POLITICS
18/12/2017 18:31 SAST | Updated 18/12/2017 21:56 SAST

How He Won: Nenegate Convinced CR17 To Mobilise

Many leaders in party and government "leaned" on Cyril Ramaphosa to launch a proper campaign after Nhlanhla Nene was fired as finance minister.

The dramatic firing of Nhlanhla Nene as minister of finance on December 9, 2015, a little more than two years ago, was the moment when Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa realised that he could no longer support the status quo.

Ramaphosa, who has narrowly defeated Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in the acrimonious and divisive race for the ANC's presidency, now faces the prospect of having to unite his party while remaining committed to clean it up. He will have to make a choice between the two, but the Nene decision by President Jacob Zuma and what it represented seems to be the driving force behind his resolve to recapture the ANC.

According to information obtained by HuffPost and based on interviews with key support staff in the Ramaphosa campaign:

  • Ramaphosa was lobbied by "lots of people" in government and party to launch a campaign to ensure victory in 2017 shortly after "Nenegate".
  • His campaign consisted of a management team and political committee made up of as many as 20 people engaged with strategy and communications.
  • The campaign, CR17 #Siyavuma, relied heavily on social media and went above ground in January 2017.
  • Hard work at grassroots level by campaign organisers in the provinces ensured that key provinces like Mpumalanga delivered their share of necessary support.
  • The CR17 #Siyavuma campaign "officially" went live in January 2017.
  • Key organisers included fired finance minister Pravin Gordhan, former police commissioner Bheki Cele, Thabo Mbeki's policy guru Joel Netshitenzhe, ex-MK operative Marion Sparg, ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, fired tourism minister Derek Hanekom and ANC veteran Steyn Speed.
If there's anybody that understands how to exercise power within certain limits, in a situation that is not of his making, it is Ramaphosa.

After Nene's firing Ramaphosa kept his cards close to his chest, and confidential and informal conversations with various actors commenced. But he was seemingly careful not to declare his willingness to run too early –– a major feature of the campaign and a source of much criticism from the commentariat, given Dlamini-Zuma's early, public and above-the-line campaign. The campaign team took a while to be cobbled together, with Ramaphosa confiding in only a few senior members of his staff, most of who would play a major role in organising support, marshalling resources and directing the campaign message.

AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa, South African Vice President and presidential hopeful of the African National Congress hold an ANC flag outside NASREC Expo Centre during the 54th ANC National Conference in Johannesburg, on December 17, 2017. South Africa's ruling African National Congress holds its 54th national conference, with the party expected to elect its new leader, who will probably become the country's next president. / AFP PHOTO / WIKUS DE WET (Photo credit should read WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images)

HOW TO CAMPAIGN?

The ANC, officially of course, has no tradition of American-style campaigning. Unofficially and off the books, it is, however, a totally different story. CR17 (the popular moniker by which the campaign became known) had no template from which to work, and much of its strategy and planning was "unprecedented", one staffer explained, adding that there were organisational and logistical constraints within which they had to function.

The structure of the campaign management – led by a central team of NEC members sitting on a management committee – adapted and changed over the almost 18 months that it was in existence.

The most important task early on was to position the campaign as one of clean government and anti-corruption. Unlike in a US election, where the candidates have the full backing of their respective parties' machinery, CR17 had to operate independently of both the ANC and the presidency. The design of the campaign and communications strategy was left to the political team.

CR17 went live in January 2017, with a sophisticated and energetic strategy on Twitter and Facebook quickly helping to establish a community of Ramaphosa supporters in the parallel world of social media. The community enabled CR17 to effortlessly and cheaply push out its message regularly and effectively. The campaign very quickly developed its own identity.

The structure of the campaign management –– led by a central team of NEC members sitting on a management committee –– adapted and changed over the almost 18 months that it was in existence. Different people were in charge of different initiatives –– like lobbying, grassroots work, social media –– while there were also different levels of responsibility, with the political committee setting the course. In addition to senior ANC leaders and full-time elected government officials, the political committee consisted of up to 20 people, and the campaign was staffed by a number of full-time operatives.

The success of the campaign, however, would not have been possible without the work of provincial and regional coordinators at grassroots level, say CR17 staffers. They did the critical lobbying at branch level, with regional campaign leadership keeping tabs on movements and discussions at branch level. "There were discussions about change; we wanted to be part of those," a senior operative says.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, presidential candidate of the African National Congress party (ANC), left, reacts with Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa's deputy president, during the 54th national conference of the African National Congress party (ANC) in Johannesburg, South Africa, on Saturday, Dec. 16, 2017. South Africa's president Jacob Zuma urged the ruling African National Congress to fight factionalism and consider accommodating members of rival slates in its new leadership that will be elected at its national conference. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg via Getty Images

THE PROBLEM WITH MESSAGING

Rampahosa had to walk a tightrope from the very beginning. Zuma had shown that he had no qualms about reshuffling his cabinet, and if somebody like Gordhan could be unceremoniously dumped, then the deputy president could also be forced to walk the plank. As deputy president of the country and the party, he had had to carefully manage his public statements, so as to not antagonise the president, while maintaining enough distance to carefully criticise if he needed to.

Many observers thought the eulogy Ramaphosa gave at Makhenkesi Stofile's funeral in August 2016 was his official "coming out". He gave an impassioned speech, in which he implored leaders in the ANC to stand up for the party's values, do what is right and put the country first.

But staffers say there wasn't one particular speech that signalled his intent. The message was woven into all his speeches and appearances, with a gradual build-up to the elective conference, once campaigning was out in the open. His campaign team thought his strongest performance was the recent town hall interview on Talk Radio 702, which saw him "particularly engaged" with the studio audience.

His staffers, however, argue that Ramaphosa showed his mettle whenever he met with potential supporters and ordinary ANC members, and that he managed to win people over. "Many asked about his lack of a constituency, but he still enjoys strong support in the union movement," says a staffer.

TURNING POINTS AND FUTURE PROSPECTS

The ANC's policy conference in July was a turning point for CR17 #Siyavuma. The leadership battle –– in the form of proxy debates around whether or not monopoly capital is white and the exact tenets of radical economic transformation –– was encouraging for Ramaphosa, who sensed that there was a sea-change in ANC members' minds. They wanted change.

This was confirmed, his agents say, during the opening session of the elective conference on the weekend, at which they saw a lukewarm response from the majority of delegates to Dlamini-Zuma. "The biggest cheer Zuma received was when he acknowledged the DP (Ramaphosa) in his address," says a staffer.

Siphiwe Sibeko / Reuters
Deputy president of South Cyril Ramaphosa (L) looks on as President of South Africa Jacob Zuma addresses the 54th National Conference of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa December 16, 2017. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

Rampahosa is acutely aware of the task that awaits him. The ANC remains a sharply divided house. It is also riven with the cancer of corruption and patronage which has contaminated state and government. He will have to make some painful and partisan decisions over the next few weeks, all of which will carry a political cost to him and the party. He also faces the prospect of being stymied in his attempts to carry out reforms from within the ANC –– but a senior campaign source says "he knows what to do".

"If there's anybody that understands how to exercise power within certain limits, in a situation that is not of his making, it is Ramaphosa. We know, and he knows, that we can't focus on this moment [the election victory] forever. We have to move on; this is not the end. The work only starts now," the senior source says.

AFP/Getty Images
Supporters of Cyril Ramaphosa, South African Deputy President and presidential hopeful of the African National Congress dance outside NASREC Expo Centre during the 54th ANC National Conference in Johannesburg, on December 17, 2017. South Africa's ruling African National Congress holds its 54th national conference, with the party expected to elect its new leader, who will probably become the country's next president. / AFP PHOTO / WIKUS DE WET (Photo credit should read WIKUS DE WET/AFP/Getty Images)

CR17 #Siyavuma's projections last week showed a victory with 59% of electoral support. By Sunday night, it had shrunk to 52%. But they managed to keep their pledged delegates together, keeping them tight and resisting promises of money and jobs if they vote for Dlamini-Zuma.

In the end, Ramaphosa's campaigners believe, there was a shift in how delegates shape their party identity. In the past, it was largely crafted by provincial bosses, with branches instructed how to vote. This time around, it was the branches that decided who to support.

And they chose Ramaphosa.