’The old man is desperate now’

Smile for the camera: President Jacob Zuma shuffles along with his preferred successor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her rival for the position of ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa (left) (Delwyn Verasamy)

Smile for the camera: President Jacob Zuma shuffles along with his preferred successor Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her rival for the position of ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa (left) (Delwyn Verasamy)

With the upcoming ANC elective conference in peril, President Jacob Zuma has lobbied ANC leaders in a desperate bid for unity, confiding that he fears for his legacy.

Faced with the ticking time bomb of legal challenges in its key provinces, the ANC leadership is attempting to reach political consensus to prevent court actions from bringing its national conference to a halt.

The interventions come at a time when polarisation in the party is so pronounced that provincial legal battles have the potential to stop the conference from taking place.

ANC provincial leaders who met Zuma reacted with scepticism to his calls for unity, denouncing it as “too little, too late”, and quizzed the president on his vocal backing of party presidential candidate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

On Thursday, the Pietermaritzburg high court reserved judgment on an application by branches, led by Vryheid councillor Lawrence Dube, for a declaratory order enforcing the removal of the ANC’s KwaZulu-Natal provincial executive committee from office. The court also reserved judgment on an application for leave to appeal its September 12 ruling that the provincial conference was “unlawful” and its outcome null and void.

On Wednesday, the Free State provincial conference was effectively stopped from going ahead by a Bloemfontein high court ruling that branch general meetings were unlawful and needed to be rerun.

In the space of a week, not only has Zuma met the seven ANC presidential hopefuls in the race to replace him, but he also met the party’s provincial top brass to ask them to enforce ground rules for the elective conference to defuse tensions among delegates.

ANC insiders told the Mail & Guardian this week that Zuma made a passionate plea for unity while meeting the party’s top six officials, presidential hopefuls, provincial chairs and secretaries. 

He appealed to the provincial leaders to ensure that all delegates attending the conference did not wear T-shirts bearing the faces of their preferred candidates and that they desisted from singing divisive songs, to avoid collapsing the conference.

Although Zuma’s suggestion to have a losing presidential candidate automatically become the party’s deputy president was rejected by most delegates at the ANC policy conference, it appears more leaders are warming to the idea.

A senior ANC leader close to the negotiations told the M&G this week that provincial leaders were seriously considering proposals to change the structure of the party’s national officials in a bid to ensure the party’s December conference does not implode. The mooted changes include creating a second ANC deputy president position and two more deputy secretaries general.

In a meeting on Monday between Zuma and the seven ANC presidential hopefuls and provincial secretaries, opposing factions were lobbied to agree “not to collapse the conference”, as the losing group had done at the Eastern Cape elective gathering.

“Oscar [Mabuyane, ANC Eastern Cape chairperson] said it clearly [in the meeting]: when people see the writing on the wall and will of the branches is expressed, the losing side mustn’t disrupt the conference,” a provincial leader who attended the meeting told the M&G anonymously.

The possibility of a compromise set of leaders will be clearer once the conference credentials have been adopted and proposals to amend the party’s constitution have been heard.
The constitution requires two-thirds of conference delegates to agree before an amendment can be passed.

“If we start with organisational redesign and secure a two-thirds agreement, it becomes easier for provinces to negotiate a deal on people to run the organisation in different positions,” a senior ANC leader told the M&G.

Even though Zuma made a strong case for a united party leadership when he meet presidential candidates and provincial leaders, he was also confronted by some leaders about his endorsement of Dlamini-Zuma in January.

“We were calling him out and said: ‘Look, for you to be a broker of unity, it’s not genuine.’ Because if it was genuine, he wouldn’t have chosen his ex-wife to be the anointed one. He doesn’t have credibility. When he spoke, he only spoke about the importance of unity on a broader scale.”

Ramaphosa’s backers believe they have the support of the party in five provinces: the Western Cape, the Northern Cape, the Eastern Cape, Gauteng and Limpopo.

A provincial leader who attended the meeting said the unity being proposed by Zuma was “fake” and that it could not happen at the expense of doing what was right.

“The old man is desperate now. He wants to accommodate his people on the CR [Cyril Ramaphosa] list. We raised it with him that you can’t reconcile right and wrong. Conference is not about accommodating people; it’s about making sure the will of branches prevails.

“So, we are holding the line and we are not going to fall for his fake unity. The will of the branches must be expressed. As custodians of the branches, we will make sure that happens,” the provincial leader added.

At one point in the meeting, the leader says Zuma expressed concern about his legacy.

“He said, as outgoing president, he’s concerned about his legacy. And we feel it’s a little bit too late to worry about the legacy. He had many opportunities to unify the organisation and he chose not to. So when it comes to unity, the horses have bolted already — many of the concerns are late,” the leader said.

Former ANC treasurer and current presidential hopeful Mathews Phosa, a vocal Zuma critic, said he believed the president’s concerns were genuine. He was happy that Zuma had kept to the commitment he made during the dinner with presidential candidates by organising a follow-up meeting with provincial chairs and secretaries on Monday to find a workable solution that could unite the party post-conference.

“He [Zuma] looked at all scenarios. He sees potential disruption at the conference. His concerns are genuine and founded. He is acting in good faith. We [the presidential candidates] met with chairpersons and secretaries. We reaffirmed our position about what was discussed, that we must have a successful conference. No one will sing songs that are divisive. Delegates must have one T-shirt. Everything must be about the ANC and not individuals,” said Phosa.

KwaZulu-Natal ANC chairperson Sihle Zikalala, one of Dlamini-Zuma’s strongest backers, has called for all the presidential candidates, and those vying for the post of secretary general, to be automatically included in the party’s national executive committee (NEC) to prevent a potential breakaway by supporters of a defeated slate.

“That will help us address the issue of ‘winner takes all’, where you have the whole NEC elected by people who are coming from one political thinking,’’ he said.  Zikalala said the proposal was “not an issue that must be a policy”, but rather “something we must engage and canvass other provinces on”.

Zikalala said they “welcome” Zuma’s initiative. But “it is the provinces, not the president, who say who must be elected. It is us in the provinces who must work on unity.”

Zikalala said KwaZulu-Natal was not party to any discussions around placing Dlamini-Zuma as Ramaphosa’s deputy on a consensus slate. He said rumours that she wanted to withdraw and was being persuaded to stay in the presidential race were “lies and propaganda”.

“This is wrong. She is going to stand,” he said.

Zikalala said the pundits projecting a Ramaphosa victory were “wrong”, as Dlamini-Zumahad the support of 25% of delegates through her dominance in KwaZulu-Natal alone.

Zikalala said the media had “falsified” the coverage of the run-up to the ANC’s Polokwane conference by projecting a victory for then-president Thabo Mbeki.

Between now and December 16, he said, KwaZulu-Natal would focus on policy issues and “engage on building unity in a way that will ensure that, while there will be a contest, it will not set us apart. Nobody should leave the ANC.”

ANC struggle stalwart Andrew Mlangeni said he disagreed with Zuma’s suggestion to make the losing presidential candidate deputy president, warning it was too late to change the party constitution to accommodate this.

Mlangeni endorsed Ramaphosa to lead the party to the 2019 national elections and beyond. “I want Cyril [as the next ANC leader]. We can’t move from Zuma to Zuma. No.”

Mlangeni said, if Dlamini-Zuma were elected, the country was likely to be captured again. “We know the influence that the Guptas have on Zuma. If Dlamini-Zuma wins and becomes president, the Guptas will work through President Zuma to reach her,” said Mlangeni.

He said, although he first preferred Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor as Ramaphosa’s deputy, he did not have a problem with Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu taking the role.

Meanwhile, on Thursday, the Eastern Cape officially nominated Ramaphosa as its preferred candidate to succeed Zuma. Ramaphosa received 423 nominations and Dlamini-Zuma 61. ANC treasurer Zweli Mkhize was nominated as deputy president with 193 votes, beating Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza, who received 190 votes. — Additional reporting by Matuma Letsoalo

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