At dusk on Sunday December 17, as the ANC tied itself in knots about conference credentials and leadership nominations, a senior member of the party’s national executive committee (NEC) huddled with a handful of journalists at the Nasrec conference centre in Johannesburg.
He wanted to know how they viewed the presidential race, and what each outcome would mean for the ANC’s prospects in 2019. When it came time to give his own predictions, the NEC member explained that he was not a committed Cyril Ramaphosa supporter but believed that, if the ANC chose him over his opponent, the party would “get something close to its two-thirds majority back” in the next election.
Ramaphosa’s win has since come to pass but most journalists and other pundits remain unconvinced about that 2019 election prediction. Not least because, when the votes were finally tallied the next day, Ramaphosa’s victory seemed so … partial.
The evenly split top six officials structure makes even the day-to-day running of party matters, let alone long-term strategic decision-making, a matter of complex give and take. But will it make taking the corrective action the ANC needs between now and 2019 impossible, as most pundits seemed to conclude in the initial reaction to the leadership elections?
Although it is true that, with the top six split right down the middle, we would do well not to forget the power of the presidency. Whatever the ANC says, the top six is not a gathering of equals. A president can always sway, but a new president can command. Challenged to choose between lingering loyalty to President Jacob Zuma and building a working relationship with Ramaphosa, it’s likely every member of the top six will throw their weight behind the rising power, not the lame duck.
It is also probable Ramaphosa and his backers hold a slender 46/40 votes advantage in the new NEC. More can be won, and he is more likely to gain followers than lose any, because most of the 80 “additional members” in the NEC are people who expect to be appointed to the national executive, as provincial premiers, to senior parliamentary positions, parastatal boards, ambassadorships, and so on. Their longer-term future lies with the new president of the ANC, not the old president of the Republic. It is therefore in the personal interest of all of them to help Ramaphosa get to the Union Buildings in 2019.
So how does the ANC win in 2019? The first step will not necessarily be the hardest but it is potentially the most divisive. And that first step is to release Zuma from office. The plan had always been to effect this between the party’s January 8 statement and the State of the Nation address in early February.
The second step is to restore confidence in the country’s governance institutions, mainly by appointing men and women of integrity and competence. The first opportunity to do this will be the appointment of the national director of public prosecutions, upon which hangs so much for the ANC, the state and Ramaphosa’s predecessor.
The third step, which is linked to the second, is to follow all legal processes to their conclusion. In other words, prosecute. There is more than enough evidence of wanton lawbreaking even from within the Cabinet. The ANC must demonstrate that it will neither encourage nor tolerate impunity.
Fourth, appoint the judicial commission into state capture without delay, on the terms set down by the public protector and confirmed by the high court in Pretoria, and hope that it completes its work and that its findings are acted upon before the elections.
Fifth, fix the state-owned companies. All have been looted and deliberately broken, with only one or two exceptions.
Sixth, restore credibility to the treasury and other instruments of state policy implementation. Tackle the trust gap among the economic actors. This will mean talking to and winning back the trust of not just business and investors, but also the labour and community sectors. If we are to stave off further slippage, the treasury and economic policy can no longer be a political football in the hands of a third-rate demagogue.
Seventh, find a careful and creative way to defuse the hand grenade Zuma lobbed at the new ANC leadership when he unilaterally promised “free tertiary education” without planning or budgeting for it. This has the potential to destroy the party’s relationship with the most important voter demographic just months before an election.
Last, but possibly most important for the ANC’s long-term survival, is to reconnect with the urban working class. Even if rural voters can still offset urban losses in national polls, this will not stop the loss of major cities in local elections nor help the party hold on to Gauteng, the country’s economic (and increasingly, political) heartland.
So, given the above, what are the likely scenarios for the ruling party in 2019?
The best case involves the ANC successfully negotiating the fraught landscape that this year will be, and achieving most if not all the eight conditions set out above. Under this scenario, the party would probably retain its electoral majority but the upper limit of that majority would still be 55% or slightly above. It does not involve recapturing something close to two-thirds of the vote because its urban support will remain depressed, especially in Gauteng. Under this scenario the party holds on to the province by a whisker, or with the help of some kind of coalition.
The second possibility sees the ANC struggling to convince enough of its wavering voters that it is genuinely charting a new course that promises to take the party and the country away from the depravities of the Zuma era. Essentially the internecine warfare that has characterised the past 10 years continues into 2019, even if Ramaphosa’s reformists hold a slight edge.
Under this scenario the national vote share declines to 45% to 50%, necessitating delicate negotiations for Ramaphosa to win the presidency, possibly with the Economic Freedom Fighters and other smaller parties, possibly even with its alliance partner the South African Communist Party (SACP).
The worst-case scenario, at least for the ANC, is that the party tears itself apart in its attempts to exorcise the Zuma contagion. Ramaphosa completely misses or mismanages the opportunity he has won to renew the party.
Neither the new president and his allies nor their opponents can impose their preferred direction on the party, and the ANC either stagnates or, worse still, breaks apart ahead of the elections. Whatever remains of the ANC limps over the line with just 40% of the vote in 2019. Gauteng is lost to an opposition coalition. Though still the largest party nationally (and governing seven of the provinces), the ANC is unable to form a government.
Which of these scenarios comes to pass could be determined by two wild-card factors. The first is Zuma himself, or at least his fate. Nothing is a foregone conclusion. Holding Zuma accountable for his crimes to the fullest extent of the law — even if in the end he never serves a day of jail time — sends the strongest signal from the ANC to the country that the time of impunity is over. But the flipside is that it could split the party and weaken it ahead of 2019.
On the other hand, a “deal” that gets Zuma out of the Union Buildings but spares him prosecution could be greeted with both relief that he’s gone, and anger that the ANC has engineered a way for him to “get away with it”. That perception has unpredictable consequences for the party.
The second joker in the pack will be the actions of the alliance, particularly the SACP. The party is not relenting on its call to “reconfigure” the alliance, and what it understands that term to mean will not be known until it plays all its cards.
In essence then, the fate of the ANC over the coming 18 months will depend on what the ruling party does, but it will also hang on the outcomes of the SACP’s mooted special national congress and labour federation Cosatu’s 13th national congress in December.
Vukani Mde is a founder and partner at LEFTHOOK, a Johannesburg-based research and strategy consultancy