In October, if things go according to schedule, the African National Congress (ANC) will officially start the leadership nominations process, two months before its fifty-third national conference.
Ordinarily, the internal leadership battles of a political party, even those of a ruling party, should not excite the popular imagination in the manner that the ANC’s presidential race has. If South Africa had a competitive party system, the excitement would not be limited to what happens inside a single politi- cal party. Because ours is an uncompetitive party system in which the gap in electoral support between the ANC and the rest remains wide, the outcome of the Mangaung conference of the ANC will, besides other things, deliver the next President of the country. In short, the person who will be elected ANC president in December will, without a shadow of doubt, be elected head of State when South Africa celebrates 20 years of democracy in 2014.
Who, then, will lead South Africa into its third decade of democracy? Is it going to be the incumbent, Jacob Zuma, Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe or Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale? Who are the individuals and political forces that are going to determine the direction of the leadership battle? What is the nature of the resources that will be required? And do policy issues matter?
To begin with, there is this thing called the slate. In fact, in the leadership race, each ANC faction enters the field of battle armed with its own slate. For the uninitiated, a slate is simply a list of the individuals a faction believes should be elected to key positions. Since the slates are not the same, three things will happen. First, lobbying in support of preferred candidates will take place. Second, there will be some horse trading. Third, some dirty fighting will occur.
However, the thing to remember is that, despite the decision of the ruling party’s national executive committee to bar ANC members from engaging in succession talk until October, there has been a lot of unofficial lobbying and lobbying disguised as official ANC and government business. Some have used their positions in government to use official functions as an opportunity to lobby for support. Others have resorted to giving lectures in the name of ANC icons to disguise their true intentions. For instance, extolling the leadership virtues of an ANC icon has become a way of creating an ‘other’ in contradistinction to such an icon to highlight or invent the leadership weaknesses of an opponent. Over and above all these shenanigans, two things have happened: there is a perception that it is only those who support Zuma who have been able to campaign without fear and policy and other debates have, to some extent, become proxies for the expression of narrow leadership and political preferences.
With four months to go, who are the frontrunners?
The leadership race will probably turn into a three-horse race that will wind down to a two-horse race. The people worth mentioning in this regard are Zuma, Motlanthe and Sexwale. Motlanthe has been characteris- tically reticent about whether he is going to throw his hat into the ring. The closest we have got to an indication that he will run are two statements from his spokesperson, Thabo Masebe. During a radio interview, Masebe argued that no one was entitled to a position in the ANC and then clarified that when one enters a leadership race in accordance with the wishes of ANC members, such a person is challenging no one.
According to my decoder, what he meant is that Zuma is not entitled to the position of ANC president and ANC members are free to nominate anyone for that position. Masebe also intimated that Motlanthe would serve in any capacity in accordance with the wishes of ANC branches. Signals from my decoder suggest that it is reasonable to think of Motlanthe as a presidential candidate. But Motlanthe has three problems. Some of his supporters do not believe he has the stomach for what may be a dirty presidential campaign. In addition, former Youth League president Julius Malema and Sexwale may become a headache for his strategists. Motlanthe needs to manage the perception that Malema will be reinstated as a member of the ANC and Youth League president if Zuma is unseated.
There is always the possibility that even some of the opponents of the President may vote for his re-election if the alterna- tive is the reinstatement of Malema. Given some of the errors Sexwale has been making and the fact that some slates have him in the position of Motlanthe’s deputy, Motlanthe must decide whether it is having him too close or at a distance that will work against his ambitions.
Tune in next month for the next instalment of the succession story.