Race to succeed Zuma: How to pick a Number 1

Informally, the race to succeed President Jacob Zuma has started. Setumo Stone and Hlengiwe Nhlabathi weigh up the internal dynamics in the ANC and the chances of each candidate

The race to succeed President Jacob Zuma as leader of the ANC in 2017 is tearing the party’s national, provincial and regional structures apart. 

No fewer than six candidates are being touted as possible candidates, a great deal more than the two-horse races run by Zuma and then president Thabo Mbeki in 2007 and by Zuma and his deputy, Kgalema Motlanthe, in 2012. 

City Press has spoken to more than 20 leaders of the party at national, provincial and regional levels, as well as leaders of the SA Communist Party (SACP) and Cosatu in getting a sense of the early leadership options. 

Insiders told City Press the party’s national general council gathering (NGC) in Gauteng in October would see policy discussions being used as proxy battles for leadership contestation. The aftermath of the NGC will then see open but informal battles being waged by factions fighting for their preferred candidates. The formal nomination process will only begin in the year of the national conference. 

“After the NGC, people will know Zuma’s time is up and 2017 will be the next milestone. The lobbying will be informal, but it will be strong,” said a senior leader. 

The machinations around the recently concluded ANC Women’s League conference and next week’s youth league one have been mainly about positioning candidates for the succession battle. 

The most active has been the camp backing African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is being pushed on the ticket of becoming the country’s first female president. Her ascendancy would break the ANC’s post-unbanning tradition of the deputy leader automatically succeeding the incumbent. 

The ANC is trying hard to prevent the NGC becoming a rehearsal for the elective conference. 

ANC head of policy Jeff Radebe said in an interview the issue of the succession race would not be entertained at the October gathering and any person or group trying to use it for that purpose would be “completely out of order”. 

“The issues of leadership and so on do not feature in the NGC, because that would be the mandate of national conference,” he said. 

ANC national executive committee (NEC) member Lindiwe Zulu said the ANC would be “intolerant” of disorder, not open up space “for opportunists to divert the party ... it does not help the ANC”. 

Senior ANC leaders have taken a strong interest in the leadership outcome of the youth league’s national conference next month. 

NEC member Nathi Mthethwa, who is one of the conveners of the conference, said it was normal, as the leagues wielded some influence. 

“What cannot be allowed is for things to degenerate into factional battles. What is unacceptable is people dividing structures of the movement,” he said. 

Party spokesperson Zizi Kodwa said talk of leadership succession would only be entertained once the nomination process was officially opened. 

“From the point of view of the ANC, the time to talk about 2017 has not arrived,” he said. 


Dlamini-Zuma vs Ramaphosa 

Public comments by ANC leaders such as Zuma about the party and the country being ready for a female leader have raised the spectre of Ramaphosa’s ambitions being thwarted. When Ramaphosa returned to formal politics in 2012, it was assumed he was the natural successor to Zuma. But Zuma loyalists argue he cannot be trusted to protect Zuma from post-presidency criminal prosecution for corruption and sanction for the Nkandla development, as well as other scandals that occurred while Zuma was in office. 

Other dissenting voices within the structures of the ANC’s close ally, the SACP, have spoken about the dangers of a “capitalist” becoming president . 

Others argue his association with the Marikana massacre would be an albatross and the ANC cannot afford to have another president dogged by controversy during his tenure. 

Dlamini-Zuma’s opponents say it would be unseemly for the president’s ex-wife to succeed him. 

“People feel we can’t have a dynasty thing developing in South Africa,” said one leader. 

Others also cite the 66-year old Dlamini-Zuma’s age as a minus, as she would be 70 years old at the time of inauguration. 

The premier league 

The Dlamini-Zuma campaign has the backing of the so-called premier league – an influential lobby group whose key figures are North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo, Free State Premier Ace Magashule and Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza. KwaZulu-Natal secretary Sihle Zikalala, who is gunning for the leadership and premiership of the province, is also associated with this grouping. 

Its capacity to launch a formidable campaign has been attributed to the financial and logistical resources available to leaders of the group as a result of their positions in government. 

Critics of the premier league claim it handpicks delegates to conferences, including gatherings of the leagues, and bullies them into voting a certain way. 

A divided KwaZulu-Natal 

The ANC’s largest province has turned up at previous conferences as a united front. It was always able to use its superior numbers to push its candidates and policy positions or do trade-offs with other provinces. 

But the ANC’s regions, most notably eThekwini, are split between supporters of Zikalala and chairperson Senzo Mchunu. These factions in turn are backing different horses in the 2017 race. 

Mchunu’s faction is strongly opposed to the premier league and quietly forging alliances with Limpopo and the Eastern Cape in a bid to build a strong counter-bloc. 

NEC member Bheki Cele, who is hugely popular in the province and aligned to this grouping, is emerging as a key figure in this anti-premier league bloc. 

Gauteng: The rebel province 

In 2007, Gauteng supported a “third way” that would avoid a battle between Zuma and Mbeki. When the campaign of the province’s favoured candidate, Tokyo Sexwale, failed to gain traction, the province reluctantly threw in its lot with Zuma and used its numbers to strike deals. At the Mangaung conference in 2012, the province was the pivot of the “change” campaign that backed Motlanthe against Zuma. 

Throughout the Zuma years, the province has swum against the rest of the ANC’s unquestioning support for Zuma and taken stances that have irritated the national leadership. 

With Zuma’s support waning, the province’s maverick nature has gained it respect from dissidents in the ANC.

With the province being the most cohesive and its membership set to overtake the Eastern Cape as the second-biggest by 2017, it is likely to replace KwaZulu-Natal as the kingmaker. Insiders expect Gauteng to team up with the anti-premier league bloc and oppose the Dlamini-Zuma bid. While the province was initially seen as Ramaphosa’s best bet, its relationship with him has cooled of late because of his role in the e-tolling saga. He has also alienated many in the province with his failure to stand up to what they consider Zuma’s foibles. 

“Ramaphosa is always mentioning Zuma many times in his speeches, saying ‘the president this, the president that’,” an ANC insider said. 

The province is now informally fishing for another candidate, with Motlanthe and Radebe’s names being bandied about as potential contenders. 

But Gauteng strategists told City Press they had decided it was “still too early” to do any serious work on the 2017 race. 

One insider said Gauteng was “carefully consulting” before it could play its cards, because when the province took a position people “ganged up” on it. 

“It’s highly unlikely Gauteng will join the premier league because the same premiers are leading an onslaught against the province, particularly Paul Mashatile.” 

The province’s poor performance in last year’s general election is its biggest impediment to playing kingmaker. 


The issue of vote-buying has been identified by the ANC as a major headache, with money deciding the outcome of elections at all levels of the organisation. 

Talk was rife at the women’s league conference that delegates were being showered with cash and gifts and accusations were flying within the youth league that incentives were being thrown at delegates to next week’s congress. 

In some instances, whole ANC branches are said to be “owned” by businesspeople who are aligned to factions and vote accordingly at conferences. 

“The question of dishing out money is like a ghost. It can’t be proven ... it’s elusive and not something you can put your hand on. We do have cases [before us] generated by the use of money. We condemn that. It is a challenge in the movement that we have to deal with,” said NEC member Fikile Mbalula. 

He described vote-buyers as “scavengers”. 


The problem of voting according to lists (also known as slates) was first identified at the Polokwane conference when a vote for either Mbeki or Zuma automatically translated into votes for everyone on their list. It has now become common practice at all ANC conferences. 

ANC leaders have expressed concern that this practice has the effect of throwing out experienced and good-quality leaders who happen to be on the wrong slate, and favours weak individuals who opportunistically jump on to the winning side. 

This fate befell Mbeki supporters in 2007, and Motlanthe’s backers in 2012, and has repeated itself in lower structures and the leagues. 

“Every time the ANC goes to a conference, it loses a chunk of itself,” said an ANC leader. 

The secretary-general 

Since the party’s secretary-general controls the party machinery and has direct access to branches, he has a strong influence over the direction of a party congress. 

It is the secretary-general’s office that audits branches and can disqualify branches not deemed to be in good standing. It is therefore advantageous to have him on your slate. 

“You cannot exclude a secretary-general, because he is the administrator. If you do so, your campaign is as good as doomed,” said a Gauteng ANC leader about the possible inclusion of the current incumbent, Gwede Mantashe, on their slate when they began lobbying. 

Those close to Mantashe said he would definitely return to the ANC’s top six, as he was likely to feature on most slates. He is said to be eyeing the number one position but will happily settle for deputy president.

– Additional reporting by Sizwe sama Yende, Poloko Tau and Paddy Harper

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