Mashatile, Mkhize and Ramaphosa

ANTHONY BUTLER: Mashatile in the wings should Ramaphosa fall

With Ramaphosa’s chances drastically curtailed by the Phala Phala report, the race has been thrown wide open

First published in Business Day

02 DECEMBER 2022

Consternation has followed the release of the findings of a parliamentary panel headed by former chief justice Sandile Ngcobo, which has asserted that President Cyril Ramaphosa may have violated both the constitution and the laws governing corrupt activities.

In consequence, the presidential prospects of the current ANC treasurer-general and acting secretary-general, Paul Mashatile, have greatly improved. But the shock findings have also revitalised the floundering campaign of former health minister Zweli Mkhize.

To see why this is so we need to explore the possible political dynamics over the next two weeks, and the electoral processes that have been put in place for the December conference.

It is likely, though not certain, that Ramaphosa will resist calls for him to step aside, on the basis that the panel’s report is inconclusive in its language and likely to be vulnerable to legal challenge on a number of grounds.

However, Mashatile has already highlighted the potential political threat that a second term by a tarnished Ramaphosa could pose for the ANC, most immediately in the 2024 national and provincial elections.

An unexpectedly damaging aspect of the panel’s report was the incredulity with which its members greeted the account offered by Ramaphosa. Particularly telling was their observation that the ostensible buyer of the cattle had not, as yet, come forward to take ownership of the animals he had reportedly purchased.

Given that the president has now had a long time to assemble a persuasive narrative, there will be speculation that a more convincing and credible version has simply proven impossible to construct. If so, this means Ramaphosa will be vulnerable to impeachment proceedings and media revelations that drag on for months or years, all the while exposing in excruciating detail the implausibility of his narrative of events.

This would suggest, for some activists at least, that a new leadership should be put in place immediately. And we all know who Mashatile believes would be the ideal solution to this leadership dilemma.

He may or may not be able to accomplish Ramaphosa’s removal through the national executive committee’s nominal power of “recall”. It is more likely, though, that he will capitalise on growing disaffection to seek nomination as a presidential candidate from the floor of the conference, which is now little more than two weeks away.

Nomination from the floor is unusual. In the most famous instance, at the Mafikeng conference in December 1997, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was nominated to contest the deputy presidency against Jacob Zuma. In the event, her nomination was seconded by only a handful of conference delegates, falling far short of the required 25% threshold. While the raised hands were being counted, Madikizela-Mandela evidently saw which way the wind was blowing and declined the nomination.

At Polokwane in 2007 floor nominations took place under the control of the powerful Zuma faction. Tokyo Sexwale had been expected to secure the position of chair. Ostensibly to advance the “empowerment of women”, he withdrew in favour of Baleka Mbete, who had to be nominated from the floor. Thandi Modise was then similarly nominated to fill Mbete’s shoes as deputy secretary-general.

The principle and process of floor nomination are therefore both well-established, but a good deal of organisation is required to reach the necessary threshold of support. Many ANC insiders believe Mashatile is quite capable of this political and organisational feat. However, Ramaphosa might well dig in his heels and refuse to stand aside, even in the event of such a floor nomination.

Since Ramaphosa and Mashatile are fishing in broadly the same pool of support, they could easily split their own faction’s vote in half. This could leave the door open for Mkhize to secure the presidency with the support of just 40% of conference delegates.

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

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