC’s traditional supporters chose not to cast their votes in this year’s local government elections to express their unhappiness with the party.

The apparent manipulation of ANC candidate lists, which saw people preferred by citizens replaced by those favoured by party leaders, also contributed to its electoral decline.

Worse than that, it resulted in more politicians being murdered in 2016 than in the preceding 22 years of a democratic South Africa. Of the 25 political killings that took place this year, 75% were of ANC representatives and the vast majority took place in KwaZulu-Natal.

Although the ANC acknow-ledges the local government election results were humiliating, the conduct of some of its leaders a few months after the election is hardly that of an organisation prepared to listen and correct the mistakes that drove many of its supporters away. Take Zuma’s recent address to his vociferous supporters in KwaZulu-Natal. He was unrepentant about the R246-million of taxpayers’ money spent on so-called security upgrades to his rural home in Nkandla.

“The Constitutional Court told me to pay the money. So I paid even though I knew I hadn’t done anything wrong. I paid because the law was telling me to do so. As I was building my home, the government came and said: ‘Since you’re the president, we should help with security.’ I never asked for those things,” said Zuma to his applauding supporters.

Zuma has also unashamedly continued to defend the Guptas — his family friends who have been accused by many in the ANC-led alliance of using their ties with the president to influence state tenders.

Former public protector Thuli Madonsela noted in her State of Capture report that Zuma may have breached his executive code of ethics and may be compromised by his son Duduzane’s relationship with the Gupta family.

Again, instead of interrogating the issues raised by Madonsela, Zuma’s supporters chose to play the person and not the ball; they accusing Madonsela of having an agenda against Zuma.

The perceived use of state resources to target political enemies is also having a negative effect on the governing party. The active pursuit of Gordhan by priority crimes police unit the Hawks has raised further questions about the extent to which Zuma supporters are prepared to go to capture the treasury.

National Prosecuting Authority head Shaun Abrahams angered many when he charged the finance minister with fraud relating to the early retirement and re-employment of former South African Revenue Service official Ivan Pillay.

The move has divided Zuma’s Cabinet; ministers broke ranks with their boss to support Gordhan when he appeared in court.

The president’s response to calls by ANC veterans for him to step down has also been interpreted as arrogant. He believes some of the veterans who have called for his head are controlled and paid by imperialists whose agenda is to kill the ANC.

“Some of these people I have not seen since 1994 and all of a sudden they appear out of nowhere calling press conferences to express their concerns about our party. Most of them do not even belong to party structures and are encouraging actions which they have always been against in the past, namely speaking about the organisation outside its structures. They are using the name of veterans in justifying what they are doing.

“Others are saying ‘save South Africa, save South Africa’. Where is South Africa going?” said Zuma.

The ANC has not shown any sense of urgency in addressing the causes for its losing the metros of Tshwane, Johannesburg and Nelson Mandela Bay. Instead, the focus has now shifted to the party’s succession battle. This will no doubt have a devastating effect on the party’s performance in the 2019 elections.

The associated campaign for Zuma’s successor will last until December next year. This means the new ANC president will have just over 12 months to unite ANC factions and, at the same time, campaign for the party to win the 2019 elections.

With the ANC’s support having declined from 62% in 2011 to 54% in 2016, the task to lead the party to victory will be daunting for the new ANC leader.

Opinion is divided on whether the 2017 succession battle will result in another costly split, as it did in 2007 and 2012 with the formation of the Congress of the People (Cope) and Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) respectively. Cope was established by supporters of former president Thabo Mbeki after he lost to Zuma during the watershed ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007. Malema, a former ANC Youth League leader, formed the EFF after he was expelled from the ANC, in part for criticising Zuma.

Political observers have not ruled out the possibility of Zuma’s supporters marginalising his opponents if Dlamini-Zuma wins the presidential contest next year, as they did with Mbeki supporters in 2007 and supporters of former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe, who contested and lost to Zuma in 2012.

Although Dlamini-Zuma is rated as one of the best leaders the ANC has produced, her association with those who defend state capture and other Zuma scandals has severely tarnished her.

People inside and outside the ANC view her candidacy as a ploy by Zuma to extend his influence beyond his term of office.

There’s no doubt that opposition parties will use this point as a campaigning tool ahead of the 2019 general elections.

But even if Ramaphosa is elected ANC president, his victory is unlikely to reverse the decline in support for the party. He is viewed by some as a leader who is unlikely to place the interests of the working class at the top of his list of priorities. His repeated defence of Zuma in the past has not done him any favours.

Opposition parties, particularly the EFF, continue to blame him for the Marikana tragedy, in which 34 striking mine workers were gunned down by police — despite his being cleared of any wrongdoing by the Farlam commission of inquiry. He also faces a civil claim from injured and arrested Marikana miners, who want him to apologise to and compensate all those who were affected.

What complicates matters further for the ANC is that its alliance partners, labour union federation Cosatu and the South African Communist Party (SACP), are no longer as effective as they used to be in mobilising the working class to vote for the ANC.

The split in Cosatu caused by the expulsion of the 400 000-strong metalworkers’ union Numsa, which now plans to form a new federation with other rebel unions, has affected the ANC’s election campaign machinery. The SACP, which has in the past pushed for radical policy changes in the ANC, has lost legitimacy in the eyes of many after several of its leaders were co-opted by the Zuma administration.

It is only now, after the apparent falling-out between Nzimande and Zuma, that the communist party is becoming critical of the president’s leadership style. To be fair to the SACP, it has been very vocal in its criticism of state capture even after the ANC decided to abandon its own probe into the matter few months ago.

The youth league has also been ineffective in mobilising the youth behind the ANC. What it has mastered, however, is how best to defend the embattled president at all costs.

The less said about the ANC Women’s League the better — few take the once-powerful structure seriously. It has chosen to defend Zuma at the expense of women’s issues in the country. 

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo

Matuma Letsoalo is the political editor of the Mail & Guardian. He joined the newspaper in 2003 and has won numerous awards since then, including the regional award for Vodacom Journalist of the Year in the economics and finance category in 2015, SA Journalist of the Year in 2011, the Mondi Shanduka SA Story of the Year award in 2008 and CNN African Journalist of the Year – MKO Abiola Print Journalism in 2004.
  • Read more from Matuma Letsoalo
    • Client Media Releases

      Adelaide and Fort Beaufort R63 Section upgrades completed
      GIBS remains in top spot
      MTN brings bright side to learners with disabilities
      Pre-order iPhone 8 at iStore from R13 499