The road to Mangaung, South Africa’s judicial capital, is an uncertain one. Beleaguered, incumbent president, Jacob Zuma (70), is up against his strangely ambivalent deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe (63). Nowadays, no one is even talking about Tokyo Sexwale, a tycoon known to have ambitions to the post but who has just never been able to muster enough support.
Although nominations only opened on October 1, that did not stop warring factions from firing the first salvos, digging up dirt and leaking (mis)information to newspapers about one another. And there is evidence that even though members can now openly talk about, and even circulate list slates and permutations of their preferred candidates, somewhere in some dark alleys and smoke-filled rooms, connivers on either side are continuing to plan the downfall of their opponents, by all and any means necessary.
Not surprisingly, the stakes are high. With an overwhelming parliamentary majority in charge in eight of the country’s nine provinces, as well as the great majority of municipalities, the ANC is mighty. The fight over resources and the dispensation of patronage is therefore a real one. And plots are abound.
In the past year both presidential hopefuls Motlanthe and Sexwale have been subjects of investigations for their alleged involvement, directly or indirectly, in a scandalous UN Oil-for-Food program that involved Saddam Hussein’s regime.
The ANC Youth League, the first group to make it clear that they didn’t want Zuma re-elected, is among those crying foul, alleging that state resources are being used to silence the president’s critics. The league points to the disciplinary expulsion of its president, Julius Malema. The youngsters contend that Malema did nothing wrong and was in fact articulating resolutions of the league when he was kicked out. Malema’s comrades don’t believe that it is sheer coincidence that following his expulsion, the Hawks, South Africa’s elite crime-busting unit, has charged Malema for money laundering; the Public Protector is now investigating him; while the South African Revenue Services believes he may have a case to answer with regard to his tax liabilities. The league’s acting president, Ronald Lamola, says it’s “a political issue” they are going to raise at the conference.
The incumbent is not having any peace either. In October, following a complaint lodged by the official opposition, the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s Constitutional Court found that Zuma had acted “irrationally” by appointing one “dishonest” Menzi Simelane as the chief of the National Prosecuting Authority.
While Zuma was pondering that, new “looting” allegations emerged detailing how, on top of his rural village, which was upgraded to become “a mini New York” amidst a sea of poverty, around R248 million ($28.2 million) was being spent on a host of other improvements to the president’s private homestead in the area. The president has denied this, insisting his family is spending its own money to do the upgrades, and that the government is only taking responsibility for security, and even then at the insistence of state security officials. The minister of public works, whose department has the responsibility of looking after the residential and security needs of ministers and senior state officials, has however steadfastly refused to divulge the details of both the actual money spent and the extent of the work done on the president’s home.
In an unprecedented move in November, the DA, with the support of eight other opposition parties, tabled a motion in Parliament in which they declared their intention to impeach Zuma. Knowing that it has the overwhelming majority that would prevent such a move, the ANC called it a “frivolous and narrow publicity-seeking gimmick” that will never see the light of day.
The people who have the best chance of deposing Zuma—if they want to—are the 4,500 voting delegates who will be gathering in Mangaung for the party’s elective conference. Drawn from the ANC’s branches, affiliate leagues and members of the national executive committee, they are the ones who will have the job of electing not only the party’s president, but also its deputy president, the secretary general, the deputy secretary general, the treasurer general, the chairperson, as well as 82 members of the powerful national executive committee.
The voting delegates’ task has not been made any easier, though. In a rather outlandish practice, certainly for a party that makes no secret of its desire to lead the continent and the world, neither of the two candidates has to go through any form of interview for the job. The candidates are not required to present to the party faithful any vision of where they intend to steer the party, the country and the continent. In fact, they should not canvass at all. To openly campaign, the unwritten rule goes, is “un-ANC” and therefore frowned upon.
So Zuma’s campaign has been left to pronouncements made by leaders of his home province KwaZulu-Natal who, with 974 delegates to the conference (see sidebar), will have the biggest representation. Following the opening of nominations, the women’s and veterans’ leagues, as well as the majority of provincial executive committees have nominated him—although it must be pointed out that the branches may vote differently to the pronouncements of provincial leaders.
The pro-Zuma group is so confident that they are resisting any compromise permutations that are being bandied about by certain brokers, under the guise of avoiding blood on the floor. The Zuma slate, by the time of going to print, had him staying on as president, Motlanthe as his deputy, chairperson Baleka Mbete and incumbent secretary-general Gwede Mantashe also staying put. Deputy Secretary General Thandi Modise and Treasurer General Mathews Phosa are no longer wanted.
Motlanthe is being accommodated only if he doesn’t challenge Zuma, something he is yet to indicate whether he will do. But he hasn’t said he’s not interested either. At last month’s launch of his political biography, where many expected him to give the clearest indication, he was as vague as he has ever been. While at the beginning of his speech he had his supporters’ hope, talking about “agents of change” and calling for an end to “the notion that so it was, and so shall it be”, he still left everyone hanging when he somewhat abruptly ended his short speech by saying when he dies, eventually, he would like his tombstone to have the words: “Others made suggestions and he implemented”.
Afterwards journalists asked each other about the meaning of what he had just said. No one had an answer. As for the race, it’s still very much on—for better or worse.