ANC’s in­ner war gives min­nows a shot at power

The ANC is di­vided and the op­po­si­tion par­ties are learn­ing the art of com­pro­mise the hard way

Mail & Guardian - - Comment Analysis - Richard Cal­land

Bantu Holomisa is a pa­tient man. He has had to be. It is 20 years since the ANC spat the for­mer Transkei leader out, and he has seen his po­lit­i­cal start-up en­joy a short pe­riod in the spot­light and then slowly dwin­dle — it has just four MPs.

But, in the past year, the United Demo­cratic Move­ment (UDM) has be­gun to punch above its weight. Its two mem­bers of the Nel­son Man­dela Bay mu­nic­i­pal coun­cil are cru­cial to the op­po­si­tion’s ma­jor­ity. The Demo­cratic Al­liance se­cured 57 of the 120 seats in the Au­gust 2016 mu­nic­i­pal poll, and so re­quires the on­go­ing sup­port of not just the UDM but also of both the sin­gle coun­cil­lors rep­re­sent­ing the Congress of the Peo­ple and the African Chris­tian Demo­cratic Party.

The point is this: a com­pet­i­tive mul­ti­party democ­racy not only chal­lenges the hege­mony of a rul­ing party and pro­vides what one body of po­lit­i­cal sci­ence calls the “nec­es­sary un­cer­tainty” that will keep a gov­ern­ing party on its toes be­cause it fears the loss of power, but also brings the min­now par­ties back into the game.

It is hard to say that the po­lit­i­cal sci­ence the­ory is work­ing here. Is there really any ev­i­dence that the ANC has re­sponded smartly to last year’s se­ri­ous elec­toral set­backs? No. In­stead it ap­pears paral­ysed by Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma’s grip on power, ob­sessed by how to ex­tract it­self from its most di­vi­sive pe­riod and cor­roded by the re­sult­ing fac­tion­al­ism of its in­ter­nal pol­i­tics.

So, in­evitably, most eyes are fixed on the race to Midrand, where the ANC’s na­tional elec­tive con­fer­ence takes place in De­cem­ber, and which has now reached what leg­endary Manch­ester United man­ager Sir Alex Fer­gu­son used to re­fer to as “squeaky bum time” — the fi­nal weeks of the English Premier League.

As hun­dreds of ANC branches go to their gen­eral meet­ings to vote on both the del­e­gates who will go to Midrand and the man­date they should (the­o­ret­i­cally, at least) carry with them, so the back­drop is one of law­fare, in­ten­sive horse-trad­ing that could yet yield a sur­pris­ing twist and, in some re­gions, deadly division — or, as the now lead­ing con­tender to suc­ceed Zuma might put it, a “fes­ti­val of chairs”.

Cyril Ramaphosa is un­doubt­edly in the driv­ing seat. But the ANC is now a re­mark­ably un­pre­dictable po­lit­i­cal animal and very un­sta­ble. There are suf­fi­cient “swing states” to sup­port the no­tion that, even if Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s cam­paign con­tin­ues to fade, Zweli Mkhize could yet re­con­struct the lo­cal “premier league” of provin­cial barons (of which he was, let it not be for­got­ten, a found­ing mem­ber) and pip Ramaphosa to the post.

Some with good ANC con­nec­tions, such as Holomisa him­self, have been let­ting it be known that they think Zuma’s plan all along was for Dlamini-Zuma to serve as a de­coy, a stalk­ing horse to pre­pare the way for his real pre­ferred can­di­date, Mkhize.

Even though the or­nate elec­toral col­lege of the ANC is now tak­ing shape, with the an­nounce­ment of the au­dited num­bers and del­e­gates for each prov­ince, a pre­dic­tion of the out­come would be un­wise.

In the past, the cal­cu­la­tion was rel­a­tively easy: the East­ern Cape’s 676 del­e­gates would prob­a­bly vote as a bloc for Kgalema Mot­lanthe in 2012, just as one could with great cer­tainty have said that the 608 KwaZu­luNatal del­e­gates would vote for Zuma in 2007.

But most if not all the prov­inces are di­vided, so un­der­stand­ing the split be­tween the can­di­dates (and their re­spec­tive slates) is es­sen­tial to un­der­stand­ing how the elec­toral col­lege will vote in De­cem­ber, even al­low­ing for the fact that, be­cause it is a se­cret bal­lot, del­e­gates can aban­don their man­dates in the vot­ing booth.

The view of some of those close to the process, such as the South African Com­mu­nist Party polit­buro, which met last week, is that if it is a “rel­a­tively free and fair elec­tion then Ramaphosa will pre­vail”.

Once it gets to the ac­tual con­fer­ence, the sea­soned in­de­pen­dent en­tity that has run the ANC’s elec­tions since 1991 will en­sure that ev­ery­thing re­mains above board. But, be­tween then and now, a lot of jig­gery-pok­ery could hap­pen. The Ramaphosa cam­paign is aware of this and con­stantly frets about it.

The ANC elec­toral col­lege re­sem­bles, at least in some re­spects, the United States elec­toral col­lege, with key “swing states” now cru­cial to the out­come. Per­haps there is some­thing the ANC could bor­row from the Amer­i­can sys­tem: given how much trou­ble its cur­rent com­plex, sub­ter­ranean elec­toral process causes, the ANC would be well ad­vised to con­sider whether it should now adopt a sys­tem of “pri­mary elec­tions”, in which an open and com­pet­i­tive process is used to de­cide who will be the pres­i­den­tial can­di­date for the party.

As the ANC stag­gers to­wards De­cem­ber and the mi­rage of what it calls “self-cor­rec­tion”the op­po­si­tion have their own strate­gic dilem­mas to re­solve. They need to keep their eye on the prize: 2019. And it needs a sim­i­lar sort of dis­ci­pline to that shown by the Bri­tish Labour Party re­cently when it es­chewed a de­bate on Brexit at its an­nual con­fer­ence in or­der to avoid a di­vi­sive ar­gu­ment that would only have served to dis­tract from the deep tur­moil of the Tory party.

The op­po­si­tion will also have to con­sider care­fully the prac­tice and cul­ture of coali­tion pol­i­tics. One only has to look at Ger­man pol­i­tics to ap­pre­ci­ate what an art form the build­ing, main­te­nance and man­age­ment of coali­tions is. Although the re­cent Ger­man elec­tion out­come fo­cused at­ten­tion on the 13% se­cured by the far-right party, the Al­ter­na­tive für Deutsch­land, the most im­por­tant story is un­fold­ing now, as a long pe­riod of care­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion is al­lo­cated to achiev­ing agree­ment on the com­po­si­tion of the coali­tion gov­ern­ment, in­clud­ing its agreed pro­gramme and who will get which of Ger­many’s ad­mirably par­si­mo­nious num­ber of 15 Cab­i­net po­si­tions.

Which brings me back to Holomisa and the op­po­si­tion. His time has come. Not only is his party a king­pin in Nel­son Man­dela Bay, but Holomisa him­self has a cru­cial role to play in hold­ing things to­gether.

As he said in his speech at the end of Septem­ber at the UDM’s 20th birth­day cel­e­bra­tion, his elder lead­er­ship po­si­tion — and it is no se­cret — is to play the “un­cle” role.

There are two very strong-minded, de­ter­mined young men now com­pet­ing for power but they are young. Their judg­ment may not al­ways be per­fect. They will also have to learn that, in pol­i­tics, ruth­less am­bi­tion must be bal­anced with a sense of tim­ing and pa­tience.

Holomisa has be­come a crit­i­cal fig­ure in the re­la­tion­ship be­tween Demo­cratic Al­liance leader Mmusi Maimane and Eco­nomic Free­dom Fight­ers leader Julius Malema. Holomisa is rel­ish­ing the role and has on sev­eral oc­ca­sions had to pro­vide “mar­riage coun­selling”, for theirs is a frag­ile part­ner­ship.

It is clear that he has a high re­gard for Malema’s in­tel­li­gence and po­lit­i­cal savvy. How­ever, Maimane can be frus­trat­ing, be­cause at times he ap­pears be­holden to other se­nior mem­bers of his party, such as James Selfe, and some­times strug­gles to ad­just tac­tics on the hoof.

Coali­tion ar­range­ments of­ten re­quire com­pro­mise, agility and flex­i­bil­ity. And Holomisa has had to re­mind the DA of the need for hu­mil­ity on more than one oc­ca­sion, in­clud­ing dur­ing the un­pleas­ant saga of the UDM’s deputy may­oral po­si­tion in Nel­son Man­dela Bay.

He as­serted him­self strongly on that oc­ca­sion, com­pelling Maimane to text him shortly be­fore the lat­ter set off to ob­serve the Ger­man elec­tions, ad­mit­ting that the DA had not con­ducted it­self in the “right way”.

So, it is not only the ANC that is un­der the strate­gic cosh. As Holomisa pointed out in his anniversary speech: “We must con­tinue to play the long game. We must act ma­turely … we must not al­low those in­evitable dis­agree­ments to get out of hand, oth­er­wise the elec­torate will look at us and reach one con­clu­sion: that the op­po­si­tion can­not be trusted with gov­ern­ment; they are not ready for coali­tion pol­i­tics. And then they may say ‘bet­ter the devil we know’, and re­turn to the ANC.”

South Africa is prov­ing to be a re­silient democ­racy. It has put state cap­tors on the back foot and driven their nasty lit­tle spin doc­tors, Bell Pot­tinger, out of busi­ness.

Equally, South Africa’s pol­i­tics have never been so fas­ci­nat­ing or so un­cer­tain, at least not since 1994. We are en­ter­ing un­charted wa­ters on all sides: in­side the ANC and out­side, in the sur­round­ing ter­rain of the op­po­si­tion. Both have ev­ery­thing to gain and ev­ery­thing to lose.

Although the public dis­course sel­dom es­capes from the Zupta morass of state cap­ture and po­lit­i­cal im­punity, and there is pre­cious lit­tle real pol­icy de­bate about how to gov­ern at a time of ris­ing ex­ter­nal shocks and to ad­dress chronic un­em­ploy­ment and in­equal­ity, South Africa’s mul­ti­party democ­racy is at least liv­ing the dream as it be­comes more and more com­pet­i­tive.

Holomisa is work­ing on the as­sump­tion that, post-2019, Malema will hold the key to power. A deal with the ANC is marginally less im­plau­si­ble than for the DA. Thus, Maimane will not be able to throw his weight around care­lessly. An elder states­man king­maker may be needed. Re­gard­less of whether it is Ramaphosa or Mkhize that emerges vic­to­ri­ous from Midrand, South Africa’s next pres­i­dent could yet be the man who played the long game.

“We must act ma­turely … we must not al­low those in­evitable dis­agree­ments to get out of hand”

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