The ANC hopes the election of a new leader to replace President Jacob Zuma in 2017 will turn its electoral fortunes around two years down the line.
In responding to a question around how the governing party will navigate the storm given the ANC national executive committee’s (NEC) decision not to remove Zuma, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe pointed to the fact that Zuma will by then not be the ANC president.
This is the clearest indication that Zuma is unlikely to come back for a third term.
The ANC will elect Zuma’s successor in 2017, while his term as the country’s president ends in 2019.
Mantashe’s comments follow the most gruelling test to Zuma’s leadership since coming to the helm of the party in 2007.
The past three days saw Zuma and his allies in the NEC being ambushed when his leadership was questioned by some who called for his axing.
The proposal – which was defeated – was tabled by one of his cabinet appointees, Derek Hanekom, who together with some of his colleagues could find themselves out in the cold should Zuma decide to settle scores through an anticipated Cabinet reshuffle.
“We have a conference in 2017; we’ll elect a new leader of the ANC and many of you don’t take into account in your analysis that there is an intervening activity and event – that is the national conference of the ANC in 2017 where there will be a new president who will be the face of the ANC in the 2019 campaign,” said Mantashe.
There has been growing frustration inside and outside the ANC over Zuma’s leadership as he limps from one scandal to another without any consequences.
The latest was former Public Protector Thuli Madonsela’s findings of undue benefits in the upgrading of his Nkandla home, his links to alleged corrupt behaviour by his friends the Gupta family, who also allegedly influenced some of his Cabinet appointments.
Mantashe emphasised that the ANC would have to go around the country to salvage the party’s prospects. This will entail explaining to people why the ANC opted to avoid dividing the party by removing Zuma.
Mantashe appeared to dismiss the idea that people would possibly shun the ANC and support opposition parties because of the ANC’s consistent failure to listen to their wishes – in this case the inability to rein in Zuma.
“I conduct my surveys by going to people, engage them, own up to our mistakes and explain our decisions – that’s the only way I can engage people. I don’t sit here and wait for your survey, that people say they won’t vote in 2019,” he said.
Mantashe said it was not accurate to describe the 2016 elections as dismal, despite the ANC losing three key metros including Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay.
“When you say that I know you almost describe us as a minority party and we are not. We have lost control of major cities, nobody has taken control of that, all of them are governed by coalitions. We’ve had a massive decline of 8%, it’s us who admit that.”
Mantashe suggested that by not forcing Zuma to step down, the ANC had to consider the damage or even a split it would cause to the ANC.
“We are an organisation we engage ... when you throw ideas at us, we absorb and explain our thinking to the people and we will continue to do that,” he said.
“We will continue to talk to the structures and communities.”
Asked what Zuma’s response had been during intense debate, Mantashe’s deputy Jessie Duarte said Zuma only spoke at the end in his closing address
She said Zuma – currently in Cuba for the funeral of Fidel Castro – welcomed the discussions for him to step down.
Duarte was also confident that no ANC MP will vote with the opposition on any motion of no confidence in Zuma in the National Assembly.
“Bring it on,” she said.
Mantashe, on the other hand, warned ANC deployees that the governing party was not a free-for-all. Any ANC MP who wants to be “an agent” by voting with the opposition must start his or her own party, he said.
“Nobody does as he or she wishes. That’s why there is a caucus because the party discusses issues, takes decisions and when we go to Parliament we execute decisions of the party
“Anybody who wants to be a free agent must go contest elections as a free agent,” Mantashe said.
“People are in the executive of the ANC and if they are tired of doing that please decide if you want to be a free agent – we will release you.”
Mantashe also warned against mass resignations which are reportedly on the cards.
He said there would be “massive consequences” should this happen.
“We are a movement, we are not a pretentious organisation of people pulled together by their conscience. We are an ideological organisation,” he said.
“Once you are clear ideologically, you will know what you stand for – including why is the ANC taking this decision. We can’t be a free-for-all.”