As South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) celebrates 100 years of existence, Tom Nevin casts an eye on its tumultous policy conference and the no-holds-barred struggle for dominance that followed.
Before Mangaung was chosen as the venue for South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party policy conference, few would have heard the name or had the slightest idea of where it was. That changed rapidly as the December conference neared and was the word on everyone’s lips.
Mangaung is the metropolitan area for Bloemfontein, the provincial capital of the Free State and in the local vernacular means “Place of the Cheetah”. It could not have been named more aptly for the energy, agility, cunning and stealth that stalked the conference and, predictably, where only the fittest survived.
The ANC’s once-every-four-years policy conference is the most important event on the party’s calendar. It is where princes are blooded and kings are dethroned – think Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki in 2008.
This occasion was equally as messy, although the casualties turned out to be pretenders and few escaped with their political lives. Despite pleadings and threats from the party nobility, vice-president Kgalema Motlanthe stood against incumbent party boss, and therefore president, Jacob Zuma, and met his inevitable fate of a thorough steamrollering.
The outcome of the voting to decide the ANC’s hierarchy reflected both a party cleansing and a catharsis; on the one hand it exposed the dissidents and on the other, more clearly defined the schism that divides the party.
The fact that none of the renegades was given a place on the coveted inner-council National Executive Committee meant the organisation was substantially weakened with the loss of sorely-needed intellect. A substantial portion of the maverick cheetah coalition (the collective noun for such animals) limped away to lick wounds and ponder next moves.
While division in the broad ANC leadership has widened, the power nucleus has coalesced with like-minded men and women and President Jacob Zuma’s presidency has solidified as a result.
But somewhere along the line the chalice has been poisoned and Zuma retains the chieftaincy of a politically weakening party and national economy with deepening woes. He attended to the hobbling economy by appointing self-made billionaire Cyril Ramaphosa as his deputy (see sidebar Enter Mr Fixit).
For the last decade, the ANC has been losing support for a number of reasons, mainly a lack of delivery in social development, most keenly felt in housing and education, corruption in government reaching epidemic proportion and the continued failure of state-owned enterprises that costs the fiscus tens of billions of rands each year in bailouts.
The ANC’s support losses are starkly illustrated in recent election results. They have dwindled from 69% of the vote in 2004 to 65% in 2009 to 62% in last year’s municipal elections, a total loss of 7.69% of the national vote in seven years.
Meanwhile, notes Omega Investment Research, the opposition Democratic Alliance’s share of votes over the same period grew from 12.3% in 2004 to 16.66% in 2009 and to 23.9% in last year’s municipal election – a total expansion of 11.6%, nearly doubling its share of the national vote in that time.
Former editor of South Africa’s Sunday Times and now political commentator, Alistair Sparks, believes that a tipping point in the South African political system would be a drop to 55% in the ANC’s majority and to get there in the next general election in 2014, the combined opposition must reduce the ANC share by just 7%.
And suddenly the unthinkable is possible: that the ANC, at 100 years Africa’s oldest political party and the people’s legendary stalwart, might find itself in the opposition after next year’s election.
As it was, Zuma went to the Mangaung conference with a thorn in his side, suffering the indignity of seeing a ward in his home village of Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal won by the opposition in a by-election. This caused an ANC delegate at the conference to tell Financial Mail magazine: “When a ward in Zuma’s home village is won by an opposition party, you must know that there’s a disconnect between party members and voters on the ground.”
But the conference at Mangaung wasn’t about a free-for-all at the hustings, it was party business where scores are settled, positions filled with favours owed and others promised. It is where the ablest are decided by their political acumen rather than fitness for the job.
In the final tally, Zuma won through like a steamroller and the challenge by his deputy and his acolytes was cast aside with contemptuous ease. Those who had hitched their wagons to Motlanthe’s team found themselves without a job.
Probably the densest cloud to hang over proceedings was how best to deal with an ailing economy, forecast to grow at a lacklustre 2.5% in 2012, ensure that it weathers the global economic slowdown and growing internal convulsions and can contribute to the goal of social transformation. To the relief of many, particularly in the mining, manufacturing and banking industries, the issue of nationalisation was put to rest. For at least two years it has been aired but never resolved, at times causing seismic disturbances on the stock exchange, buffeting the rand and bringing the jitters to investment ranks. Throughout the government had declined to comment either way, saying only that the matter would be discussed at Mangaung. At the conference, it also helped when union giant Cosatu declared that did not believe in the wholesale nationalisation of mines, but that the state needed to play a more strategic role.
“The state must carefully consider where it wants to involve itself,” said Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. “We must not develop state capitalism. We know the disastrous consequences of that, but we want an active state.”
He pointed out, however, that Cosatu’s stand on ownership issues was not an open cheque for the private sector. “We will insist on government having a serious role in the mining industry, and this includes strategic nationalisation of particular minerals. This will help with other objectives such as industrialisation,” he maintained.
The National Development Plan, drafted by the National Planning Commission constituted by President Zuma in 2010, identifies the mining industry as one of the sectors that can contribute to the ANC’s vision for the South African society. According to Citibank, the industry, valued at $2.5 trillion, is the biggest in the world. The sector employs over one million people directly and indirectly, contributes 8.8% to the gross domestic product and pays R25.8bn ($3bn) and R5.5bn ($648m) in corporate taxes and royalties respectively.
“Despite this, the mining industry has been beset by myriad challenges adversely impacting on its reputation and its contributions to society,” says Ichumile Gqada of the Southern African Institute of International Affairs. “Having missed the resource boom between 2001 and 2008, South Africa’s mining sector has been in a precarious position for the last few years. The sector’s output decreased by an average of 7.8% in 2012.”
Deloitte’s Tracking the Trends 2013 report shows that projected investment in the Australian mining industry is 18 times higher than the projected investment in South Africa’s mining industry, despite a history of better returns. Deficient energy infrastructure and transport backlogs are some of the other key constraints facing the industry.
Despite its title, the conference is not all about economic policy, and how successfully that particular gauntlet can be run; for delegates it’s more important to demonstrate how astutely they can navigate the political minefield.
In that case, President Jacob Zuma and his close circle won by a knockout.