Cape Town - After a year of intense navel gazing and debilitating obsession with succession, the ANC’s elective conference is finally upon us. And, following a year economic decline and rising corruption, December couldn’t come soon enough.
But if you think that leadership change over the next few weeks heralds a clear path to both sentiment and economic revival, think again. There are four major obstacles that any new ANC president will have to immediately face – and all four can derail even the best of leadership intentions.
Firstly, the Cyril Ramaphosa/Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma battle was always going to be a close one. And so it has come to pass. With declared branches showing 55% to 45% in favour of Ramaphosa, the race is still too close to call. Last-minute delegate swings can alter the final outcome either way – even though on paper, at least, the momentum is with the deputy president.
However, the victorious candidate really needs a margin that signals a clear mandate. If the final differential between the two frontrunners is only a few percentage points, this will represent a win – but it may also be seen as a weak victory.
Given the deep levels of internal factionalism and mistrust at most levels of the ANC, only a clear mandate to an eventual winner will secure a real and lasting victory. A nail-biting end result can lead to further legal challenges as well as the real possibility of ongoing sabotage from the losing faction.
Although there is no real exact science here, the winning candidate should ideally have as close to a 60% majority as possible for this to be an election that does settle the succession debate and allows for the losing side to resist the temptation to contest or destabilise the process.
Secondly, the winning candidate will also need a supportive national executive committee (NEC). The new NEC will also be elected - but should this body reflect a greater bias against the newly elected ANC president, it may also create internal paralysis and friction.
It has been clear over the past few years that President Jacob Zuma has been aided by a supportive NEC – largely beholden for their many positions and connections to the president himself.
It is therefore critically important, from an ANC perspective, that the eventual president of the organisation (and the SA president as well) retain the loyalty of the NEC. Should the NEC be divided and deeply factionalised, this can stymie the actions of the new president and can also precipitate further leadership crises in future.
The elective conference this week will therefore have to come up with a really clean slate without the baggage of the past. It is entirely possible that even under a Ramaphosa leadership, an NEC less supportive of him is elected as factions seek to either balance the ticket or hedge their bets over future positions and access to privilege.
A similar constraint on the new ANC leader can emanate from a ‘Top 6’ that does not reflect an ideal slate of any of the top candidates. Again, compromise, a quest for unity and Machiavellian strategies have the potential to throw up a mixed bag of senior appointees. Should this occur, the elected president will once again find themselves in a tough position – eager to execute but held in check by internal forces.
Finally, the 54th Annual Conference will also consider a number of broad economic policy proposals already discussed at the ANC’s national policy conference earlier this year. Highly controversial policies, if adopted, can also be something of a poisoned chalice for a new ANC president.
The ANC already has little internal clarity on the vexed issue of land expropriation without compensation, the possible introduction of a wealth tax, the nationalisation of the Reserve Bank or even the future of the Mining Charter already facing legal challenges.
Should the conference put forward further controversial and investor-unfriendly aspects of these policies, a new ANC leader will largely be forced to take these policies into the legislative terrain and back them.
It is therefore possible that a Ramaphosa victory can be combined with one or more of these four elements, thus creating a very mixed bag of results with unpredictable – and less than stable – consequences.
For South Africans who would rest more easily should Ramaphosa win the headline vote, a much closer inspection of just which personalities get the nod alongside him will be critical. And, can the ANC fudge again most of the more populist aspects of its recent policy drift to allow someone like Ramaphosa to define a new way forward?
Ramaphosa, if elected, would really only have secured a pyrrhic victory, if after all of this, he wins the day, but loses the battle against a variety of forces determined to retain the status quo or check him at every possible opportunity.
For a victory to be real, credible and provide a mandate, more than just the top job will need to be secured. Only a holistic change in the leadership structure – alongside that of the president – can have a shot at the urgent need to re-boot South Africa. Let’s see if this can be accomplished.
* Daniel Silke is director of the Political Futures Consultancy and is a noted keynote speaker and commentator. Views expressed are his own. Follow him on Twitter at @DanielSilke or visit his website.* Sign up to Fin24's top news in your inbox: SUBSCRIBE TO FIN24 NEWSLETTER