Mondli MakhanyaAt the end of the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung in 2012, a veteran remarked about how inept the party had become at dealing with leadership contestation. “Every time we go to an elective conference, we come back with a layer of the ANC having been peeled off,” he said with a sense of forlornness.It was such an apt statement, which could not have been better demonstrated than by this week’s dramatic events in KwaZulu-Natal, which saw Premier Senzo Mchunu unceremoniously sacked by the provincial ANC leadership.In the wake of the bitterly contested provincial conference in November last year, everybody expected that it would be a matter of time before the axe fell on defeated provincial chairperson Senzo Mchunu and his cohort. Even when the victorious Sihle Zikalala gave assurances that Mchunu would not lose his premiership because “unity is sacrosanct, unity is a pillar”, a wave of cynicism swept over those who knew better.“We know nothing that would suggest that he must be removed. We’ve been working with Comrade Senzo in the ANC as a chairperson. We’ve worked very well, even previously we were working together on many responsibilities together and we believe we’d be able to work going forward,” Zikalala assured at the time.The veteran who spoke shortly after Mangaung was referring to the phenomenon that took root after the 2007 Polokwane conference when most of Thabo Mbeki’s backers were turfed out with him and were then actively prevented from playing any further meaningful role in the organisation. This practice spread into provincial and local structures. Before long this “victor takes all, loser bleeds all” culture became entrenched. As the hunger for the spoils of office got more desperate the contests got uglier and uglier.Justified cynicismIt is this ugliness that justified the cynicism about Zikalala’s November promise, a cynicism that was borne out by subsequent developments.In KwaZulu-Natal the two man race for the chairmanship tore the once all-powerful province apart. Every regional conference was seen as a stepping stone as Zikalala and Mchunu squared off against each other. Being the provincial secretary worked well in Zikalalala’s favour as he and his foot-soldiers had direct access to branches and key players in those structures.Then came the battle of eThekwini. The fight for this region, the ANC’s biggest region nationally, was the most vicious the party has ever seen at that level. It took five attempts – after disruptions and annulments – to finally have the conclusive conference that emerged with mayoral committee member Zandile Gumede as chairperson. But the legitimacy of that “successful “ conference has been in question ever since as the faction of mayor James Nxumalo boycotted the affair, leaving Gumede to win by 283 votes to 1 vote. The outcome of eThekwini was important as it has a direct bearing on provincial and national dynamics. Whoever controls eThekwini controls KwaZulu Natal and whoever controls that province- the biggest of the nine in membership numbers – has a huge say in the ANC’s national affairs. Simple mathematics dictates that anyone who wants to rise or back a leader for a top position has to have KZN onside. This power is especially pertinent in this time of the ANC’s succession battle, which is turning out to be even messier than the 2007 race between Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.In this mix the youthful Zikalala has become pivotal. He controls the ANC’s most influential province. His proxy Willies Mchunu now controls the state resources of that province. Another proxy, Gumede, holds the chairmanship of the biggest region and will assume the mayorship of her city in two months time. Six months ago Zikalala was still a peripheral member of the Zuma-loyalist Premier League. He was there at the invitation of the premiers of the Free State, North West and Mpumalanga, who needed his province’s numbers for heft but could not get Mchunu on their side. With this week’s power-grab he appears to have consolidated his full place within this clique that is determined to see Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma succeed her ex-husband.A terrible gambleOn paper Zikalala’s apparent consolidation of power should strengthen the hand of the pro-Dlamini Zuma camp as her backers are now fully in charge of this potentially king-making province. Except there is a catch. They are not fully in charge. Zikalala’s ability to wield his national power is likely to be hobbled by the fact that he leads a now terribly divided province. Many of the branches that voted against him refuse to recognise his leadership. His removal of Mchunu has now exacerbated this rejection, with some structures plotting a fight-back.Instead of putting the nail in the coffin of his provincial rivals, as he must believe he has done, he has entrenched the resentment of himself. He has just sprinkled paraffin on the simmering revolt. In the process he has complicated the lives of his national sponsors and allies like Zuma and the rest of the Premier League. Their 2017 succession project will be significantly harmed by the anti-Zikalala sentiment among many branches and some very powerful figures in the province. It was a terrible gamble by a leader who should have been wise enough to reach out and bring his detractors into the tent. Instead he chose to peel off a layer.- Mondli Makhanya is the editor-at-large at City Press.Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. 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