ANC federalism runs deep

2018-07-29 06:00
Mondli Makhanya

Mondli Makhanya

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The outcome of the ANC’s provincial conference in Limpopo a few weeks ago had many scrambling to calculate whether it was a victory for President Cyril Ramaphosa’s forces or for those who were aligned to Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, his main rival at the ANC’s elective conference in December.

The result had left many confused and unable to discern a victor. Limpopo Premier Stan Mathabatha, who had backed Ramaphosa to the hilt, retained his position as chair, but some key positions in the top five went to those perceived to have been supportive of Dlamini-Zuma. The election of the provincial executive committee also produced a mixed bag that didn’t paint a clear picture. Was this a CR17 consolidation, or was this a successful comeback by the NDZ forces?

Last weekend, those who were looking for easy winner/loser equations in the Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal conference results would have also been left confused. In Gauteng, the run-up to the conference had been characterised by a fascinating realignment of forces that, to an outsider, made no sense. Suddenly, you had individuals who had stood on opposite sides of the ANC campaigning side by side and lobbying for each other.

Historical backers of former president Jacob Zuma threw their lot in with those who had campaigned against him since the 2007 national conference in Polokwane. Some who had stood together in Gauteng’s rebellion against Zuma’s corrupt and chaotic presidency found themselves in opposing trenches. So even before the conference, you could not define this one as a CR17 versus NDZ contest – it had its own dynamics.

The outcome reflected these dynamics as Premier David Makhura was uncontested for the position he inherits from current ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile.

In KwaZulu-Natal, the outside observer might have seen the contest as a rivalry between the Zumarites who have still not fully accepted the presidency of Ramaphosa and those who sweated blood and tears to get him elected. It was meant to be a rivalry between supporters of former premier Senzo Mchunu – who was ousted as chairperson in the annulled conference in 2015 – and those of Sihle Zikalala, the beneficiary of that dodgy conference.

But something else was happening. The ANC Youth League in the province had tapped into the national tide seeking to replace ageing leaders with young people. This powerful bloc was determined to break the hold of crusty old crocs, regardless of their alignment and previous ties. Again, anyone seeking to define the result as a victory for the pre-Nasrec forces would be hard pressed to do so.

This pattern, which will in all likelihood be replicated in provinces when they congregate between now and the ANC’s national conference in 2022, tells us that it is folly to look at developments in the party solely through the prism of pre-Nasrec alignments. Nor can the ANC delude itself and the country that the outcomes are a reflection of newfound “unity” in which factions accommodate each other and suck from the same lollypop.

Nasrec was a hard-fought conference in which the campaigning made enemies out of comrades. The levels of animosity between the two main camps and the venom spewed at each other during that campaign were beyond any negative sentiments they may have had against opposition party rivals. We can all be grateful that the worst we saw was chair-throwing and fisticuffs.

In some cases, long friendships and relationships helped to overcome the raw resentments, but in many parts of the country and structures of the ANC, some deep healing is still required.

The outcomes are rather due to the natural instincts of political players looking after their own ambitions and interests. Many on the JZ/NDZ side of the equation know that the outcome of Nasrec cannot be reversed. Only the dumbest of bittereinders believe that a national general conference can still be called to kill the Nasrec results and replace Ramaphosa as ANC leader (and therefore presidential candidate) before the country’s general elections.

Pockets may still identify in pre-Nasrec terms, but most have moved on. They are fighting their own battles now and furthering their own careers. What matters to them is whether their names will be on the Parliament and legislature lists next year. They are looking towards the 2022 national conference and are seeing themselves in national leadership structures. In the case of some heavyweights who have already moved to the national stage, it has become important to consolidate their places and possibly progress further. They therefore exercise influence at provincial level to make sure that conferences produce results that allow them to maintain a strong home base.

The other factor is the provinces’ recognition of the need to cement their own power footprint at a national level. If that means faking unity, so be it. This unity, fake or not, allows them to bargain with a strong hand and influence national developments.

For instance, a divided Mpumalanga, as the province was until a few years ago, would not have been able to propel one of its own into the deputy presidency position. A united KwaZulu-Natal was able to twice deliver a Zuma presidency, but when the province went to Nasrec divided, it failed to get one of its own into the top six for the first time in more than two decades.

So, while the ANC strongly maintains that it is not a federalist party, federalism runs strongly in the veins of its membership.

Expect funny realignments in the near future, but let’s begin to use a different set of glasses from those we wore before December.

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