As South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) readies to hold its elective conference in two weeks, the party's presidential race is now down to the wire.
In the party's 105-year history, this succession contest has so far proven to be the most hotly contested and conflict-ridden.
The build-up to the December 16-20 meet, has been characterised by court battles at provincial level and political killings especially in the ANC’s heartland KwaZulu-Natal province.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is pitted against former African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as they seek to succeed President Jacob Zuma as the party chief in the run-up to the General Election in 2019.
The ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize, who is also in the race, is seen as a possible compromise candidate as the party appears to be split between Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma.
Dlamini-Zuma has seemingly amassed the support of three out of nine provinces as well as the ANC’s youth, women and veterans leagues while Ramaphosa is backed by five provinces and the Tripartite Alliance partners — the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP).
President Zuma has thrown his weight behind his former wife, Dlamini-Zuma.
Over 5,000 delegates will vote on Sunday December 17, 2017 at Nasrec in Soweto, Johannesburg.
Apart from electing the party’s president, conference delegates will also vote for the top six positions as well as for the additional 80 elected national executive committee members.
The elective conference will be a defining moment for the party and its outcome will have profound implications for South Africa.
Three possible scenarios of how the leadership race could play out:
In his campaign, Ramaphosa has pledged to clampdown on corruption, which he has blamed for the economy’s inhibited growth.
He has also repeatedly called for a probe into the “state capture” in which his boss, President Zuma, is implicated. The challenge wound now be upon him to take the matter up and ensure culprits are brought to book.
“Ramaphosa could try and prove his mettle and consolidate his grip on power by orchestrating Zuma’s removal as the nation’s president before his second term ends in 2019. The alliance and his supporters are all against Zuma continuing as South Africa’s leader and could recall him just like the party did to Thabo Mbeki,” says political analyst, Thulani Ndlovu.
Brian Ncube, a business analyst, says financial markets wound likely cheer a Ramaphosa victory and the onus would be on him to move swiftly to revive the declining economy, rein in government debt and improve the management of state entities to maintain the positive sentiment.
A win for Dlamini-Zuma may see President Zuma, who is backing her campaign, serve out his second term.
Ncube says that this would likely be unfavourable with investors.
“Investors are obviously hoping for a Ramaphosa win which will likely ensure stability economically. They are also hoping for an end to years of policy missteps, misspending and inappropriate appointments especially in the finance ministry,” he said.
Zuma’s final term has been marred by scandals, making the once popular leader an object of scorn and ridicule. His decision to fire respected finance minister, Pravin Gordhan, early this year, had immediate consequences on South Africa’s financial markets.
Gordhan has publicly rallied behind Ramaphosa saying he could turn the country around.
Dlamini-Zuma, has also been championing a series of populist policies during her campaign including redistributing wealth and land to the black majority.
This is likely to endear her to South Africans since she has a proven track record having previously also served as home affairs, foreign affairs and health minister.
Ndlovu believes Ramaphosa’s supporters and the ANC’s alliance partners may break away from the ruling party if she wins.
“There has been talk of a breakaway to form a new political party if Ramaphosa loses. The party will be backed by a number of its top officials, labour unions and communists. Such a split could come back to bite the ANC, come 2019 and the last thing they want is an era of messy coalition politics like we are seeing in the municipalities.”
Perhaps the most unlikely scenario. Mkhize stands on the brink with no faction backing him, but fears of a party split could turn the tide.
ANC provincial leaders in the nine provinces could facilitate victory for Mkhize, as he appears to be the only candidate who could maintain party unity.
Under Mkhize, President Zuma would almost certainly stay on while the ANC’s new leadership decides what to do and determines how Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma would be accommodated in the next administration.
Ncube is convinced that financial markets and investors would likely wait for clarity on economic policy, appointments and the outcome of the next election.
“This may delay the ANC’s efforts to drive a revival of the economy and create jobs for unemployed young South Africans, which may thwart the ANC’s re-election campaign in 2019,” he said.
Four other candidates – the ANC’s national chairperson Baleka Mbete, Minister of Human Settlements, Lindiwe Sisulu, Minister in the Presidency, Jeff Radebe, and former treasurer general Matthews Phosa – have not garnered enough support to put up a strong challenge at the party’s elections.
Ndlovu says: “I foresee some of them instead challenging for the deputy presidency especially Mkhize and Sisulu.”
Whatever the outcome, a repeat of last year’s municipality elections, in which they lost three metros – Tshwane, Gauteng and the Nelson Mandela Bay – is the last scenario the ANC wants.