The ANC succession battle: An assessment

Frans Cronje sounds some cautionary notes in his analysis of the current state of play

The political twists and turns of South Africa’s next 24 months

The internal African National Congress (ANC) leadership race is sometimes presented as a zero-sum-game contest. In much mainstream media analysis, the race is reduced to either a Cyril Ramaphosa win at year-end, in which case South Africa resumes a virtuous economic and political trajectory, or a camp-Zuma win, in which case South Africa assumes an accelerated downward trajectory. We see more complexity than such neat binary outcomes suggest.

To create a working baseline from which to start thinking about how the race will end and what the implications for the country will be, suppose that all delegates from the Free State, North West, Mpumalanga, and KwaZulu-Natal (supposed camp-Zuma strongholds) vote for the Zuma camp and all other provincial delegates vote for the Cyril Ramaphosa camp, with all league and other votes being split 50/50. This would mean the Zuma camp wins 54% to 46%.

Then, as a step towards refining those assumptions, assume camp-Zuma polls 70% in its four supposed strongholds and 30% in the supposed Ramaphosa strongholds. In this case the Zuma camp wins again, but by 52% to 48%.

But change just one assumption – lowering the camp-Zuma vote in supposed camp-Ramaphosa strongholds to 20% – and the Ramaphosa camp triumphs by 53% to 46%.

Change one further assumption – leaving camp-Zuma support levels at 20% in supposed Ramaphosa strongholds, but upping camp-Zuma support levels from 70% to 80% in its own strongholds – and the race once again favours camp-Zuma, which now secures a 52% to 48% majority.

The point of the exercise is that slight changes in variables have such a rollercoaster effect on the result that only a gambler would allow a straight race to occur at year-end. Consider also that even if you were certain of the winner the very closeness of the contest will exacerbate internal divisions and perhaps cause enough internal damage to leave the winning faction presiding over a spent and fatally wounded organisation.

Given this risk, we started factoring in what would happen if coalitions were struck.

There is a more middle-of-the-road group that has emerged around Dr Zweli Mkhize. This opened new options in our models. Should this centrist grouping be able to sell the idea of unity within the ruling party sufficiently to draw support from both the Zuma and Ramaphosa camps, we think it could secure a majority of over 60% – thereby doing much to unite the ruling party. 

Particularly intriguing is that this centrist faction could unite the party in favour of either the Zuma or Ramaphosa camp – it does not have to unite them to their mutual benefit. Nor would such a unity deal necessarily place Dr Mkhize as leader of the party and later president of the country – not in 2019 at any rate. Rather, a figurehead leader of sorts may emerge, from either the Zuma or Ramaphosa camp – perhaps even Dr Dlamini-Zuma or Mr Ramaphosa – while the political and economic centre of power devolves to the office of the secretary general of the party.

In the event of such a deal, analysts will need to be very cautious about what they read into who emerges as the party leader – as future policy direction might not come directly from the party leader or from the Union Buildings. 

Some analysts are of the view that if Mr Ramaphosa does not headline a unity leadership slate then the ANC is doomed. We hold out three cautionary notes on this assumption.

The first is that a defeat for Mr Ramaphosa may trigger a break-out of ANC dissidents who will form a clone of the party. This becomes even more likely if Mr Ramaphosa is axed well ahead of the conference – which is a possibility few analysts are attuned to. The clone may command a majority of urban branches.

Read against past splits, this may herald an era in which there are more ANC people outside of the party than within it (the “party” being the winning faction in December 2017 and which controls Luthuli House). If the ANC outside of Luthuli House unites around the clone, it may lead a coalition to beat the ANC in the 2019 national election.

This is a result that would be best described as the ANC leadership of pre-2008 coming back into power by defeating that of post-2008. That takes getting your head around, but explains our caution about seeing any December 2017 outcome as a zero-sum-game event.

The second cautionary note is that our read of recent polling is that if an election were held today the ANC would command a national majority of 58% with Mr Zuma as its leader. The party is stronger than it appears – a function, we think, of its historical delivery record, meaning that it may possess the momentum necessary to secure a national majority in 2019 regardless of who leads the party in January 2018. We would go further and caution that even were it to lose in 2019, such a loss may be fleeting, as the EFF could return, as prodigal sons, to save and lead the ANC into the next decade. Not enough analysts have this on their radar.

The third cautionary note is that the economic crisis the party leadership will inherit in 2018 is so serious that only a leader with the authority to force unpopular structural reforms, as have recently been imposed in both Rwanda and Ethiopia, may be able to take South Africa back to a growth rate of over 5% of GDP in short order. Will a leader such as Mr Ramaphosa, who needs a popular mandate, have the authority to force such reforms and secure the future of the ANC?

A counter of sorts would also apply in that, should Mr Ramaphosa win only because of the support of party factions that have profited so from the state capture and corruption of recent years, then he himself may be a captured ANC leader and be unable to do much to reform the party. Analysts must consider this risk before reaching any conclusions about the long-term outcomes of the ANC leadership race.

What also emerged from the models is that if any two of the three factions cannot agree on unity then it becomes possible that an ANC leader may be elected who commands the full support of less than a majority of voting delegates. This would be a very dangerous outcome, delivering a rudderless ANC, and could trigger a period of extreme volatility in South Africa.

Our advice is not to read the whole of South Africa’s next decade into the immediate conclusion of the current ANC leadership race. Let the race run its course, expect a period of continued volatility and some deep shocks into late 2019, and take your decade-long lead from the nature of the Cabinet appointed in that year.

Frans Cronje is a scenario planner and CEO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom.