/ 8 December 2017

The Cat is out of the bag in the race to anoint the Chosen One

Baleka Mbete with KwaZulu-Natal officials Sihle Zikalala
Baleka Mbete with KwaZulu-Natal officials Sihle Zikalala

Thursday morning. The rain has stopped after what seems a lifetime. The sun’s crawling upwards through the grey blanket of cloud hanging over the Durban harbour.

The light has an air of purity, even innocence, about it, as if it has been cleansed by the days of incessant rain. It’s dead still.

I drink in the moment of quiet beauty. It’s as if I’m inhaling it, storing it in my body. In a little more than a week we’ll be at Nasrec in Soweto. I fear we may not see much innocence or purity at the ANC’s elective conference, given what’s at stake and the way things have gone in the run-up.

After the provincial general councils (PGCs), the leadership race is down to either ANC MP Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa. It’s either We Are Ready or Siyavuma. The Third Way appears dead, if it ever was alive.

The self-nominated presidential hopefuls, as KwaZulu-Natal ANC chairperson Sihle Zikalala called them this week, have been winnowed out by the branches. Any dream that Lindiwe Sisulu, Mathews Phosa or Jeff Radebe was going to emerge as the Jesus of Nasrec has come to a somewhat abrupt end.

ANC national chair Baleka Mbete and treasurer general Zweli Mkhize didn’t have much fun at the KwaZulu-Natal provincial council. In his political report, Zikalala tore into them for throwing their hats into the ring. Mkhize in particular got a lashing from Zikalala, who is very specific in his interpretation of what the term “unity” means in the ANC.

Neither Mkhize nor Mbete stuck around for Zikalala’s closing address on Tuesday. Or the carefully stage-managed arrival of Dlamini-Zuma, to thank the comrades in person for endorsing her run for the presidency.

I did, even though I also caught a hiding. Mine was over my interpretation of which of Zikalala’s comrades was being lashed over their interpretation of unity. I went with ANC chairperson and Mpumalanga Premier David “DD” Mabuza.

The Cat, as Double Dee is known, dropped the “U word” at the Mpumalanga PGC last weekend. Along with 200-plus of the province’s branches, which suddenly turned teetotal and decided to abstain.

Clearly, some serious discussion had taken place between KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga behind the scenes. Mkhize’s unity proposals were opportunistic because he wanted to be the lahnee himself. Mabuza’s weren’t opportunistic because he wanted Dlamini-Zuma to be the boss, but he had purred in a rather Catlike fashion and, in return, had got himself a rather emphatic endorsement as deputy president from the comrades in KwaZulu-Natal. I had called the list of those being lashed wrong, it turned out.

An overnight correction wasn’t enough to keep me off the list of those being lashed, though. By 6.30am on Tuesday the provincial ANC had gone all Mangosuthu Buthelezi and issued a press statement about the story, which, theoretically, by that time no longer existed.

Fair enough. Politics, particularly in KwaZulu-Natal, is a full-contact sport. Not for the faint-hearted. Or the thin-skinned. Neither is writing about it.

The statement had to be issued, though. On Monday, Ramaphosa’s campaign pulled off something of a coup at the KwaZulu-Natal PGC. The Dlamini-Zuma camp has to be at the very least unsettled by the outcome, given the way the numbers are playing themselves out around the country.

At Polokwane, only one of the province’s branches backed Thabo Mbeki’s bid for the ANC presidency. At Mangaung, only a handful declared their support for Kgalema Motlanthe. Ahead of Nasrec, 191 of the 690 KwaZulu-Natal branches that made it to the PGC endorsed Ramaphosa. This time, the KwaZulu-Natal branches are no longer the kingmaker at conferences. The Mpumalanga branches are, it seems.

In this context, nobody wants to upset The Cat.