Forget the May 7th elections


January 11, 2014: ANC President Jacob Zuma greets supporters as they arrive at Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga.

Even before the final vote has been cast or the results of the 2014 elections announced, the battle to succeed President Jacob Zuma and to fashion a new ANC has begun in earnest within the party. It is a battle that involves not just the contenders and those who want to be associated with them in the rise to power, but which Zuma wishes to influence as well.

Cyril Ramaphosa, Zuma’s deputy in the party and most likely candidate for the deputy president’s position after the May 24 inauguration of Zuma, may lose out yet again – he was shunted aside by a rising Thabo Mbeki in the run-up to the ANC conference in 1997 - in the race for the top job.

Murmurs have been heard consistently from KwaZulu Natal, the ANC’s most organized and populous province, that it intends to put forward two candidates for the top job. Zweli Mkhize, the ANC treasurer-general, has always been the province’s anointed son. His name has been touted as a future president since the late 1990s, even before Zuma’s name was punted.

Over the past year another name, that of former Home Affairs Minister and now African Union Commission chairperson, Dr. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, has been punted heavily by those close to Zuma.

But it was not until Monday’s ANC pre-election breakfast, when Zuma weighed in on the subject, that the issue returned to centre stage. After touching on a wide range of issues from Nkandla to his government’s delivery record, Zuma opined on whether the country was ready for a woman president.

“The ANC has come in to say women must be in power. I think the country is ready for a woman president. The ANC has capable women [who can serve as president]. The ANC would enthusiastically [support] the election of a woman president. That might happen sooner than we think,” said Zuma.

He continued: “This [contestation] is what the ANC needs. But what needs to happen is for people to allow democratic processes. We must afford members of the ANC space to choose their own leaders. Contestation will happen in the next [coming] years. I will be at my Nkandla [at that time]. But I will continue to contribute as an ordinary member of the ANC.”

Zuma’s remarks would come as a blow for Ramaphosa if he harboured any ambitions for the top job. Just two weeks ago, he joked that he only had ambition to be president of his golf club.

After he won the deputy presidency of the party in Mangaung in December 2012, many started speculating that he was headed for the top job. Indeed, the ratings agency Fitch was so elated with his election that it said his election and “the endorsement of the National Development Plan (NDP), offers some hope of more effective leadership and a greater focus on structural reforms”.

In KwaZulu Natal, however, Ramaphosa has been viewed with deep suspicion as he only came in as Zuma’s running partner just days before the actual elections in Mangaung. Indeed, Zuma supporters fanned out at conference to shoot down all suggestions of a Zuma-Ramaphosa pre-nuptial agreement.

Which leaves Ramaphosa with a conundrum. He lacks a real base within the party, while the rampant KZN province has shown that it remains, at least in the run-up to the next ANC conference in December 2017, the most muscular – in numbers and organizational reach – the most important player in the race.

If Ramaphosa really wants the top job, he will have to start mobilizing serious players within the party. The ANC Youth League, for long a kingmaker (both Zuma and Mbeki benefitted from its endorsing them at a veryearly stage of their races), is dead. The ANC in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo, where he enjoyed huge support in the past, are divided and weak, with branches which cannot even form a forum. The anti-Zuma Gauteng, which Ramaphosa spurned in Mangaung, does not trust Ramaphosa.

Meanwhile, Zuma seems to want to influence the succession race, and his comments indicate at least that he is now no longer an adherent of a line he used repeatedly when he was running for the presidency of the ANC (that ANC tradition dictates that the deputy ascends to the top job). Much has been made of the fact that former Deputy President Baleka Mbete, the national chairperson of the ANC, may now return to government.

However, if the KZN ANC’s initiatives and Zuma’s comments are taken in tandem, the candidate who seems ahead right now is Dlamini-Zuma, who is Zuma’s former wife.

Her term at the AU Commission ends in 2016, just in time for her to come home, campaign for the top job and win at the ANC’s December 2017 conference.

When Zuma walks out of the voting booth tomorrow morning, a new, exciting, ANC succession battle will begin in earnest.