The starting pistol is yet to officially go off, but the sprinters are already out of the blocks. The presidential campaigning has taken a distinctly African National Congress (ANC) feel, where the party continues to struggle with unifying blatantly obvious factions. To its continued chagrin, the fissures are ever widening as we approach the 54th National Elective Conference, the de facto presidential election in South Africa. But don't expect to see the candidates grimacing as they accelerate to top speed with beads of sweat emerging on faces constantly glancing to either side of their lanes. No, this is not the ANC way. Although the candidates have been rather subdued in the wake of the most testing time for the sitting president, the campaign machinery is indeed in full swing.
The simple reason for this sort of posturing is that although in theory the party is run from the branches, the presidential candidates are in reality communicated from senior positions and other party structures. The branches are too dispersed and disorganised to put forward credible candidates with nationwide appeal. What you will find now is an increasing number of leaders from the party's various structures and alliances increasingly making their views known of who they believe should be Jacob Zuma's successor. What you won't find, is covert campaigning from the genuine candidates, of which there are only three: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and the not-so-dark dark horse Zweli Mkhize. I'll explain that last bit later.
What you won't find, is covert campaigning from the genuine candidates, of which there are only three: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Cyril Ramaphosa and the not-so-dark dark horse Zweli Mkhize.
ANC nomination landscape
If you thought that competence, presidential demeanour, a plan and credentials are what matter for a presidential candidate, then you really haven't been paying attention to politics the world over in recent times. Certainly not to local politics since the global financial crisis.
The ANC has been in decline for some time now but a common mistake is to think it all started under Jacob Zuma. Zuma is simply the product of a party long in decline, a party perpetually in a struggle with itself as a result of competing interests from structures and alliance partners who are wholly incompatible with the mother body. It is a legacy inherent in the party's operating structure, which is geared toward a movement and not a government. The movement itself is following a similar trend experienced by liberation movements in the rest of the African continent, with the exception of key interventions at democracy's inception, most critically the constitution. This has negated the correlation between the decline of the party and the decline of the country. The way in which the party is organised, unsurprisingly, doesn't lend itself to effective government, but it has taken an economic crisis and sluggish growth to bring these issues to the fore. As Warren Buffett once said: "Only when the tide goes out do you find out who's been swimming naked."
The positions of the major groupings at play can be gauged by various public utterances from their leaders.
Youth League – The youth league is led by Collen Maine, has been a strong supporter of Jacob Zuma since its reformation at his behest. They are fully behind the candidacy of Dlamini-Zuma as the first woman president.
Women's league - The league led by Bathabile Dlamini, a Zuma loyalist. The party is also believed to be in full support of a woman president and is hell-bent on protecting Zuma's legacy.
Veterans - The veteran's league is 100 percent for Zuma. Don't confuse it with the so-called "veterans' initiative," the latter being a collection of seemingly fed-up ANC veterans without clear direction. They have publicly chastised Zuma for bringing the party into disrepute, but still hold party unity as priority over challenging the president on the very same premise on which they have organised themselves to begin with. They appear to favour Ramaphosa, but do not garner delegate status by mere virtue of their grouping, which makes them less of a consideration.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) - The unions are traditionally unified in their message of who they prefer as a candidate. On this occasion, they find themselves in a rather uncomfortable position. On the one hand, they recognise that Zuma has presided over the most tumultuous period in Cosatu's recent history, not only on the leadership front but also pertaining jobs in the underlying economy, which is the ultimate currency for the organisation. On the other hand, they face the real prospect of supporting a trade unionist turned capitalist in Ramaphosa.
On the one hand, they recognise that Zuma has presided over the most tumultuous period in Cosatu's recent history, not only on the leadership front but also pertaining jobs in the underlying economy, which is the ultimate currency for the organisation.
This flies in the face of the organisation's core ideology, which presents ample political fodder for the likes of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF). At the time of writing, mixed messages emerged from the unions, which is unsurprising given this context. That said, support from Cosatu's biggest unions is for Ramaphosa. (The National Union of Mineworkers, the organisation that gave us Ramaphosa the politician, has backed him for president. Cosatu has too, much to the consternation of the ANC. - blogs editor.)
The South African Communist Party (SACP) - The SACP is seen to have lost its moral authority and standing in South African politics, especially with the EFF's competing ideology. The SACP has been quoted as supporting the natural succession of the deputy president to the position of president, which is a less than subtle endorsement of Cyril Ramaphosa.
So what does this mean for the candidates?
Well firstly, the nomination process is closed. There are no other structures or alliance partners of significance left. Putting forward another name at this stage in the game puts you at risk of alienation. The stakes are high and history tells us that it is winner takes all. What is important now is to back the horse you think has got what it takes to win and win big!
Alignment of interest and regional politics
One of the factors that makes people stronger together is an alignment of interests. I witness this phenomenon often in my role as a private equity transactor. When interests are aligned, everyone is pulling in the same direction and for a unified outcome. This powerful principle displays itself more readily within the ANC structures, particularly at a grassroots level where it matters most. The unfortunate part is that the alignment tool in this instance is patronage.
The time has come for branch members to start pinning their colours to the mast and align themselves to candidates. At a local level, deals will be cut behind closed doors, while songs of unity are sung in hallways. Members are now facing the challenge of picking the right down-ballot candidates to align themselves with for continued economic gain and political advancement. They do this while performing the balancing act of committing early enough to these candidates to make their claims of support credible but late enough to assess and pick the sure-fire candidates. It matters not who the eventual winner is. What matters most is that you end up on the right side of this prediction.
Enter the "premier league". No, not football but politics!
The premier league is what the informal organisation of KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, North West and Free State political heads has been dubbed. This organisation was responsible for delivering an overwhelming 75 percent to 25 percent victory for the Zuma slate of nominees in the Mangaung's 2012 elective conference. The level of organisation and discipline among this group, even to the level of branch delegates, suggests an alignment that can only be achieved with patronage at its core.
Over the past four years, this patronage network can only be assumed to have strengthened, simply due to its incumbency and access to state resources. The premier league has effectively increased the predictability of the presidential race, to the extent that these provinces command the majority of delegate votes at the elective conference. Its existence has dramatically changed the competitiveness of internal politics while exacerbating the political consequences on either side of the win-loss column. This is when the arithmetic starts to matter.
Keep calm and trust the math
ANC membership has declined drastically since the Mangaung elective conference - A 37 percent decline according to the 2015 national general council numbers, which is more of a political embarrassment than a practical inconvenience. The decline was led by KwaZulu-Natal, Gauteng, Free State and Mpumalanga. This is what I suspect is the chief concern among the premier league faction. Be that as it may, the premier league still controls at least 50 percent of the branch votes, which will be enough to see them regain the presidency in 2017.
Rule 10 of the ANC's constitution, which is the rule governing national conferences, states that 90 percent of the votes are reserved for delegates representing fully paid up memberships at a branch level. The other 10 percent is reserved for party structure leaders and provincial executives. The premier league faction has displayed an intimate understanding of this landscape and is highly motivated to vote together, in contrast to the challenging faction, which is far better organised now than at Mangaung four years ago, but still faces a serious numbers challenge.
On conservative estimates, the premier league faction has the majority of the vote tied up. This assumes that the challenging faction displays the same level of organisation, motivation and discipline as the premier league faction, which is highly unlikely. Furthermore, the remaining structures of the ANC are Zuma controlled. This ultimately guarantees the victory for the premier league faction by at least 60 percent to 40 percent, and effectively rules out Cyril Ramaphosa for president. Even though he seems like the obvious choice among the three candidates, he, unfortunately, does not have a strong enough constituency within the party. While he was in business, his competitors were building a base of supporters who would do the heavy lifting on the campaign trail.
The only question that remains is which candidate the premier league faction is going to back between Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Zweli Mkhize. Zweli Mkhize for all his admirable traits lacks the credentials of Dlamini-Zuma for the purposes of a general election campaign. At 60 years of age, he is a relative youngster when compared to his fellow rival, and is more likely to rationalise a deputy president position as he consolidates his candidacy for 2027.
As we stand today, there is no doubt in my mind that barring any bizarre occurrence, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will be the next president of the ANC. What is less certain is the extent of the ANC's mandate come the 2019 national elections.
I believe that the ANC will be weaker than it has ever been in the next elections, but will manage to retain power. Whether she will have a second term as president will depend on how well she convinces the public that she is turning things around. In reality, this ship has unfortunately sailed, and it is only a matter of time until the ANC relinquishes power.
The Zuma faction has made the conscious decision to consolidate power at the expense of party unity, which has traditionally been the source of its strength. The inflexion point was when they decided to support a president found guilty of violating his oath of office and the constitution. The faction will deliver the party's first female president, a somewhat bold silver lining considering the patriarchal society we live in. More significantly, it will likely also deliver the ANC's last president of the Republic.