2016 election disaster changes ANC’s leadership dynamic

Competitive elections are starting to change the dynamics of leadership succession in the governing party. The electoral dominance of the ANC in the past two decades has made the movement self-indulgent about its leadership choices. Provinces in which power and money are deeply entwined, and in which internal party processes are most easily manipulated, have come to dominate internal elections. Citizens have been taken for granted.

The result has been the selection of national executive committee (NEC) members who are the pawns of provincial and regional power brokers. Candidates have been chosen for public office despite being patently unable to discharge their responsibilities. ANC representatives and leaders partially satisfy internal constituencies, but they disappoint voters.

The likelihood that citizens will push back against this state of affairs in the 2019 national and provincial elections is sinking in. This realisation is influencing how ANC activists view the elective conference scheduled for the end of next year. It is also changing the way in which factions are being conceived and consolidated in advance of that gathering.

There are three broad approaches to the problem posed by competitive elections. First, some leaders argue that any new ANC leadership should appeal to the growing numbers of urban electors who failed to support the movement in the recent local government elections. This “modernisation” approach would presumably see the elevation of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa or ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize to the ANC presidency, a drive to populate the NEC with more capable and independent-minded cadres, and a crackdown on visible corruption.

The second approach is to place the EFF at the centre of the ANC’s leadership succession processes. If the ANC falls below 50% at provincial or national level, the EFF will be on hand with the 10% or so needed to form a coalition government. The proponents of such an approach want wholesale change in the ANC’s leadership, and the skipping of a generation. Former ANC Youth League leaders would then take their rightful place at the top table and facilitate a deal with the EFF.

The third approach is to intensify the patronage system that reins in the premier league provinces, and to apply it more systematically across the country as a whole. It is tempting, but mistaken, to laugh at the suggestion that Free State premier Ace Magashule or his Mpumalanga counterpart, David Mabuza, could be elevated to the top six of the ANC. In the poorer parts of SA, the unbroken transfer of resources from national government to provinces, where they can be quite freely distributed, is the only world some politicians have known.

Many of these leaders are hostile to democratic competition, and willing to join forces with those who want the troublesome uncertainty of electoral politics to be brought to a complete end. Economic reality is no obstacle to their plans. Beyond the party elites in the cities, many ANC activists believe the parastatals are doing just fine. The real problem, they argue, is Treasury obstructionism. Now would be a good time to liberate people’s savings and redeploy them in the national interest.

These different ways of thinking about the leadership challenge posed by elections are all of questionable cogency. Modernisation and clean government did not help the ANC retain Johannesburg. The EFF is a terribly unreliable partner in which to invest electoral hopes. And citizens will probably not take kindly to attempts to rig elections or to bankrupt the country.

The fate of the ANC in the Western Cape demonstrates that another possible response to the threat of defeat is also on the cards: an orgy of political self-destruction.

Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.


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