The ANC constitution leaves no doubt about the authority of the movement’s national conference: it must be convened “at least once every five years”, and it is “the supreme ruling and controlling body of the ANC”.
Its formidable powers include determining the ANC’s policy, programme, and constitution, electing the “top six” officials and choosing the 80 additional members of the national executive committee (NEC).
As President Jacob Zuma’s power has ebbed, his attempt to impose Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as his successor has lost the little credibility it once enjoyed.
Given that the conference is now unlikely to assent easily to his plans for the future of the organisation, his strategists may contemplate four areas where there is space for escalation: rigging; smearing; vexatious litigation; and violence.
Rigging is harder than it seems, despite the money reportedly being pumped into vote buying, and the membership system manipulation that is now prevalent across the whole movement.
The composition of the NEC-appointed electoral commission that will oversee the elections will reflect the major factions contesting the conference. A deeply divided NEC will also be involved in overseeing auditing and delegate selection processes.
While the Mangaung conference saw Zuma walk away with an easy victory, he will not have the secretary-general on his side in December.
All bets are off once the conference convenes. Delegates will be asked to endorse the names of the electoral commissioners nominated by the NEC. Representatives from each province and league will then be added to the commission to oversee the nitty-gritty of the election.
Many of these representatives will work hard to protect the integrity of the secret ballot: processes will be designed to exclude electronic interventions by spies and crooks. The electoral commission will not allow cellphones to be taken into the polling booth to prevent delegates from forwarding pictures of their ballot papers to paymasters.
The ANC constitution states that the conference “shall determine its own procedures in accordance with democratic principles”. As was the case when Thabo Mbeki was defeated at the 2007 Polokwane conference, delegates are likely to insist on a painstaking manual count of all votes.
In these ways, Zuma’s security state and money-politics advantages could be neutralised. Indeed, the faction associated with secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa — former trade unionists both — is far more experienced than Zuma’s at the manipulation of contested mass elections.
The smearing of candidates on the Ramaphosa slate was always inevitable. The “nuclear relationship” between President Zuma and Russian President Vladimir Putin, however, poses a real risk of escalation.
A joint report in January by the three key US intelligence agencies observed that the Russian intelligence apparatus used sophisticated instruments to discredit presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Moscow blended “covert intelligence operations” such as cyber activity with “overt efforts” by “government agencies, state-funded media, third-party intermediaries, and paid social media trolls”.
The US intelligence reports plausibly argued that, “Moscow will apply lessons learnt from its Putin-ordered campaign aimed at the US presidential election to future influence efforts worldwide”.
Smear-scepticism, however, is now well established in SA. And any attempt to remove Ramaphosa from the ticket could simply result in the elevation of another candidate with a similar support profile — for example Lindiwe Sisulu — to the top of the anti-Zuma slate.
What then of legal interventions? A Constitutional Court ruling in 2012, inspired by nefarious factional activities in the Free State ANC, established the courts’ authority to intervene where parties have not followed their own internal procedures. A potentially significant judgment concerning the election of the current KwaZulu-Natal leadership in November 2015 is currently awaited.
In the run-up to the December event — or, worse still, while delegates are jostling on the conference floor — judges could find themselves wrestling with numerous vexatious legal actions. The Ramaphosa camp could be enjoined to respect challenges designed for evidently dubious ends.
The judges, however, have shown excellent political judgment in recent years, and they can hopefully draw on their reserves of popular legitimacy.
For all these reasons, it is in the field of political violence that the Zuma camp possesses its clearest comparative advantage. The leadership of the security cluster is entirely partisan, and the current ministers responsible for policing inspire little or no confidence. The intensity of intimidation in political meetings and the incidence of political assassination are already sharply up.
Zuma’s political organisers, should they so wish, could probably generate an exceptionally volatile external environment in December. It is conceivable that large-scale student protests, threats to social grant delivery and ethnic mobilisation around an alleged anti-KwaZulu-Natal conspiracy could occur simultaneously.
Within the conference itself, some concerning recent trends — the corralling or exclusion of the media and the presence of large cohorts of intimidating state security personnel — might increase the vulnerability of conference delegates to coercion.
But the ANC, for all its faults, is now a very mature political organisation. Chicanery, lies and violence are part of cadres’ routine political repertoires.
The president’s camp may decide to escalate across a range of fronts, but it is difficult to see which real surprises it can unleash. Zuma’s chances of success in his efforts to control conference outcomes are increasingly slim.
• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.