from Africa in Transition

ANC Leadership Contest Heating Up

April 25, 2017

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South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa all but announced his candidacy to succeed Jacob Zuma as the leader of the African National Congress (ANC) at a speech on April 23. The party’s election will take place at the 54th ANC National Conference in December. Ramaphosa’s speech, at an event sponsored by the South African Communist Party (SACP) in the Eastern Cape, was his first since Zuma sacked well-regarded Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan (which resulted in multiple international credit rating agencies downgrading South African credit to junk status). Prevalent themes of Ramaphosa’s speech included: the need to address the “rot” within the party, the need to “root-out corruption,” and concern over outsiders unduly influencing government policy. All of these points were thinly veiled attacks on incumbent President Jacob Zuma.

At the same event, Ramaphosa’s political ally, former Deputy Finance Minister Mcebisi Jonas, dismissed Zuma’s populist rhetoric for radical economic reform as “radical economic looting.” Ramaphosa has support within the SACP and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). Such support for Ramaphosa, a millionaire businessman, demonstrates that ANC internal politics should not simply be seen as left vs. right in conventional terms.

Despite the drama around Zuma’s removal of Gordhan, the electoral landscape within the ANC has changed little. Ramaphosa represents the urban areas (especially Johannesburg where Zuma is deeply unpopular), advocates for reform and “good government,” and an open political process. He is also popular among the domestic and international business communities. Zuma’s chosen replacement candidate appears to be his ex-wife and mother of some of his children, former minister of health, of foreign affairs, and chair of the African Union Commission, Nkosanza Dlamini-Zuma. She appears to have considerable support within party structures, especially the ANC Women’s League and the ANC Youth League. She also has support within the ANC in the poorer, rural regions.

Over the past year, the ANC has become increasingly factionalized and disunited. Accordingly, the rhetoric of ANC politicians of all stripes emphasizes unity. As Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma are each clearly identified with a faction, the party may well settle on a third, “unity” candidate or an arrangement that accommodates both. One possibility might be to make Ramaphosa the party leader and Dlamini-Zuma his deputy. A “unity” candidate might be ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize, who cultivates ties with all factions.

The December elections are to be held internally within the ANC–they are not popular elections, which will occur in 2019. With respect to intra-party candidates for office, the ANC is uncomfortable with open campaigning, perhaps a hold-over from the “democratic centralism” of the days when the ANC was a clandestine movement influence by Marxist-Leninism. Hence, the indirection of much of the candidates’ rhetoric.

The Ramaphosa faction is acutely aware that the ANC’s popularity is slipping and that the party is increasingly identified by corruption and cronyism. This is indicative of the need for reform if the party is to retain its majority status in the 2019 elections.