Cyril Ramaphosa is winning the race to be the next ANC president. The evidence is messy and tricky to harvest, but among the ANC branches that have completed their nomination processes, the deputy president has a significant lead.
You speak to CR17 supporters from across the ANC’s broad political church and they all whisper the same message: “As things stand, if it’s free and fair, Cyril will win.”
Therein lies the persistent, nagging doubt that causes sleepless nights for Ramaphosa’s allies and campaign team. First of all, a substantial number of ANC branches have yet to complete their general meetings at which they make their nominations and elect the delegates that will carry the branch’s mandate to the conference in less than four weeks’ time.
At face value, the results so far suggest that Ramaphosa’s only serious rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ), is going to need to win as much as 70%, if not more, of the remaining branch nominations if she is to pip him to the post.
There is but one caveat to this projection: no analysis of results so far has grappled with the thorny issue of branch size — and hence the number of delegates each branch will contribute to the ANC’s overall electoral college. So far, analysts have dealt only with branch nominations.
It is possible that some of the bigger branches may favour NDZ — although, ironically, given the grand gerrymandering strategy of its provincial baron, David Mabuza, some of the biggest branches in Mpumalanga have nominated CR17.
Second, there is concern about whether the branch mandates will hold. They might not. The provincial leadership — or, in the case of certain provinces, barons such as Mabuza — may intervene and tinker with the figures.
This has always been a part of the ANC electoral process — the “nuance” of the process, as seasoned insiders refer to it.
Traditionally, the role of the party’s provincial general council was to “consolidate” the various nomination lists on the basis of organisational values such as ethnic and gender balance — often made with reference to the famous Eye of a Needle document prepared by the ANC leadership in the early 2000s.
But often, and increasingly so in the more recent elections of 2007 and 2012, the provincial intervention was about securing votes for a particular candidate or faction and thereby reversing the choices of the individual branches.
This time round Luthuli House, and especially ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe and his team, have gone out of their way to try to insulate the branch mandates from undue provincial leadership interference, adopting extraordinary measures. This includes having an ANC national executive committee member present at each branch general meeting — adding a layer of additional procedural complexity that has caused delays in some cases — or employing more rudimentary techniques such as using carbon paper to make three copies of the voting choices of the branch: one for the provincial leadership, one for the branch secretary and one for the election commission of the ANC. A very 1970s retro touch.
Which takes one neatly to the third lingering worry. Unlike, say, a delegate to the annual Labour Party conference in Britain — who must vote openly on every motion and can therefore (and I speak from personal experience) be held to account by the constituency that mandated him or her — at the ANC’s national conference a secret ballot is used.
Because the people who run the ANC’s electoral process are both tough and independent, there is little doubt that the actual voting on December 18 or 19 will be kosher. But, as the old proverb has it, there’s many a slip ’twixt cup and lip.
There are very real concerns that delegates will be bribed or blackmailed by the pro-President Jacob Zuma faction between now and the conference — some delegates have told the CR17 campaign that they have been offered R25 000 for their support, a pretty persuasive figure for most, one would think.
Thus, the secret ballot could work either way. It could provide protection to the delegate, or it could give him or her a shield to depart from their mandate. In other words, in such cases they will have to choose between fidelity to the branch mandate they were given and the bribe they have taken.
Last, there is a fear of the “curveball”. It’s code for a final Zuma move that whisks victory away from Ramaphosa in the final furlong.
No one can adequately describe what it will look like, other than the so-far failed attempt to force a postponement of the conference. But, having underestimated Zuma for so long, those of us whose job it is to try to make sense of political events are now in danger of overcompensating.
Still, the rebuttable if perfectly reasonable presumption is this: if Zuma and his patronage network and wider faction in the ANC see only defeat on the horizon, then they will do whatever it takes to retain power and halt a CR17 victory.
Much attention has focused on Mpumalanga and Mabuza’s potential kingmaker role. But, on the basis of the current trends in results, even if in the end 80% of the province’s delegation of 736 (second only in size to KwaZulu-Natal’s 870) is steered towards NDZ, Ramaphosa can still squeak home.
Mabuza may yet emerge as Ramaphosa’s number two, whether he wants him or not. The bold decision of the CR17 campaign team to announce its full top-six slate a few weeks ago raised many an eyebrow but, regardless of Naledi Pandor’s strengths and weaknesses as a politician, presenting her as his running mate for deputy president was a sign of strength.
It said to all and sundry: “Don’t make assumptions” and, above all, “Mine is the ‘clean-up’ campaign, the change campaign.”
But it was also a play. Because, in the end, you don’t always get what you want in politics — and the best politicians are those who can recognise where the real red lines are to be drawn.
I suspect Ramaphosa has done a deal with Mabuza. The risk for Ramaphosa is that it is a deal he may come to regret — if Mabuza becomes an obstacle to the “change” and “New Deal” agenda that Ramaphosa must impose with utmost vigour and ruthlessness if he prevails.
Crispian Olver’s extraordinary account of the attempt to clean up Port Elizabeth (How to Steal a City) suggests that the ANC is beyond redemption and that whoever wins next month will inherit a broken and fatally divided party.
What is absolutely clear is that, if Ramaphosa is to have even the slightest chance of succeeding, he will need not only to win but to win decisively — and with a national executive committee that will provide the same level of political cover as the current one has delivered for Zuma, who has prosecuted his brazen, if ultimately doomed attempt, to steal a democratic state.
We have reached what ex-Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson used to call “squeaky bum time” — the final weeks of the football season. Nerves will have to hold on all sides as a once-great political movement approaches a fork in the road.
Richard Calland’s latest book is Make or Break: How the Next Three Years Will Shape South Africa’s Next Three Decades (Penguin Random House)