/ 17 December 2022

The ANC has lost its moorings

Anc 55 National Conference 7643
Opening day of the ANC 55th National Conference. Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

The Ghosts of ANC Conferences past wafted eerily through the sweaty corridors of Nasrec, Johannesburg, during the course of day one of the 55th edition of the ruling party’s five-yearly gathering of the clan.

There was chaos, confusion and contestation on the credentials and registration front that pock-marked day one of Nasrec 1.0 in 2017.

Then there was the attempt by a group of delegates, mainly from KwaZulu-Natal but with some Gautengers lending support across the aisle of the two of the four biggest delegations that are positioned directly in front of the podium in the plenary hall, to disrupt the start of Cyril Ramaphosa’s “political report”.

“Hey, Phala Phala, what has Zuma done?”, was the initial ballad. A direct challenge to the current president from the supporters of his predecessor.

Shades of Polokwane in 2007, the main difference to that watershed conference being that then the disrupters, with their famously explicit hand-rotating “substitution” sign, were not just noisy but also in the majority.

On Friday, they were noisy (for a while) but no more than 20% of the delegates, and at the first whiff of cordite — ANC chair Gwede Mantashe calling for security to come to the front — they blinked and shut up.

But then the Disrupter-in-Chief made his deviously-timed entrance. Zuma being Zuma, as ever. Utterly incorrigible, coming hard on the heels of his absurdly desperate attempt to trigger the step-aside rule against Ramaphosa with a legally invalid private prosecution.

[related_posts_sc article_id=”535995″]

As various colleagues complained bitterly about Zuma’s latest act of mischief, I had to recall the fact that Nelson Mandela did exactly the same to Thabo Mbeki at almost exactly the same point in Mbeki’s political report to the Stellenbosch conference of 2002.

Mbeki was not best pleased.

A great deal of political milk has been spilt by this party in the 20 years since. The regalia is the same and the singing has the same catchy resonance. But, in those two decades, the ANC has dispensed with so many of its primary conventions and practices.

For example, and very importantly for what will happen this weekend with the election for the top seven positions and the additional members of the 80-strong national executive committee (NEC), there are not the slates circulating that used to be such a significant part of the electoral politics of the ANC.

At least not in the form, or with the heft, of, say, Stellenbosch, when I recall neatly compiled and annotated, photo-copied lists being distributed by the Mbeki camp, signalling clearly to his supporters which of the nominated candidates he required to serve on the NEC to ensure that he would have maximum support.

Zuma doubled down on this, locking in his political power into a supplicant NEC.

Ramaphosa and his team lack the political muscle or nous to achieve the same. The president’s campaigning appears as disjointed as the organisational shambles that surrounds the conference.

Yet, he may well increase his share of the vote in the contest for president. Anything over 60% — up from 52% in 2017 — will feel like a big win for him, given recent travails and his record at the helm of government, load-shedding and all the rest of it, even allowing for the mitigating factors such as Covid-19.

But, he may well end up with such a potpourri of a top-seven and such an uncongenial NEC that he will be more, not less, shackled by the new leadership compared even with the poisoned chalice he inherited following his victory five years ago.

The days of a winner-take-all slate taking power in the ANC for the next five years are long gone. Things are too messy, too fractured, too ill-disciplined. Hence, the notion of “unity” or “reunification” becomes even more illusory and futile.

Look at what happened on Tuesday and Friday this week. After his narrow victory in 2017, Ramaphosa in reconciliatory fashion gave his defeated opponent, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, a seat in his cabinet; on Tuesday, she stood up and defiantly voted in favour of the motion to proceed with the impeachment.

And five years into the unity and “renewal” project, Ramaphosa was rewarded with an explicit attempt by some KwaZulu-Natal and Gauteng delegates to undermine his leadership on Friday.

This party is beyond re-unification; it is beyond redemption.

Ramaphosa has invested so much of his political capital on this mission impossible that it weakened his leadership in government, although much of this is caused by his not confronting the true strategic dilemmas facing his administration.

Despite signs of greater boldness and strength in the past couple of weeks since he almost resigned post-Phala Phala independent panel report, which may have served to stiffen his support among delegates rather than undermine it — this is a party that tends to gravitate towards political strength rather than weakness, as do most political organisations — he was again at his weakest worst on Friday.

When dealing with his government’s response to some of the more contentious or vacuous policy resolutions from Nasrec 2017 — such as the pointless “nationalisation” of the Reserve Bank or expropriation of land without compensation — instead of saying “my government considered the matter and decided against them, and we must rethink this in the policy commissions this conference”, he ducked and dived around the issues, pretending that he’d tried his damnedest and only failed because of countervailing factors beyond his control.

Again, this attempt to avoid confrontation to build consensus is counterproductive.

A look inside the auditorium reserved for delegates at the ANC 55th Elective Conference in Nasrec Photo: Delwyn Verasamy

This is not the ANC of 10 let alone 20 or 30 years ago. Those equilibrium points of consensus are beyond reach now. It is too consumed by the contestation for power and patronage. Policy and ideological fights are conspicuous by their absence.

Yet, it stumbles on. For this is a party that is desperately trying to relocate its moorings, having lost touch with so many of its organisational cultural tenets over the past two decades.

So the spectral apparitions are real as well as metaphorical. This is a political entity that seems far more comfortable living in the past, ghosts an’ all, let alone the future, rather than confronting the grim realities of a socio-economically precarious present that is to a very large extent the result of almost three decades of ANC government.

It was notable, for example, that the opening song of the attempted shutdown protest at the start of Ramaphosa’s address to conference was not in support of his opponent, Zweli Mkhize, nor any other current political leader in the ANC.

Mkhize, Paul Mashatile, Stan Mathabatha — who is contesting the position as Mantashe fights for his political career — these are pale shadows of the ANC’s leadership figures of the past.

Instead, the protestors were singing for the ghoul who casts the longest and darkest shadow: Zuma.

Flustered by the crisis of the present, and so trapped by the past that it cannot look ahead, this is a party whose future lies behind it.

Whoever wins power will find a different kind of future rushing at them head on before they can properly get their feet under the table. 

2024 leaves the ANC with no time to reset its strategic compass, and so this is almost certain to be the last conference to take place during the term of an ANC majority government.

The spectre of what comes next will be far more unnerving than the phantoms of the past.

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