December is always an odd time in South Africa. Shopping centres are decked with boughs of plastic holly in a country with soaring summertime temperatures. For many, the choice is between invader species conifers grown for the express purpose of being cut down for two weeks of displaced yuletide cheer or the plastic simulacra of such for the same purpose.
For South Africa’s governing party, Xmas (or Christmas, though the differences between these is not always entirely clear to everyone) will bring the gift of relief. Their elective conference finished, despite significant delays, several hiccups, and a few controversies, without too much trauma. They may have over-run their reservation at the conference venue, but the ANC, like many observers outside the party, may be glad that they did not have to deal with any of the scenes some had anticipated.
Cyril Ramaphosa won, but a narrow margin, over Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The rest of the top six officials are people who supported him in the campaign, and some who supported Dlamini-Zuma. A ‘mixed masala’, as eNCA Africa Editor Mike Siluma put it. Some see this as bad news for the man who takes over the office of ANC president from Jacob Zuma. They argue that this ties his hands, and all but reins in his ability to effect the overhaul they say the party desperately needs. Others, in agreement with the ANC itself, sees the outcome of the elective conference, as a sign of unity which must be wrought from this divergence.
At stake is not just the future of the party that styles itself Africa’s oldest liberation movement. At stake is the direction that the South African state tout court will take. So powerful is the ANC – it governs with a 62% mandate in the National Assembly, and runs the overwhelming majority of municipalities in the country, and in many of those with significant majorities – that its choices impact on the lives of all 56 million people who live here, regardless of their support for or antagonism to the party.
The names of the 80 members who make up the party’s National Executive Committee were announced after the newly elected party president closed the conference with an address. That list is as ‘mixed’ as the top six list. On it there are what that imaginary bringer of joys, Santa or Father Xmas (or Christmas?), would consider folks who are nice, and some folks who look awfully naughty. Some have actual court judgments against them, for fraud and assault, among other things. Others have a chequered record of court losses which blight their leadership record at provincial level in the party or in government.
But beyond these issues, there is also the problem of gender inequity which marred any sort of joyous celebration of the conference’s election outcomes. On questions of policy, there was seemingly little shift from the July 2017 National Policy Conference deliberations. As those commissions reported back, some of them with such brevity one wondered whether they met and debated at all, it became clear that for the most part the ANC’s policies would not shift significantly towards the proposals of the man who was its newly elected president.
But this is the stuff of politics: contestation, negotiation, and compromise. Trade-offs had to happen, and it will be interesting to see the consequences of such political compromises for both the ANC, and the post-millennial post-apartheid republic it governs. For those who have long critiqued the enabling and impunity of patriarchs and misogynistic conduct in South Africa’s political economy, the snubbing of women from top positions was hardly surprising. How the ANC corrects its own processes to prevent a future repetition of this will be one of its many tests.
The most significant test will be whether the party has the political will to act on the issues on corruption and ethical failure which Cyril Ramaphosa said the party was committed to in his closing address. And many South Africans will ask how they will do this given the continued presence of those from the naughty list in the NEC. The ANC Women’s League will also have to learn to speak consistently on the issues which underpin and inform their spectacular failure to get more than one candidate elected to the top six. The Youth League will have to work hard to regain its reputation of being the engine of the party’s renewal and adaptation to new times and to shed the image that some of its leaders are too closely aligned with one or other faction in the party.
As a whole, the test ahead for Cyril Ramaphosa is how he deals with the problems the party’s deployees created in government, in state-owned enterprises, and elsewhere. How, and how quickly, will he and the new NEC, act on holding ANC members inside and outside government accountable to the vision articulated by the 54th Conference? Will the integrity commission finally have its recommendations respected? Will those found guilty of crimes finally be put out to pasture? Will the party remind and require its MPs of their duty to the Constitution above all else?
The money to implement the policies which this NEC and the incoming top six inherit from the current government is a major concern. On 16 December 2017, the outgoing president of the party, in his capacity as the President of the Republic of South Africa, announced that as of 2018, up to 90% of students in post-school education will no longer have to pay fees. Both his Minister of Finance Malusi Gigaba and the ANC conference commission rapporteur Naledi Pandor, could not adequately explain how this would work. Joel Netshitenzhe, as rapporteur on economic transformation, confessed that there was no money given the R50 billion shortfall Gigaba had pointed out in the Medium Term Budget Policy Statement in late October 2017.
The ANC faces several challenges in 2018, some as a direct result of the outcomes of its elective conference, but others as a result of the conduct of its deployees in government. And as the clock ticks over and we approach 2019, the new leadership has little more than a year to convince South Africans that the party is ‘self-correcting’, so that they do not face the results of the local government elections of 2016 at a national level. Because if the party is perceived to be ‘naughty’, voters will not be ‘nice’. South Africans may not be tired of plastic trees, but they have shown themselves to be exhausted with tinsel politics thick with promises but thin on delivery, just like the empty boxes at the bottom of those fake Xmas trees in the shopping centres.