Slates are not dead

ANTHONY BUTLER: Slate politics still rules, throwing a lifeline to Ramaphosa’s reform projects

The conclusion that free-for-all alliances are leading the party towards continuing leadership incoherence and internal conflict has been disproved

First published in BusinessLive

17 OCTOBER 2022

In recent weeks it has been difficult to summon up much enthusiasm for the ANC’s December elective conference, or for the jostling for leadership positions that has long been under way.

A consensus was emerging among leading political commentators that “slate politics” was dead, and that any reform project for Cyril Ramaphosa’s second term as ANC president would therefore be stillborn.

The dismaying expectations of analysts included a belief that treasurer-general Paul Mashatile was a shoo-in for the position of ANC deputy president, the notion that a range of provincial has-beens were his only real competitors, and the conclusion that free-for-all politics was leading the party towards continuing leadership incoherence and internal conflict.

In the space of a few days these assumptions may all have been turned on their head. First, there was the entertaining and logic-defying suicide pact between tourism minister Lindiwe Sisulu and co-operative governance minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. After both candidates for high office were resoundingly snubbed by branch delegates, the pair in effect declared that if you won’t nominate us singly we will team up and insist that you support both of us together.

Second, a relatively minor public relations effort on the part of Ramaphosa’s allies in the CR22 campaign exposed the limitations of some recent hopefuls. As an early tide of enthusiasm from the Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces ebbed, it quickly became clear that supposed contenders Oscar Mabuyane and Stanley Mathabatha were not wearing swimming trunks.

Some provincial activists joked they simply wanted to kick the old people upstairs to Luthuli House. Many more conceded that the Eastern Cape cannot have both Mabuyane and Gwede Mantashe in the top six, and Limpopo cannot have both Mathabatha and Ramaphosa.

Third, the underlying risks of Mashatile’s personal project have suddenly become crystal clear. For far too long generous activists have tolerated his dogged pursuit of any and all personal routes to the top. This time round he has expressed willingness to partner Ramaphosa, but also to partner with Mkhize, as long as he can take over the reins in 2027.

But Mashatile also threatens to destroy any possibility of ANC renewal in a democratic society. His greatest appeal derives from the  fantasy that the ANC can, without cost, team up with the EFF to nullify an anti-ANC outcome in the 2024 national and provincial elections.

To plan for such an eventuality may be prudent in a world of coalition politics. But hawking the idea on the campaign trail, like a salesman, encourages the corrupt and self-absorbed in the ANC to treat such a coalition as inevitable. Many of them are pricing it — and so their ongoing malfeasance — into their calculations. The Ramaphosa camp may also suspect such a coalition will provide a pretext for throwing out the Buffalo in the middle of his second term.

Finally, the Ramaphosa caucus’s suggestion that water affairs minister Senzo Mchunu should be elected to the deputy presidency recognises that keeping KwaZulu-Natal fully integrated into the ANC and state should be a priority for all national political leaders.

A revised top-six balloting procedure proposed for the conference is likely to result in the president, secretary-general, treasurer and chair being elected in a first round of voting — and none of the successful candidates is likely to come from KwaZulu-Natal.

In the vote for the deputy president that follows, Mchunu would come up against Mashatile, inconsequential minnows such as the justice and human settlements ministers, and failed presidential candidates who manage to get nominated from the floor. Under such circumstances Mchunu would probably draw delegate support from the Ramaphosa camp, with a significant body of delegates from KwaZulu-Natal.

There is a long way to go to the conference. But the idea of a Ramaphosa reform slate still has life left in it.

• Butler teaches public policy at the University of Cape Town.

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