Power behind the scenes
At the end of the ANC’s conference in Mangaung, the party’s Free State and North West chairpersons gathered their delegations in a corner of the hall for a post-conference caucus. The two provinces had experienced a tumultuous run-up to the conference, with the factions backing Jacob Zuma and those supporting his challenger, Kgalema Motlanthe, at each others’ throats. The pro-Zuma factions, headed by Ace Magashule in the Free State and Supra Mahumapelo in North West, had triumphed, and the delegations that went to Mangaung were overwhelmingly in favour of giving the incumbent a second term as leader of the party. In that corner of the hall, the two chairpersons exhorted their delegations to continue from where they left off when they got home. But while they preached unity, the message was the very opposite: go home and stamp on those losers.
It could be said that the seeds of the alliance of convenience that is now known as the Premier League were planted on that day. The two chairpersons were already close allies going into Mangaung – Magashule claims this is because they both come from maize-producing provinces – but the conference was decisive in consolidating their grip on their respective constituencies. In the months that followed, the recalcitrant on the losing side were pushed aside and those who knew what was good for them toed the line. These two leaders went on to spread their influence beyond their provinces.
With an eye on high seats at the 2017 conference, the leaders made alliances with those with similar ambitions. In Mpumalanga they found David Mabuza, who was entering his last term as premier and therefore seeking national office. In KwaZulu-Natal, there was the energetic secretary Sihle Zikalala, who controlled half of his province and had designs on the chairmanship and premiership. They worked to make inroads elsewhere. This Premier League developed into a formidable bloc in the ANC – what in the corporate world you would call the shareholder of reference. Key decisions in the ANC – particularly about leadership positions – would be referenced through this group. They were successful in their consolidation of power, winning strategic influence in the ANC, its leagues and among its alliance partners. They were accused of using bully tactics, determining delegations to congresses and even instructing delegates on how to vote. The Premier League became a feared unofficial component of the ANC. You would hear of people being described as a “Premier League candidate” or of an election list being said to be a “Premier League ticket”.
The Premier League’s greatest victory was the installation of Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini as ANC Women’s League president last month. All that the hapless incumbent, Basic Education Minister Angie Motshekga, could do was complain loudly and condemn men who were trying to manipulate the women’s movement.
The run-up to the ANC Youth League congress under way this weekend has also been characterised by accusations that the Premier League is manipulating the process. Going into the congress, Colin Maine, a lacklustre North West MEC whose greatest gift from the Creator are his extended cheeks, appeared to have the runaway lead thanks to being the Premier League’s preferred candidate. While the other four candidates and their backers were running around scrambling for support, the Premier League focused on getting a strong bloc behind their man and those on his ticket.
But as in any power game, there had to come a point where there was going to be pushback. After helplessly watching the grouping’s power grow, other ANC interest groups are fighting back – albeit in a disjointed way. Behind the scenes, new alliances are being created among those who feel bullied by this grouping. Leaders in other provinces and structures are reaching out to the disgruntled in Premier League provinces in a bid to weaken the grouping.
The SA Communist Party (SACP) gave the strongest sign of this fightback when its Central Committee, without naming names, condemned what it called “manoeuvres at factional, corrupt and corporate capture of our movement”.
This is now set to become an agenda item for the alliance. These power plays are bound to become more intense and bruising as the Premier League fights the backlash and protects the ground it has conquered in recent years.
The SACP statement was ironic, as the party has over the ages worked to capture the ANC, using congresses to “flood” the leadership ranks with communists and unionists. It is a very normal thing. which is, yes, driven by self-interest and ambition. The only thing that is scary about this one are the stories you hear about some of the gentlemen involved.
It is the knowledge of those stories that should keep us awake at night as we ponder what their control of the governing party will mean for our republic.