Will the ANC conference get postponed?

How likely is it that the ANC’s December elective conference will be postponed? Or could it simply collapse under the weight of legal, political, or logistical difficulties?

One expert survey by a leading bank placed the chances of postponement at an alarming one in three. There are fears that an avalanche of legal challenges — concerning membership counts, branch audits, and delegate selection processes — will be added to existing disputes about provincial leadership elections in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape. Such legal cases are based on claims that officials had disregarded, or inconsistently applied, the ANC’s own rules and processes.

The judiciary faces a stern test if it is to avert the economic and political catastrophe that a legal stalemate would bring. Fortunately, most judges recognise that contestation and confusion are inevitable in the internal party politics of any middle-income democracy.

They may also be impressed by the systems that have been put in place by the ANC to ensure timely reporting of disputes and alleged rule infringements. Justices will be alert to the danger that well-resourced factions will surround spurious legal cases with clouds of carefully manufactured “evidence”.

Violent disruptions designed to justify scrapping the elective conference cannot be ruled out. But the unions are committed to the process, and opposition parties such as the EFF cannot legitimately intervene in ANC elections. Even if some student leaders have allegedly been on the Zuma faction’s payroll, university protests will be at best tangential to the conference’s business.

Many activists fear the ANC elections of the top six and national executive committee will be rigged. But conference balloting is likely to be a slow, manual, and transparent process, which will make gross fraud and manipulation difficult.

There are three further reasons to support hopes that the conference will not be postponed or derailed. The ANC faces a fundamental electoral threat in 2019, from which no provincial leadership can be insulated. As David Everatt and Ross Jennings observed in City Press last weekend, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s election as ANC president could result in the movement losing the national and provincial elections. According to their analysis, Dlamini-Zuma carries a powerful “repellent factor”. Survey evidence suggests her presidency could drive voters away from the ANC in sufficient numbers for the movement to lose its national majority.

Postponing the conference makes this problem worse, not better. If Dlamini-Zuma is to be elected ANC president, a plan must be implemented as soon as possible to minimise the electoral damage she could cause. Alternatively, the Zuma faction must shift behind treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize right now. Kicking the Dlamini-Zuma can down the road does no one in the ANC any favours.

If the conference is postponed or deadlocked, there will be devastating economic and sociopolitical consequences. The economic goose that lays the golden eggs is already on life support in the emergency ward. Why kill it needlessly, merely to accommodate an ungrateful old man who is on his way out?

Furthermore, the ANC has always been kind to its losers. Former leaders have retained their freedom, their money and whatever is left of their dignity. When necessary, tame presidential commissions have been summoned up to rake the sand over their corrupt tracks.

Postponing or destroying an elective conference tears up the rules on which this system of mutual protection has been based. If the ANC leadership elections are not allowed to convene, there is no real prospect that any such elective conference will be allowed to take place ever again.

 Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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