A President Under Pressure
Almost thirty years after Nelson Mandela became South Africa's first democratic president in 1994, the party that led the country after the country's transition could face what could be another big transition – out of power.
The African National Congress has enjoyed years of popularity, but after a period which the current president, Cyril Ramaphosa, termed "nine wasted years" of corrupt government by former president Jacob Zuma (2009 to 2018), polls are showing that it could for the first time get less than 50% of the vote at the country's next general elections in 2024. If this happens, the party will be forced to share power for the first time or, failing that, it will lose power completely to an opposition coalition.
This is a fairly new scenario for the ANC, which has for years received votes on the strength of its anti-apartheid struggle credentials, and by making election promises that it has a mixed record of fulfilling. One of its biggest achievements is introducing social welfare grants to about 18 million of South Africa's 60 million population.
Ramaphosa's electoral appeal
The 4000 or so party members that will be attending the party's elective conference from 16 to 20 December in Johannesburg, will go there knowing it could be the last for the ANC as a governing party. Many believe that President Cyril Ramaphosa would be the only one who can save the party from electoral disaster, but a scathing report made public at the end of November, with just over two weeks to go to the conference, exposed Ramaphosa as potentially much less clean than the corruption-fighting leader he has thus far been. The report - compiled by an independent panel appointed by parliament and headed by a retired chief justice - found that there might be grounds for MPs to impeach Rampahosa.
The panel found Ramaphosa may have violated the constitution after he failed to report the theft of a large amount of dollars - versions differ, but he says it was $580 000 - that were stuffed into a sofa at his home and that he said he earned from the sale of a head of game to a Sudanese businessman. Despite Ramaphosa initially indicating that he stood ready to resign, his fellow ANC leaders have rallied around him. He looks likely to be re-elected ANC leader - and possibly remain in place at least until the end of his first term in 2024. Ramaphosa has broad appeal among South Africans and Ipsos opinion polls before and after the 2019 general elections have shown that he has the most support of all political leaders in the country. He is also more popular than the ANC itself, polls have shown.
Within the ANC, Ramaphosa has received the most nominations of any of his fellow ANC leaders for re-election at the party's conference next month, and on the strength of this he seems likely to be re-elected. Altogether 2037 branches nominated Ramaphosa, out of a total of 3308, compared to his nearest rival, former health minister Zweli Mkhize, who received 916 nominations. Ramaphosa's support appears to be evenly distributed throughout the country, except for the province of KwaZulu-Natal, where Mkhize is from, and where he got most of his nominations.
KwaZulu-Natal is also Zuma's home province, and although he appears to have lost a significant amount of his influence here - his preferred presidential candidate, ex-wife and minister Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma only received 81 nominations for president - it is in a big way due to him that ANC members in the province want to see Ramaphosa gone. Many there believe that the corruption charges against Zuma for his part in the country's multi-billion rand arms deal in the 1990s are part of a political plot against him. Zuma was implicated in this corruption when his former financial advisor, Schabir Shaik, was found guilty of corruption in 2005.
Last year Zuma was sentenced to prison for 15 months by the Constitutional Court after he defied court orders to testify in an inquiry set up to probe the massive state capture that took place under his watch and headed by Chief Justice Raymond Zondo. Large-scale riots, looting and arson erupted in KwaZulu-Natal in July last year, shortly after he was incarcerated, and authorities fear a repeat after the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in November 2022 that Zuma's subsequent release on medical parole was unwarranted. It is unclear as yet how this will play out, because the department of correctional services has appealed this ruling.
Will Ramaphosa have the power?
Apart from the elections issue, the big question this conference will have to answer is whether Ramaphosa will have the power to effect the reforms he has been promising.
When he was promoted from deputy president to president at the party's electoral conference in 2017, he said he would clean up corruption within the ANC and the government and strengthen the institutions that have been weakened. Ramaphosa did effect important reforms, such as strengthening the prosecutions authority's leadership and creating more structures to deal with corruption. For the first time in many years tainted high-profile figures are going to court.
Ramaphosa also saw to the suspension of the ANC's secretary general, Ace Magashule, who has been charged with corruption dating back 10 years to his time as Free State premier. The corruption under Zuma alone cost the country R57 billion, the Zondo commission estimated, and it has hollowed out state owned enterprises like ports and rail authority Transnet, energy utility Eskom, and arms manufacturer Denel. But it didn't stop there. During the Covid-19 lockdown large amounts of money meant to help fight the pandemic was misappropriated or stolen. Mkhize himself was implicated, even though he earned kudos for the scientific and sympathetic way he, as health minister and medical doctor, responded to the Covid-19 pandemic. He was pushed to resign in August last year, however, after it was revealed that a R150 million health communications tender went to his close associates and that some of that money found its way back to his family.
While Ramaphosa was praised for holding Mkhize accountable by forcing him to resign, Mkhize has pleaded innocence and has thus far not been charged. His campaign could also become a rallying point for those pushing back against Ramaphosa's anti-corruption reforms in government and in the party. Many regard these as a political ploy mainly aimed at getting rid of his political rivals. "What does it mean to take an 80-year-old man and take him back to prison," Mkhize recently told the Business Day newspaper. "Don't underestimate the pain that people are going through."
Already some of the strongest candidates nominated for the party's top six leadership are from the camp opposing Ramaphosa, such as former minister Nomvula Mokonyane, who was also implicated by the Zondo commission for taking kickbacks. It is also not clear that treasurer-general Paul Mashatile, who got the most nominations for the deputy president position, is fully behind Ramaphosa. Ramaphosa's campaigners distrust him because of his strong ambition to become president himself - sooner rather than later.
The party was split almost evenly down the middle at its 2017 conference, and an attempt to compromise between the factions by including leaders from both in the party's top leadership structures meant that compromises have had to be made between the hardline anti-Ramaphosa faction and Ramaphosa's supporters on important decisions such as the party's stance on land redistribution and the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank.
Ramaphosa's detractors, fully aware of how difficult it would be to unseat Ramaphosa at this conference, have been working hard on their back-up plan to get their candidates nominated to the party's 80-strong national executive committee. This committee has the power to force the president to step down, and has done so twice, in 2008 with Thabo Mbeki, after Zuma was elected party president, and again in 2018, with Zuma, after Ramaphosa became president of the party and soon after, of the country.
With the controversy over Phala Phala looming, Ramaphosa could still be tripped up by his own hard line against corruption, and by his own mistakes. Even if he gets re-elected this month, it's not certain that the ANC will be in power long enough for him to finish all he had set out to do.
Carien du Plessis is a political journalist based in Johannesburg, South Africa