The truth behind the ANC's Mpumalanga conference

Jan-Jan Joubert on how the outcome was fixed in favour of the pro-Zuma camp

The expected ANC leadership struggle at the organisation's Mangaung national conference in Bloemfontein on December 16th to 20th has become much harder to call since the party's National Disciplinary Committee found so damningly against Youth League leader Julius Malema, in effect rendering him officially mute.

We are living through another surreal dual reality imposed by the siege mentality within the ANC, where a challenge to the party leadership of Pres. Jacob Zuma is clearly foressen and desired, but which has to be plotted behind closed doors.

Because of the new ANC regulations regarding succession battles, anyone who openly declares a national candidacy before September/October is in breach of the rules. This ridiculous situation means that the ANC fosters deceit in the organisation, with secret plotting the only way to mobilise. Open discussion of any leadership aspirations or preferences is punishable by political strangulation. Just ask Malema.

This, of course, is but the symptom of a much greater internal crisis. Why are the stakes so high? Because the party has become a get-rich-quick scheme for too many people. Leadership has, in many areas, become merely a way to distribute patronage, a tenderpreneurial tool, a commodity too lucrative to surrender under any circumstances, a reason to fight bloody battles, played out in a horrible way in the current intra-ANC violence in the Free State, to name but one example.

But we all know the horrific state of the ANC, so let's not get stuck here. It is the ruling party, so its brutal leadership battles need to be assessed focusing on the outcome. There is a pro-Zuma grouping, and a pro-change grouping. Zuma seems strongest in KZN and Mpumalanga, the reasoning goes. This may well be true, and pro-Zuma candidates, were elected unopposed at the Mpumalanga provincial ANC conference, held in Nelspruit from April 6th to 8th.

I would like to place on the table some dodgy goings-on - which seem to have escaped many analysts - and which need to be taken into account when interpreting these results. My submission is that Mpumalanga might well be pro-Zuma in the main, but that the extent of his support cannot be measured by the provincial conference polling results.

What happened in the closed voting session? A rule was invoked which turned the voting on its head.

In the ANC, nomination to the top provincial leadership positions needs to be supported by a set number of branches. In Mpumalanga, the pro-change grouping achieved this prerequisite, and the stage was set for a contested poll which would have shown us the relative strength of the pro-Zuma and the pro-change sides. Premier David Mabuza is the most prominent pro-Zuma figure in the province, while the dynamo behind the pro-change lobby is acting national ANC Youth League President Ronald Lamola.

Just before voting for the leadership positions could start, a pro-Mabuza (and therefore unofficially pro-Zuma) delegate rose and invoked the basic convention that any meeting determines its own procedural arrangements.

As a procedural arrangement, the delegate proposed that anyone who nominated for any of the top five leadership positions at the specific conference needed to have his or her candidature supported by at least 25% of delegates at the conference. These delegates must show their support for the candidature visibly by rising or by show of hands.

Pandemonium ensued, sources say. Lamola tried to oppose the measure, citing the importance of a secret ballot. Prominent other members also tried to intervene. But those opposed to the proposal were shouted down, and the proposal was carried.

I spoke to Mpumalanga ANC spokesperson Paul Mbenyane about these claims. He confirmed the procedural decision for 25% of delegates to visibly show support before a candidate could run for a leadership position and repeatedly pointed out, quite correctly, that it was not unlawful, given the meeting's inherent right to decide its own procedural arrangements.

When I asked what impact he thought such a decision had on the possibility of the vote being a fair reflection of relative preference, he restated that the decision was "not illegal" and claimed the Mpumalanga ANC was united as never before. He also denied that there was pandemonium at any point, or that Lamola or anyone else objected.

None of the anti-Mabuza (and therefore pro-change) camp were prepared to go on the record - a frustrating by-product of the general ANC siege mentality I have alluded to, and perhaps a survival mechanism in the dangerous world Mpumalanga ANC politics has become. Few would be so foolish as to literally stand up or put up their hand to show opposition to a provincial leadership deeply feared by its opponents.

Identifying yourself so openly as opposition in the Mpumalanga ANC would widely be considered a telegraphed political death wish. Few would dare, and none of the pro-change candidates received 25% backing in the prescribed manner, so the pro-Mabuza (and pro-Zuma) candidates were, within the procedural arrangements agreed to by the conference, elected unopposed.

Whether political analysts should take these results, in the absence of a secret ballot, as a true indication of the extent of Zuma's Mpumalanga support, is open to question.

Given the guarantee of a secret ballot in Mangaung, I certainly would not.

Jan-Jan Joubert is Beeld's political editor.

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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