On January 8, Jacob Zuma, the man who nine years ago promised to reunite his party after the deeply divisive brawl in which he unseated his predecessor, will deliver his last annual programme of action for the ANC.
Sitting close to him on stage will be someone who could replace him at the end of the year, and one who party veterans hope can reunite an ANC more divided than ever before in its history — Kgalema Motlanthe.
To date, the party’s succession race has followed the long-standing historical template of two groups each pushing for a preferred candidate. But, with the party’s 105th birthday celebration at Orlando Stadium in Soweto serving as a starting gun for the race to the December elective conference, a third group has emerged, and a fourth is waiting in the wings.
The January 8 statement is as much a rallying call for the year’s programme of action as it is a celebration. After a year of dismal performance, the 2017 edition will be closely watched for signs that the party plans to get serious about corruption in both the state and the party. This was foreshadowed by this week’s statements about the rot in the ANC by its secretary general, Gwede Mantashe.
“The opening paragraph of our statement talks about a process of reflection, self-introspection and correction,” organising committee member Fikile Mbalula said at a briefing this week.
Much will depend on whether Zuma’s audience sees the promise as genuine or just as more lip service from a party that many have come to see as self-serving and arrogant.
But at the highest levels of the party, the contents of the statement will be entirely overshadowed by preparations for doing battle over leadership.
Outgoing African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa each has a solid base of support to succeed Zuma.
Dlamini-Zuma enjoys the support of the so-called premier league, which is closely aligned to the president and led by Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza, North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo and Free State Premier Ace Magashule. It also has the support of the ANC’s youth and women’s leagues, both of which want a woman as the next president.
Ramaphosa’s camp in essence wants to thwart the premier league. Large parts of the Eastern Cape, Gauteng, Limpopo and Northern Cape are understood to be leaning towards him.
But the bitter antagonism between these two groups seems to have opened the door to other candidates. Former president Motlanthe seems set to be the first to emerge.
He was briefly championed in Gauteng last year when the Sefako Makgatho and Joe Nkadimeng branches in Johannesburg said they had approached him and expressed their desire to have him succeed Zuma. At the time, 70% of the 135 branches in Johannesburg were in support of the move.
The branches have not revisited this suggestion since then but some Umkhonto weSizwe veterans and other party elders have started to single out Motlanthe as a possible compromise candidate.
“He can unite both factions because he’s not affiliated with any one of the two. Ours is not about somebody we are close to whom we want to lead, it’s about the ANC,” said Sasabona Manganye, a senior ANC activist in Johannesburg. “That is why we wish he can avail himself, and we wish [that] Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, through the structures of the organisation, can also rally behind Kgalema Motlanthe to unite the ANC and the country.”
At the party’s last elective conference in 2012, Motlanthe drew less than 25% support in a head-to-head vote with Zuma, but the party’s satisfaction with Zuma has plummeted since then.
Matters could be further complicated if the ballot for party president is split not three ways but at least four.
ANC treasurer General Zweli Mkhize is also being touted as a presidential hopeful, reportedly with the support of a KwaZulu-Natal cohort led by the provincial ANC chairperson, Sihle Zikalala.
Professor of politics at the University of Cape Town Anthony Butler says Mkhize, like Ramaphosa, is likely to benefit from a resistance to Zuma and the premier league.
“It’s fair to say that Zweli Mkhize, in particular, is a very strong and capable challenger for the position, who will receive a lot of support,” he says.
Resistance to the premier league in KwaZulu-Natal could also come into play in the voting for the party’s deputy president. Five of the province’s 11 regions are understood to be standing behind the ousted provincial premier, Senzo Mchunu, who has been vocal about wanting Ramaphosa to succeed Zuma. Should the group be successful, Mkhize may be pushed as a potential deputy to Ramaphosa.
If Motlanthe and Mkhize are to become viable candidates, their supporters will have to launch their respective campaigns shortly after the litter of the January 8 celebration has been swept up. But, as lobbying starts, the party will still have to contend with winning back the trust of voters, if the new party leader is to have anything to lead.
Political analyst Shadrack Gutto says it would be in the best interests of the party to demonstrate a willingness to transform in the January 8 statement.
“It is a critical moment when we hope that those who will speak between now and on the eighth of January would be able to admit that the ANC is on a slippery slope in terms of its advancement,” he said.
“Not enough has been done and, if the ANC wants to revive itself and reinvent itself, they should not regurgitate the usual things we hear on public platforms on the eighth of January. People are getting tired of that.”