/ 14 December 2022

ANC conference: Phala Phala must not detract from critical governance issues

(John McCann/M&G)

On 22 November, the head of the ANC’s electoral committee, former president Kgalema Motlanthe, announced the procedures and results of branch nominations for the party’s top six positions ahead of the party’s 55th national conference, due to start this week.

Soon after the announcement, the ANC and South Africa became embroiled in the fallout from the section 89 panel report commissioned by parliament into events at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s private game farm, Phala Phala. 

The Phala Phala matter is serious. It has constitutional and political implications for the separation of powers and the rule of law. It also relates to the degree of accountability and transparency citizens can expect from leaders in a democratic society.

It would be a missed opportunity if Phala Phala distracts ANC delegates and leaders from considering other critical, longer-term issues relevant to South Africa and its ruling party. 

These include the fight against corruption, rising instability, the energy crisis, growing dissatisfaction with democracy and the ANC’s approach to the imminent prospect of coalitions at every level of government.

Although the electoral politics of the conference will dominate proceedings, whoever emerges victorious must be clear-eyed about these difficulties the party and country face. 

Politically, one area of interest in the run-up to the 55th conference is how the results of the branch nominations were not slate based. Ramaphosa is leading the presidential contest without a slate or other candidates with whom he is contesting. The absence of rigid slates suggests a dynamic state of play, where even candidates who are not supported by their home provinces find expressions of support in and outside their home provinces. 

This is seen in how the leading candidate for the position of secretary general, Mdumiseni Ntuli, the former ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary, is leading nominations despite not being the officially preferred candidate of his home province

Although these branch nominations give a picture of what the outcomes of the conference may look like, there are still some possibilities for deviation. Branches, depending on their membership size, receive delegate allocations in terms of voting power.

These last-minute dynamics were also at play during the 54th ANC conference in 2017. The most prominent example was when the incumbent deputy president, David Mabuza, used his “unity” approach to support Ramaphosa against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. 

At the time, Mabuza’s home province, Mpumalanga, had the second-highest number of branches, all of which then followed Mabuza’s approach. We can expect such undercurrents to re-emerge at the 55th conference. 

Following the section 89 panel’s report’s recommendation that there may be grounds to institute impeachment proceedings against Ramaphosa, the applicability and future of the “step-aside” rule is once again a key discussion point. 

The step-aside rule effectively determines that any ANC leader with viable charges of public wrongdoing against them should step down from their position in the party. 

Linked to this is the broader emphasis Ramaphosa himself has placed on the rule when facilitating the suspension of party leaders including Ace Magashule, an emphasis upheld by the constitutional court. 

Should Ramaphosa be criminally charged post-conference, and the step-aside rule, therefore, is applicable to him in the future, the next deputy president of the ANC might be the one to take the party to its 56th national conference in 2027. 

Because impeachment is a political process, the ANC, after its national working committee and national executive committee (NEC) meetings, has decided that the party will be voting against impeachment in parliament. 

The ANC occupies 57.50% of the National Assembly and the failure to impeach Ramaphosa in parliament on Tuesday this week put an abrupt end to this legislative process. 

But the ANC and its members have not always maintained a clear relationship with democratic centralism. That is, political decisions taken by the NEC, the highest decision-making body between the party’s national conferences, are meant to be binding on all members of the ANC. In practice, this is not always the case. 

In 2017, for instance, to counter a motion of no confidence against former president Jacob Zuma, the NEC decided that the ANC in parliament would vote against the motion. Yet, citing their conscience, some ANC MPs decided that they would ignore the party line and vote for the motion of no confidence.

At the ANC’s policy conference in July, some party members and provincial leaders expressed their frustration with the framing and application of the step-aside rule. Some called for a review of the rule, while others called for it to be scrapped. 

Looking at the political dynamics presented by the section 89 panel report, which has resulted in some members and leaders of the ANC calling for Ramaphosa to step aside as ANC president and president of the country, it is vital to track what the position of the ANC on the step-aside rule will be. 

Will those who were calling for its scrapping retain this position, or will they attempt to leave it as it is and hope that it will soon be applicable to Ramaphosa? The outcome of this debate will have major long-term implications for the fight against corruption in both the ANC and state institutions.

Another longer-term discussion point that the ANC needs to start addressing this week and beyond is developing an approach to coalition governments beyond “being open to talking to everybody”. 

An actual plan on coalitions is overdue and requires renewed urgency given the tangible possibility that the party loses its absolute majority in the 2024 national elections.

The issue of coalitions was a brief discussion point at July’s policy conference. But apart from a solitary mention of the potential need for legislation to help formalise coalition agreements, most discussions on the topic were self-serving. The policy conference report lamented the instability of coalitions without reflecting on how the ANC’s reduced esteem among voters caused these coalitions to emerge in the first place.

Until now, neither the ANC nor opposition parties have adapted to this altered state of affairs. At the metropolitan council level in both 2016 and 2021, opposition parties essentially refused to productively hold discussions with the ruling party in coalition talks, despite the ANC still maintaining its status as the largest party in most of these councils. 

Initially consigned to the opposition benches in these councils, the ANC has, with some success, tactically exploited divisions in weak coalition governments. Such instability has had a materially adverse effect on the provision of basic services in cities such as Johannesburg.

The consequences of this dynamic extending to the national level after 2024 would be disastrous in exacerbating unstable governance and consequent despair among citizens. As the largest party, the ANC and its incoming leadership bear a responsibility requiring it to develop a coherent approach to this issue. 

Any plan pursued requires humility and reflection from the ruling party, especially regarding the shifting demographics of the country. Presently, the median South African is in their late 20s. 

So, the ANC must realise that for much of the country, it is not seen as an exiled and imprisoned symbol of hope and resistance that overcame the evils of apartheid. 

Rather, it is the only party of government tens of millions of South Africans have ever known at any level — for good or bad.

As ever, Nelson Mandela serves as a lodestar on the pragmatic approach required. Recently, Long Walk to Freedom ghostwriter Richard Stengel emphasised the importance that Mandela and his contemporaries placed on the attribute of maturity through its association with “judgment, self-control and measuredness”. 

To operate as the stabilising force our country needs, it is essential that the party our founding democratic president once led is resolute in exemplifying these qualities.

Mxolisi Zondo is a researcher at Good Governance Africa and Pranish Desai is a data analyst in its governance insights and analytics programme.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.