Melanie Verwoerd

Who will be South Africa's next president?

2016-10-26 07:37

Melanie Verwoerd

There is an old saying: "Be careful what you wish for." I quoted this frequently at the time of the ANC Polokwane conference, when Thabo  Mbeki was "recalled" by the ANC. At the time Mbeki’s demise was widely celebrated both inside and outside the organisation, but very few people actually analysed his successor’s personality or abilities to run the country and less than five years later, at Madiba’s funeral, Mbeki was cheered and Zuma was booed.

Currently South Africa’s mood seems similar to that of the pre-Polokwane period. Many, if not most people, want to see change in the top position, hoping that it will bring about dramatic improvements in the country. However, as we know by now, change per se is not always good. If the right person does not succeed Jacob Zuma, we will not only see very little change, but circumstances might even get worse.

So with all the calls for change it is important to ask, who are the people in the running and what are their chances?

First we should note that a single day can be a long time in politics. We know now that the ANC will not hold their next electoral conference soon. We are talking of a few months, if not a year, before this decision is taken. Things could therefore still change dramatically, but as I stated in a recent column, right now four names are consistently mentioned: Cyril Ramaphosa, Zweli Mkhize, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Baleka Mbete.

For a long time Cyril Ramaphosa seemed the likely successor. He was the favourite for the position in 1999, but as part of a political compromise Madiba anointed Mbeki. Shortly afterwards relations between Madiba and Mbeki deteriorated and Madiba told many people privately that he had made a mistake and should have chosen Ramaphosa. There is little doubt that Ramaphosa would make a good president. He has a track record in the unions, understands business and international finance, knows government well and will be respected internationally. He is also charismatic and charming and his years alongside Madiba (even after his retirement) solidified a commitment to non-racialism which this country desperately needs. He also looks and sounds presidential. Of course he has the ghost of Marikana haunting him, but I don’t believe that this in itself is enough to put an end to his bid for the presidency. Yet he doesn’t seem to be in the game lately. He is quiet and seems reluctant to show his hand or mobilize branch support. “What is going on with Ramaphosa?” is one of the questions I am most frequently asked. 

Ramaphosa is good at buying his time and he will not take on a fight unless he knows he has a good chance of winning. At the moment, he doesn’t have enough votes to win in the NEC, nor most likely at an electoral conference. As one NEC member said to me recently: “The problem is that the Zuma faction doesn’t want Cyril.” Ramaphosa will know this, so it might suit him to keep the President in place for the moment in order to buy time to get more people behind him. The danger is that if he leaves it too long, it might be too late.

It has been said that Zweli Mkhize nominated Cyril Ramaphosa for the ANC NEC at the last electoral conference. Mkhize hails from KZN and was always known to be close to Zuma. This seems to have shifted and it is said that the bond is not particularly strong anymore. He is seen to be pro-business and has increasingly been asked to speak to international business people on behalf of the ANC. His name has been linked to the Intaka scandal and the Chancellor House controversy but this doesn’t seem to have dented his support in the ANC.

Rumours have been circulating for a while of a deal which would see Mkhize as deputy to Ramaphosa, then taking over as president after him. I have my doubts about this. If Ramaphosa served for two terms, Mkhize would then be 72 years old. If he felt he could win, surely Mkhize would rather go for it now? Ultimately it seems that his chances for leader will depend on how the factionalism in KZN plays out, since he will need the support of the KZN ANC to succeed. Mkize is definitely the candidate to watch in the next few months.

Three weeks ago I pointed to the strong push for a female president within the ANC. This puts Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Baleka Mbete in a very advantageous position.

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will remain the head of the African Union until early next year. She is skilled in government and international affairs, but is often disliked by those close to her who describe her as grumpy and demanding. Her biggest problem, however, is her history with the president. It is argued that since they have been married and share children, this will ensure a degree of loyalty to her ex-husband which will allow Jacob Zuma to manipulate and influence her. I think this is unfair and insulting to her. They have been divorced for years and Dlamini-Zuma has always been a strong and independent woman.

However, she will struggle to shake off this perception. She also faces a political problem: in order for her to be the next president, she will have to get the support of the KZN ANC as well as the “premier league.” This will make it very hard for her to break the cycle of patronage. I have been told that she is uncomfortable and uneasy about the premier league and their influence. If that is true, it is good news for those who want to get rid of the culture of patronage, but she needs their votes and unless the composition of the ANC changes dramatically before the electoral conference, she will struggle to distance herself from them. There have apparently been efforts for some time inside the ANC to negotiate a joint Ramaphosa/Dlamini-Zuma ticket. The question is of course whether either will be happy with the deputy position? I doubt it.

Baleka Mbete’s name has consistently been mentioned as a favourite among some of the premier league. Rumour has it that she was asked by the President and Free State premier Ace Magashule to make herself available for the position. There is little doubt that she is very close to Zuma and has taken a very prominent position at ANC public events. When asked about her candidacy many senior ANC members just shake their heads: “If you can’t run a Parliament, you can’t run a country,” is the consensus. “But,” they warn, “she is popular.”

Of course other names might still surface, like Lindiwe Sisulu, or possibly a name from outside the ranks, such as perhaps that of Sipho Pityana. In true ANC style there will be a lot of horse trading in the months to come in the hope of getting an uncontested candidate. In the end, unless many ANC cadres get inspired by people like Jackson Mthembu and start mobilising, it will still be a good few months before we will know in whose hands the future of the ANC and the country will lie.

*Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and SA Ambassador to Ireland.

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Read more on:    jacob zuma  |  nkosazana dlamini-zuma

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