Africa’s oldest liberation movement elected a new leader but can Cyril Ramaphosa unite a fractured party?
A plethora of people are gathered inside the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, all draped in regalia of the 106-year-old African National Congress (ANC), South Africa’s ruling party.
The crowd of more than 5,000 moves like a multi-headed beast, chanting South Africa’s struggle songs. The head of this beast can be found in a song that keeps creeping up in many parts of this crowd.
“Unity maqabane, ixesha lisondele,” goes the song, which loosely translates to “unity comrades, the time has come.”
This is moments before the African National Congress, the oldest liberation movement on the continent, makes one of the biggest decisions in more than a century of struggle and campaigning in Africa. It is about to elect who is going to lead it out of its most difficult time in democratic South Africa.
In a few moments, the ANC will choose who will replace President Jacob Zuma, a man who has ruffled feathers from the boardrooms to the streets.
Even before he took office, Zuma faced 783 counts of corruption. Around $20 million of taxpayers’ money was used to upgrade his private home in Nkandla, even though he is paying back some of it. His relationship with the Gupta family has cast a shadow over his presidency. The economy has undoubtedly taken a huge dip under his leadership, with unemployment rising and investments falling.
At Nasrec, as the mood of the people swirls in different currents, dark uncertainty is visible on their faces. Factionalism is at its worse within the ANC, with the party split between two candidates.
The first is business-minded ANC Deputy President, Cyril Ramaphosa, who many believe should be next in line, claiming it is party tradition. The unions, however, say he is too capitalist.
The other is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a veteran parliamentarian and former chairperson of the African Union Commission. She is the first female ANC member gunning for the party’s top position. Many however say she is too close to President Zuma, her former husband.
Months of campaigning, factionalism, infighting and party slates have all boiled down to this moment. After a period of uncertainty and songs blaring from every corner, EleXions Agency, the facilitators of the voting process, take to the stage to put the masses here out of their misery.
Ramaphosa emerges as the new ANC president by a whisker. A mere 179 votes separates him from Dlamini-Zuma, after almost 5,000 delegates cast their votes.
The top six positions of the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) are also closely contested, with the outcome split between supporters of Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma. Is this the unity outcome that’s often crept up in songs here, or will this cause further division within the self-confessed corruption-riddled party?
“It’s an interesting outcome but it’s an outcome that’s organizational. I think that’s what the ANC needs, where we pull everyone together under one roof and make it a point that people work together as a collective, cohere and move forward,” says recently elected ANC Eastern Cape Chairman, Oscar Mabuyane.
Fikile Mbalula, the newly-elected NEC member, and staunch supporter of Dlamini-Zuma, preaches unity after the battle.
“The conference is over, we have one president and not two. Cyril Ramaphosa is my president and we are going to work nicely together,” says Mbalula, who is also South Africa’s Minister of Police.
Some, however, aren’t taking kindly to the outcome. Bathabile Dlamini, the President of the ANC Women’s League, lambastes the new leadership. The Women’s League had thrown its weight behind Dlamini-Zuma in the hope that she’d become the first woman to lead the ANC in its history.
“This is an attack on women’s struggles. We have been dealt a blow and want to call on all women to stand together,” says Dlamini.
Jesse Duarte is the only woman in the top six – coincidentally contesting for her position against another woman.
Business tycoon and former Gauteng Premier, Tokyo Sexwale, who is also concerned by the lack of women in the top six, gave words of warning on tackling corruption within the ANC.
“When you become president of the country [one day], make sure you have the long arm of the law reach out to criminals. Start with criminals who are trying to hide under Cyril’s umbrella, because that’s how they corrupt the situation. Before you steal from Eskom, SAA and so on, you’ve got to corrupt the ANC. So deal with them decisively first,” says Sexwale, who was once named alongside Ramaphosa and Mathews Phosa in a plot aimed at toppling then president, Thabo Mbeki, in 2001.
A thorny issue for the new ANC leadership, which includes the 80 NEC members, are the growing calls to recall outgoing ANC president, Zuma, from the presidency of South Africa.
In his closing speech at the conference, Ramaphosa, emphasizes the need for a public office that wouldn’t serve vested interests, but build a truly developmental state.
“Our people will judge this conference not only by what we have done here over these past five days, but perhaps more importantly, they will judge it by what we do next. The people of South Africa want action.”
Will Ramaphosa be able to deliver this action? Time will tell.