Upcoming ANC provincial conferences key to Ramaphosa's survival

President Cyril Ramaphosa. (AFP)
President Cyril Ramaphosa. (AFP)

There is no question that Cyril Ramaphosa has done tremendously well in government since he became president less than 100 days ago. He has made certain strategic moves, fired some people in key positions and generally made it very clear that he would not tolerate corruption.

The big question, however, is to what extent he has been able to get control of his own party. Having won with only 179 votes and with a top 5 and National Executive Committee (NEC) extremely divided, he was clearly handed a poisoned chalice. Although he has gained some support in the NEC it is still not overwhelming (unlike the National Working Committee where he has strong backing.

From all I hear, the “Zuma faction” still caucuses before NEC meetings and continues to attempt to influence, or even control, discussions. Yet, it does seem that so far those aligning themselves with Ramaphosa have just been able to keep the upper hand.

It is now crucial that Ramaphosa gets control of the provinces. Given the power of the provincial structures in influencing the members, he has to ensure that the provincial structures support him in order to survive.

It is well known that the majority in the so-called premier league provinces (Mpumalanga, Free State and North West) did not support Ramaphosa. Some analysts and journalists have argued that Mpumalanga swung in Ramaphosa’s favour towards the end of the Nasrec conference, but the numbers don’t confirm that. If only half of the so-called "unity" vote in the province had gone towards Ramaphosa, he should have won by at least 500 votes. If they all did, he would have won with a margin of 1000 votes.

We also know that the membership numbers in these premier league provinces were gerrymandered/massaged/engineered (I’m trying to be diplomatic) before the  Nasrec  conference in December.

Now neither Ace Magashule nor David Mabuza any longer heads up their respective provinces, but it is generally known that the two women appointed in their places are both closely aligned to their predecessors.

KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) is the biggest problem for Ramaphosa. With the largest membership by far, this deeply divided province still holds enormous power in the ANC. According to all accounts, former president Jacob Zuma and those aligned with him are working hard at keeping the provincial control away from the Ramaphosa supporters.

The problem is that if Ramaphosa is not able to wrestle control away from the “Zuma faction” in KZN and the premier league provinces, he will sit with provincial leadership structures who represent (and influence) almost two-thirds of the ANC membership, but don’t support him.

This will make it extremely difficult for him to move matters in the ANC and by extension in government. It might also mean that he could face a revolt at some stage in the next 18 months.

Importantly, it will also influence the make-up of the parliamentary caucus. With the general election due to take place in the next 12 to 15 months, the provincially run list processes will being soon. For the last two to three years Ramaphosa had a majority support in the parliamentary caucus. As was the case with Thabo Mbeki, the parliamentarians played a huge role in disposing of Zuma (by threatening to vote with the EFF).

Parliamentary caucuses are always dangerous for the survival of a president. Since they are ultimately the ones who can vote him/her out, it is vital that any president keeps a majority support amongst the governing party’s parliamentarians. Since the ANC list processes are very provincially driven, it is therefore crucial for Ramaphosa to gain control of these provincial structures.

Given the make-up of the current membership and leadership there has been a reluctance from the Ramaphosa supporters in the NEC to agree to provincial conferences before the general election. They have been very worried that these conferences would result in the same outcome as the current status quo and that Ramaphosa will then have to deal with these structures for the next four years.

However, on legal advice they have now given permission to those provinces whose conferences are long overdue or due before September this year, to go ahead with their electoral conferences.

As we can see from the manner in which Supra Mahumapelo from North West has been digging his heals in – it will not be an easy task for the Ramaphosa supporters to gain control. There is just too much at stake for the other side.

With conferences in KZN, Limpopo, Gauteng and Free State coming up, we will get some indication of how much ground Ramaphosa has been able to gain in the provinces. He should have no difficulty in Gauteng or Limpopo, but KZN and Free State should be watched very closely.

These results will be the best indicator of whether Ramaphosa is likely to survive until the ANC’s next elective conference or whether he will have to continuously fight battles (also for his survival) within his own party thus distracting him from the enormous task of governing the country.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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