Baleka Mbete and the art of chairing an ANC conference

Starry-eyed: The ANC chairperson says that, in another life, she’d pursue her passion for the arts (Gallo Images, The Times, Alon Skuy)

Starry-eyed: The ANC chairperson says that, in another life, she’d pursue her passion for the arts (Gallo Images, The Times, Alon Skuy)

Baleka Mbete will be the person to watch during the ANC elective conference in three weeks’ time. Not because the speaker of the National Assembly is vying to become president, but because she will preside over what is likely to be the party’s most highly charged elective conference since 2007.

In the run-up to its 54th national conference, the 106-year-old liberation movement-cum-political party has encountered an unprecedented number of court challenges and threats of legal action in four provinces over internal party processes. There have been nomination disputes across all nine provinces.

Mbete is one of seven ANC presidential candidates.
But her campaign has not gathered steam, compared with those of other hopefuls such as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and Lindiwe Sisulu.

She was initially thought to be President Jacob Zuma’s preferred candidate, but Dlamini-Zuma has replaced her as the favourite.

Following a two-month nomination process, the ANC has already exceeded the 70% threshold of branches necessary to convene a national conference. But unresolved tensions between warring factions are likely to play themselves out during the first day of conference — particularly about the contentious issue of delegate credentials — something that will surely test Mbete’s capability to handle them.

As chairperson, Mbete will have the duty of ensuring that the conference does not descend into Polokwane-like chaos. During that conference, then secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe was forced to take to the podium to quell the tensions after then chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota was relentlessly booed by delegates.

Nasrec 2017 will be the second ANC conference Mbete will preside over since she was elected chairperson in 2007, the first woman to occupy the position. Mbete handled the 2012 Mangaung elective conference fairly well but this could have been because the contest for the top position, between Motlanthe and Zuma, was not as close as contests for the position were in 2007 and will be in 2017.

In contrast, her performance as speaker of the National Assembly has cast a different light on her presiding ability, with numerous claims that she is unable to maintain order.

Since her appointment in 2014, she has faced a motion of no confidence in Parliament for being biased, has been criticised for ordering the violent removal of Economic Freedom Fighters MPs and has been found wanting by the Constitutional Court on the Nkandla matter.

Mbete told the Mail & Guardian this week she was ready to ensure that the high-stakes ANC conference runs smoothly. “We must just do what we need to do to be able to run a good conference,” she said.

But she is concerned about the unprecedented number of disputes. “I’m very worried. In the Free State there are 50 new disputes. If you have 50 new disputes now, what does that mean in terms of the process? Because it means you need time to deal with them all and leave no question marks, as you go into conference, that anyone has been kept out.”

Mbete’s political career has included serving as secretary general of the ANC Women’s League and as deputy president of the country between 2008 and 2009.

Though becoming president is her ultimate goal, Mbete said her political career was almost overshadowed by a different passion — the arts.

“At [the age of] five, I would be standing next to my dad. He would be playing the piano and teaching me certain songs. I remember those things with a lot more warmth in me than anything else that I remember.

“In my next life I’ll focus on the arts … I promise you. When I come back to the Earth, I’ll sing, I’ll write poetry and short stories.”

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