Ramaphosa faces internal revolt

Cyril Ramaphosa is likely to face an internal ANC revolt: his detractors in the national executive committee (NEC) plan to push back on a proposal to put all regional and provincial conferences on hold until after the general elections.

The proposal to delay regional and provincial conferences in KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Free State and Limpopo will dominate debate at this weekend’s NEC meeting in Cape Town.

Ramaphosa’s detractors will argue that the move is unconstitutional and could be challenged in court. His supporters will argue that delaying the conferences will help to avoid divisions and unite ANC members behind the party’s election campaign.

Ramaphosa’s opponents see the move as nothing but a calculated strategy by his supporters to influence the party’s list conference, which will select the ANC’s public representatives in Parliament and the provincial legislatures after the elections.

The ANC’s structures have remained divided since Ramaphosa defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s bid to become party president at the December elective conference. These tensions between rival factions now threaten to flare up again at provincial conferences, a number of senior leaders in the ruling party told the Mail & Guardian this week.

The proposal emanates from a meeting by the top six leadership and the national working committee (NWC).

The M&G also understands that ANC officials were discussing the idea of bringing forward the national election to this year to capitalise on Ramaphosa’s increased public support.

ANC insiders told the M&G this week that another reason to delay the conferences was that the ANC secretariat’s investigation into membership fraud was yet to be completed and there was a need to prevent bogus members from being elected into leadership positions.

“The key thing here is the membership system. Unless the system is sorted out you wouldn’t know who is the legitimate representative of the ANC,” said an NEC member sympathetic to Ramaphosa.

The ANC’s Free State and KwaZulu-Natal structures were disbanded by the courts last year, and are currently being run by the provincial task teams. Holding elective conferences in these provinces risks dividing the party even further, given that the Ramaphosa grouping controls the NEC by a slim margin.

“Conferences in their nature are very divisive. Each group is going to focus on itself and become self-serving. If you look today, all other parties such as the DA [Democratic Alliance] and EFF [Economic Freedom Fighters] are in election mode,” an NWC member told the M&G anonymously this week.

“If we are going to focus on internal issues instead of the bigger picture, we might suffer in elections. It’s better to postpone a conference than to lose power,” the leader added.

But an NEC member opposed to Ramaphosa warned that, if the NEC approved the proposal to delay the conferences, it would inevitably lead to a court challenge. Last year the courts set a precedent by dissolving the Free State ANC leadership structure because it had continued to operate after its five-year mandate had expired.

“The KwaZulu-Natal conference was challenged successfully. Free State was challenged successfully. Why does the ANC believe that taking such an unconstitutional decision will not be challenged in court,” said the anti-Ramaphosa NEC member.

KZN task team co-ordinator Sihle Zikalala said they had not yet been consulted about the proposal.

Some NEC members say provinces that have already prepared for their conferences are planning to oppose the proposal to delay them.

“Other provinces have been ready, they have set dates and they are ready to go to conferences, even tomorrow. Gauteng and the Free State are supposed to have sat. They must only rerun seven branches. KwaZulu-Natal is done with the audit of all regions, and started branch meetings on Monday,” said a second NWC member.

“Ramaphosa himself is leading the ANC through the courts,” a senior NEC member who opposes the proposal said anonymously.

The disqualification of branches from the Free State, North West and the KwaZulu-Natal leadership structures swung the balance of votes in Ramaphosa’s favour, the NEC member said. “The fact is that you had removed 170 delegates from conference through courts, so if today you say conferences should be postponed, it might appear disingenuous.”

Eastern Cape ANC secretary Lulama Ngcukaitobi said the proposal would not pass through the NEC easily, because his province still had several concerns.

“It can’t be a one-size-fits all situation because there will be areas where you cannot operate without electing structures, like if you take branches, they have to hold branch general meetings, so it may not affect all regions.”

The Western Cape ANC is also due to elect new leaders at a provincial general council in May. Secretary Faiez Jacobs said his province understood why Ramaphosa wanted to postpone the conferences and believed the ANC’s membership needed to be cleaned up and the organisation modernised.

A Western Cape provincial executive committee member who intends to argue against the move warned that, if the conferences are postponed, “all these Zuma types will stay in the organisation”.

Jacobs said Ramaphosa was driving a reconciliation agenda in the party but this has to be realistic.

“I understand the president’s view that we have to reconcile the two groups but where we cannot reconcile, we must hold the regional and provincial conferences,” he said.

The Western Cape ANC plans to argue that, even if the conferences were postponed, the ANC must ensure branches still hold their general meetings and elect leaders, to strengthen the organisation’s election machinery.

Mpumalanga ANC secretary Mandla Ndlovu said his province would only hold a general council to elect a new chairperson after David Mabuza left the position vacant when he became ANC deputy president. A postponement would also affect their plans.

“We are still finalising the membership audit, and we’ll be ready by next week. From May 1 branches will start to convene branch meetings to nominate a provincial chairperson,” Ndlovu said.

Free State ANC spokesperson Thabo Meeko said that, despite being run by an interim task team, the party in the province would still be able to campaign for elections.

“The NEC this weekend will give us further guidance so we don’t rush only for that conference to deepen divisions. But a postponement will not be untoward. If the NEC thinks we have capacity to run election campaigns in terms of the current interim structure, that will not be unusual.”

ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe said the agenda for the NEC meeting would be finalised when it starts on Friday afternoon. 

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Govan Whittles

Govan Whittles is a general news and political multimedia journalist at the Mail & Guardian. Born in King William's Town in the Eastern Cape, he cut his teeth as a radio journalist at Primedia Broadcasting. He produced two documentaries and one short film for the Walter Sisulu University, and enjoys writing about grassroots issues, national politics, identity, heritage and hip-hop culture.

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