It’s going to be a long 11 months until the ANC’s elective conference in December. Within the last week alone, three significant developments have taken the succession battle into its next gear – and we are only entering week three of the new year.
Firstly. President Jacob Zuma seems increasingly to be unable to help himself by staying out of the leadership fray. Suggestions by him that South Africa was ready for a female president is hardly earth-shattering. But in the context of his former wife formally being nominated by the ANCWL, his remarks may be seen as a fore-runner to favouritism.
Taken together with a second presidential intervention that the ANC does not necessarily have to nominate the Deputy President as a successor, Zuma almost sounded as though he was putting the boot in Cyril Ramaphosa.
Clearly, given the President’s elevated position, his early interference in aspects of the looming race – albeit relatively oblique – point towards an attempt to drive his succession agenda. Jacob
Zuma’s big problem – and that for those who receive his support – is that he no longer carries the political gravitas he once did. Although he has survived a deeply damaging 2016, he continues to face legal challenges and state capture fallout. To be seen as a recipient of Zuma’s political patronage by still come home to haunt those like Nkosazana-Dlamini Zuma.
In addition, by favouring one candidate over another, the President polarises his most senior cabinet colleagues. As if the ANC needs further impetus for factionalism, these hints at how the sitting President thinks, will hardly leave a warm and fuzzy feeling as political tensions rise.
The second feature of the last week was the unsurprising entry of National Assembly Speaker, Baleka Mbete into the contest. With few personalities or formations in the ANC listening to their own NEC or Secretary General about the desire to hold off on electioneering, Mbete herself could not wait to declare her candidacy.
It was no co-incidence that the timing of this announcement came hot on the heels of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s endorsement by the ANCWL. On the face of it, Mbete’s candidature dilutes that of Dlamini-Zuma within the emotional debate around a possible first female President for the country.
Mbete certainly knew how to steal the female vote limelight from her colleague Nkosazana as she will put pressure on any cohesive female block for the outgoing AU chair. Despite the ANCWL’s endorsement and Mbete being seen as rank outsider, she can pry away from the ANCWL those women keen on a female president yet wary of Mrs Zuma’s policies, abilities and patronage proclivities.
Equally as interesting as the Mbete candidature was the so-called accompaniment of a variety of slate positions. While all of this will mutate multiple times over the next few months, the Mpumalanga Premier, David Mabuza is regarded as a major benefactor. This could reflect a view that Mbete may afford the Premier League at least the same if not more access to power as Dlamini-Zuma. It may also therefore show that Mrs Zuma has not yet fully convinced the Premier League that she will – as is the popular wisdom – keep them in the pound seats.
Of course, early slate combinations will shift. Personalities will come and go. And, one should not forget that even the early announcement of candidature for the Presidency may ultimately be political game playing by individuals and factions with little hope of winning – but instead using disruptive tactics to create divisions an decoys with the express intent on weakening more powerful players and creating alternative support blocks.
And, as if all of this was not enough, the ANCYL under Collen Maine themselves surprised everyone by playing it coy. Maine – whose political judgment has incurred the wrath of many on the Alliance in recent months – has not committed his organisation to issuing any premature endorsement.
Although he spoke of eventually endorsing someone who will ‘shock the country’ perhaps this strategy is Maine’s best political move to date. He is essentially saying to all those considering standing that they should come to him and present their case for endorsement. Rather than commit their support almost a year early – like the ANCWL or COSATU has done, Maine has left the door open for those seeking the top job to come and court him.
In an ANC where candidates barely indicate their own vision for South Africa and therefore expect the party to largely support them for historical or patronage reasons, the Youth League might have set the bar even higher than they expected. The position of President should be about a contest of competing visions – even if the candidates are from the same party. Like the US primaries, it is these competing visions that clarify the suitability for the job.
Barely in the third week of 2017, South Africa is hearing the names of candidates emerge but have little idea of their world view. Let these early political games be a for-runner to a much more engaging and worthy debate necessary both within the ANC and outside.