The chaos seen in regional meetings of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) may look like a prelude to December's potentially explosive national congress.
Cracks have deepened as two camps battle to take control of the country’s ruling party. On one hand, is the camp led by party and country leader President Cyril Ramaphosa who will be seeking re-election for both.
The other faction has former president Jacob Zuma whose supporters are seeking to wrest away power from the incumbent. President Ramaphosa has already described the current situation in his party as “a house on fire” while admitting that it has been difficult to mend the fissures.
The build-up to the December congress kicked off with the Mpumalanga provincial conference in April. It was a fiercely-contested election that saw Mandla Ndlovu — a Ramaphosa’s loyalist — being elected the provincial chairman. But there was drama as the “step-aside rule” was applied to shut out some contestants.
The rule, adopted at the last national conference in 2017, claimed the scalp of Mandla Msibi, who is facing murder charges. Mr Msibi had contested and successfully elected party treasurer but was asked to relinquish his position due to a pending court case where he is accused of double murder.
The step aside-rule requires those implicated in criminal cases to surrender their positions in the party while also barring them from standing for any positions during party elections.
Next was the eThekwini regional conference in KwaZulu-Natal province where squabbles, emanating from the step-aside rule, delayed the vote.
Zandile Gumede was elected chairperson of the ANC eThekwini region despite having a court case to answer charges of fraud, corruption, money laundering and racketeering.
ANC KwaZulu-Natal, a stronghold of Mr Zuma, has always opposed the step-aside rule in what saw Mrs Gumede muscle her way to the ballot. Mrs Gumede has refused to step aside, plunging the ruling party into a conundrum ahead of the national congress. There are also fears that those facing criminal charges might resist observing this rule ahead of conferences in other provinces.
Incumbent Sihle Zikhalala who is also the KwaZulu-Natal premier and a Ramaphosa ally will take on Nomusa Dube-Ncube for the chairmanship.
This province is regarded as key to December's national congress as it traditionally has the largest delegation and President Ramaphosa’s faction looks likely to lose in KwaZulu-Natal.
So far, Mr Ramaphosa appears to have an upper hand from the provincial elections so far held, heading to the December elective conference. Inclusive Society Institute (ISI) has noted that he is poised for re-election. “While President Cyril Ramaphosa’s popularity has dropped among all South Africans from a 70 percent high in 2019, he remains by far the most popular leader in the country, and even more so among the ANC supporters,” reads research comments by ISI.