|William Mervin Gumede
*Author of Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the ANC (Cape Town: Zebra Press, 2005) and Research Fellow at the School of Public and Development Management, University of the Witwatersrand. This article is a summary and reworking of a seminar originally given at St. Antony’s College, Oxford
If one has to compare the nail-biting race to succeed Thabo Mbeki as leader of the ANC to a marathon, Jacob Zuma most probably has now reached the first-third mark ahead of the leading pack.
Perhaps, Zuma’s improbably support team of communists, capitalists, traditionalists and belligerent youth, surveying the political scene ahead of their hero’s court appearance for alleged corruption, would most probably conclude that things are running to plan. Zuma, the journeyman, and Teflon comeback kid of ANC politics is making a strong showing, they most probably reckon.
Just weeks before the start of his trial in the Pietermaritzburg High Court, the KwaZulu Natal provincial leadership of the ANC announced they supported Zima’s presidential candidacy. In another of those gravity-defying political somersaults, Mbeki’s closest ally so far in the province, S’bu Ndebele, in a desperate attempt to safeguard his own political career in KwaZulu Natal, unexpectedly declared himself the most passionate of Zuma fans.
Zuma’s strategists had worked hard on Ndebele, using a mixture of admonishments, intimidation and promises of patronage under a Zuma presidency. Zuma desperately wanted at least his home base secured. His idea, it appears, is to from a secured KwaZulu Natal base launch his next series of political excursions. Chief among these would be trying to corral the majority of the other ANC provinces behind his presidential bid.
The Eastern Cape
Province is firmly on his radar. Indeed, it was in Alice, in the Eastern Cape,
where Zuma supporters last year plotted to humiliate Mbeki at the ANC’s June
national general council in Pretoria. KwaZulu Natal and the Eastern Cape, combining
a sizeable proportion of the ANC’s Electoral College and voting influence, have
been first on his list. Though the Eastern Cape Province is perhaps the branch
most disgruntled with ANC HQ, not everybody there is queuing up to endorse a
Zuma presidential candidacy. In fact, lately there has been increasing
sentiments in the Eastern Cape, Western Cape and Gauteng provinces for a
compromise candidate, such as a Tokyo Sexwale, Cyril Ramaphosa or Mosiuoa
Lekota. For example, Eastern Cape MEC for
Agriculture Gugile Mkwinti told delegates at Cosatu’s provincial conference
there in July that ”delegates to the (ANC) national congress know the real ANC
and would choose the correct leaders, as it did in 2000 when it
Zuma supporters have been lobbying the provincial leaderships of the Northern Province and Mpumalanga, to like KwaZulu Natal come out in support of the ANC’s deputy president. The Western Cape, Northern Cape and Free State provinces are tougher nuts to crack: they are all split in their support between Zuma and Mbeki. Gauteng, under the leadership of Mbhazima Shilowa is an implacable Mbeki fortress. Gauteng and the Northwest Province were the only provinces that were implacably behind Mbeki at the ANC’s June 2005 NGC meeting.
Zuma is also trying hard to secure as many of SACP and Cosatu provincial branches and affiliates behind his campaign. Indeed, Zuma is using the current tripartite alliance, ANC-Cosatu-SACP, season of conferences to spread his message, which is that the corruption charges - which are more substantial than the rape one - are all trumped-up to block his bid for the presidency.
Furthermore, Zuma and his strategists have been trying hard to show that his rape trial was also a political conspiracy. The persistent message from the Zuma camp is that the alleged rape victim was used as a tool by political opponents to discredit him. Obviously this is not only very cynical but shows little regard for the trauma of the alleged rape victim. Furthermore, Zuma’s supporters are going all out to try to delegitimise the corruption trial. As such many of Zuma’s support groups have been insistent that because the state et the end of July would have filed an application to have the corruption trial of Zuma and the French arms manufacturing company Thint postponed, meant that the state did not have a strong case and that charges should be withdrawn. One Cosatu provincial branch has even called for a strike if the case was not speedily tried. Furthermore, Zuma’s strategists are working hard on choreographing the fact that their man has overwhelming street support. Thus, the battalion of events organised by his support team to ensure that thousands of people arrive on the steps of the courthouse on every day of his appearance.
By doing all this, the idea is to show that Zuma’s presidential candidature is an ‘unstoppable tsunami’ as Cosatu secretary-general Zwelinzima Vavi claimed in 2004. Thus, all potential challengers would be loath to even think of entering the race – in the event they would be swept away by the Zuma juggernaut.
Since the rape trail he has tried to show there is a conspiracy consisting of Mbeki, white and black capitalists, and the black middle and white middle classes, in short, the establishment, against his presidency. ANC members love the idea of the small person against the might of the leadership or hostile ‘establishment’. Terror Lekota became the national chairperson of the ANC based on such sentiment. In fact, Zuma’s unprecedented defamation case against the media is to show that he is taking the ‘establishment’ head-on.
Zuma thinks his greatest trump-card is that he could turn his trial into a trial of the ANC. In fact, Zuma has often threatened to reveal details of corruption implicating other senior ANC leaders – hoping at least those who are likely to be implicated come to his defence or that the ANC leadership itself would intervene to stop the trial and so save the ANC from major embarrassment. For example, in his court application Zuma stated he would draw Mbeki to the centre of his defence, claiming Mbeki was “very much involved in the arms-deal process”, and was the central figure who dealt with the various role players in the arms procurement deal - although he conceded that Mbeki had not himself acted improperly in the arms deal process.
So far, Mbeki has looked through Zuma’s bluff though, and he is determined that if the ANC goes on trial, so be it, if it can ’cleanse’ the movement. It is clear from the mass appeal of Zuma that the ANC is in a severe crisis. The caring, equal and social just society and democracy that it wanted to install after decades of struggle against apartheid is turning into a nightmare of a mad pursuit of individual acquisition of wealth, ’bugger’ the poverty of one’s neighbour, at all costs.
Many supporters of the ANC cannot understand the ANC’s cold-hearted attitudes towards Aids for example, or party leaders’ persistence that a basic income grant would ’increase entitlement’ or the dismissal of high crime rates as a figment of the imagination of ’whingers’. This, while, on the other hand, many senior ANC leaders are now stinking rich because of black economic empowerment, the white middle class that were doing well under apartheid is doing even better in the now open non-racial market economy because they have the skills acquired during apartheid, and that many ANC leaders are protected from social ills because of their new cushy jobs in government. Moreover, often it appears very few ANC leaders are actively committed to reducing poverty, inequality or unemployment beyond the nice public rhetoric and platitudes.
This is all fertile ground for an established ANC leader with populist rethoric to do something about these ills – something which Zuma is well aware off. Therefore Zuma has studiously cultivated an image of being in touch with the concerns of the poor. Yet, of the half-dozen or so potential presidential ANC candidates, Zuma is most probably the most vulnerable.
For starters, even a cursory examination of his own record in government and his action both in public and private show that his commitment to redress South Africa’s social ills is paper-thin. He has adopted his pro-poor message only after he was fired by Mbeki. Before that, he was Mbeki’s leading supporter and the most vocal defender of the ruling ANC’s government’s record. Zuma’s other weaknesses are that he did not have a record as a competent administrator, neither would be able to unify the ANC or the nation – two requirements desperately needed in a leader with presidential ambitions.
The crisis in which both the ANC and South Africa is currently engulfed in, means that the ANC will have to undergo a thorough self-examination of its mission, actions, policies, political direction and value system. ANC strategists on both the Left and the Mbeki centre have now all come to the conclusion that this is now urgent. However, the ANC’s Left have incorrectly diagnosed the solution as turning the ANC back to some mythical Left roots, which they argue the election if Zuma would do. Mbeki and his strategists like Joel Netshitenzhe have called for the ”modernisation” of the ANC. However, although both groups have correctly come to the understanding that the ANC is in malaise, they have frustratingly not come up with the right medicine for the ailment.
Moreover, the race to find a new head for the ANC is threatening to push to the side the urgent quest of finding a cure for the ANC’s ailment.
Surely, the ANC needs both a new head and a healthy body. Nevertheless, using this metaphor, Zuma most probably knows that there are certainly better heads: more competent, more broadly confidence-inspiring and more unifying, as potential presidential candidates, than himself. To compensate for this, Zuma’s strategy so far has been to start the race at speed early and to make sure that his support campaign is the noisiest, most boisterous and most visible. This is meant to turn dissuade any potential competitor to not even bother to enter the race because it looks like he (Zuma) has such ‘overwhelming support’.
Zuma’s supporters are trying hard to bring forward the elections for the presidency of the ANC from its 2007 date, to get the election over with, before Zuma is struck by more ill-wind. If the rape trial has battered Zuma’s public image, revelations likely to come out of the corruption trial is bound to be more damaging – and more difficult to dismiss. Little wonder, Zuma’s supporters have been trying hard to stop the corruption trial before it even begins. For example, by threatening to subpoena Mbeki, Zuma strategists are sending a clear message that if the trial is not stopped, Zuma has the powers to splash the dirt that’s likely going to be unearthed on other ANC leaders.
In terms of the ANC’s constitution, a special national conference with elective powers can only be organised if there is a ‘crisis’, which necessitate an emergency national conference. In such a case, the ANC’s national policy conference planned for later this year, could serve as such a conference. However, Mbeki, the ANC’s secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe and the movement’s leadership have made it clear there is currently “no crisis”.
For Zuma’s potential competitors, the big question is at which point in the race to go head-to-head with Zuma. A too quick start could mean potential early burnout. Furthermore, trying to join battle on Zuma’s terms will be equally disastrous. This issue has for example appears to have been vexing deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Her strategy has been to focus on her job as deputy president, rather than fighting the succession battle on Zuma’s terms. The downside is that she appears weak or her campaign appears to have disappeared from sight.
When ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe’s name were suddenly mentioned as an early compromise candidate he became the target for smears, dirty-tricks and innuendo – taking some of the shine out of his presidential surge. For now, the Left sees Motlanthe is a possible compromise candidate if Zuma falters.
But Zuma’s strategists will most probably try to smoke out other potential heavyweight presidential candidates to rush them into an early sprint. This has been the case with the “announcement” of a Cyril Ramaphosa presidential campaign. Nevertheless, securing the support of the provincial leaderships, alliance partners or constituent components of the ANC, such as a youth league, is not an iron-clad victory that that will be turned into votes at the December 2007 ANC national conference.
The important thing is, since 1997 there is no block votes for ANC constituent structures such as the Youth League or for the ANC’s tripartite alliance partners. Furthermore, new ANC electoral rules adopted in 2002 states that voters at the conference can, although mandated by their provinces or branches, vote according to their own conscience. On top of this 50% of the ANC Electoral College that will be electing the new ANC president is going to women. Lastly, many long-distances races are often decided at the last third mark, not the first.
In the long ANC history, except for when Mbeki became president, when Cyril Ramaphosa withdrew at the last minute, to prevent the ANC from being torn apart, every presidential race has been won only at the conference itself. Indeed, very few who were early favourites had won so far. Finally, the big question which every delegate is likely to ask of presidential candidates is whether they would be able to unite the fractured ANC and an anxious South Africa; and be able to be the representative face of the country that most can identify with.
It appears that beyond the toyi-toyi and noise of the Zuma supporters, many ordinary ANC members do increasingly accept that a Zuma presidency could unleash destructive forces that could tear the ANC apart, and potentially lead to the break-up of Africa's oldest liberation movement. Something similar happened to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela in 1997: she was popular, but ANC grassroots members feared her ascendancy would cause even more division and she lost out.
Indeed, judging by the divisions already caused by Zuma's presidential campaign, he is unlikely to be able to unite the ANC, let alone build confidence in South Africa, at the moment when the country has finally reached economic take-off. Come the ANC's December 2007 conference, members will most likely want to opt for a compromise candidate who has not been part of the acrimony, smears and mudslinging that have accompanied Mr Zuma's attempts to stake his claim. Certainly, the best strategy for the likes of Ramaphosa, Sexwale or Lekota, would be to wait until the conference – the final strait – to make their moves.