With Two Centres Of Power, Will We Be Headed For Another Polokwane?

How will the ANC handle having a party president who is not the president of the country? Déjà vu?

09/01/2017 14:52 SAST | Updated 10/01/2017 13:11 SAST
Gallo Images/Oryx Media Archive
Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki, before things got messy.

Cyril Ramaphosa is poised to go head-to-head with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma for the position of ANC president. Whichever way it goes, the country is headed for an uncertain political scenario, in which there are two seats of political power - one at Luthuli House and another in the Union buildings.

We have seen this before, in the aftermath of Polokwane elective conference, when then-president Thabo Mbeki was ousted from his position as party president by Jacob Zuma. The party solved the two centres conundrum by recalling Mbeki and replacing him with caretaker national president Kgalema Motlanthe.

The ANC's elective conference has always been slightly out of sync with the national elections, but Polokwane highlighted for the first time the serious problems that could result if there was infighting between party and national leaders.

So how does the party move forward? If Zuma remains president of the country, what will the ANC president be doing from now until 2018? How does the party ensure that there are no squabbles between the new ANC president and Zuma? Unless the successor comes from Zuma's camp, it won't be an easy situation to manage.

Political analyst Ralph Mathekga says questions about how to manage two centers of power is creating sleepless nights for many within the ANC and a growing suspicion that Zuma might stand for a third term as ANC president in order to remain national president.

"The question then becomes under what conditions will Zuma continue being president of the country? Will it be because the new party president allows him to or will it be because he stands to contest the leadership within the party? If he gets elected for a third term then there is no problem, but I think that is the source of anxiety in the party," said Mathekga.

Levy Ndou, a politics lecturer at the Tshwane University of Technology, said the organisation will have to handle the matter very carefully. He said those who supported Zuma in 2007 when he ascended to power made a strong argument that the president of the party should lead the republic if the ANC wins the elections, thus avoiding the two centres of power.

The problem with this proposal is that the national elections will only be held a year after the appointment of the new president, leaving a lengthy period in which the country and party have two separate leaders.

Ndou, however, does not see Zuma contesting a third term, something that his supporters did not want Mbeki to do in Polokwane.

"I wouldn't expect President Zuma standing again for the president of the party because in so doing, he will be contradicting himself and at the same time saying he is not honest in what he believes in. The ANC must be the one that is able to manage that contentious period. President will remain the president of the republic whilst they have a leader of the ANC," he said.

Ndou said Zuma must put the interests of the country and party ahead of his own and find a way to make the transition period a smooth one.

"In the interest of the ANC, one would expect President Zuma to be able to cooperate in the last few months in order to ensure there is a smooth transition and no contradiction in terms of the two presidents. One must also expect President Zuma to be able to assist the president of the ANC in terms of handing over of power. If President Zuma loves the ANC and the republic, he must be seen to be the one who makes sure there is peace in that transitional period and that is very important," said Ndou.

But the political fiasco that followed the Polokwane elective conference has cast doubt on whether the party will be able to pull it off.

However Dirk Kotze, a politics professor at Unisa, says it can be done. After all, the country faced the same situation between 1997 and 1999, with president Nelson Mandela and Mbeki.

"He (Mbeki) gradually took over the government role. We had that again in 2007 until Mbeki was recalled," he said.

Still, the transition period could be a serious test for the party. "Once Zuma is no longer president of the ANC, he will lose power and move in the background, and the interim person will be more in charge. It can work, unless Zuma tries to fight," said Kotze.

The two centres of power issue raises serious questions about why the ANC has not linked its elective conference cycle with the country's national election cycle. Mathekga points out that the ANC's elective conferences are so destabilising to the country's politics that eventually, something will need to be done. He says its "just about shifting the cycle". It may be time for the ANC to consider a change.