18 October 2022 | Story Prof Sethulego Matebesi
Prof Sethulego Matebesi
Prof Sethulego Matebesi is Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State. He is also a political analyst.

Opinion article by Prof Sethulego Matebesi, Associate Professor and Head of the Department of Sociology, University of the Free State

The countdown to the 55th national conference to elect new party leaders for the African National Congress (ANC) has begun in earnest. The purpose of these conferences, held every five years since 1997, is twofold: the debate and adoption of policy resolutions, as well as the election of the party's top leaders.

As is often the case, it is not the capacity and track record of the candidates, but the power of those who present themselves as the voice of the silent majority within the party that has dominated the discourse lately.

With this handicap, notorious clichés such as, "I will not refuse the call to serve when asked by ANC branches," or "As a disciplined cadre of the movement, I have to respect the wish of branches by accepting nominations", have been thrust to the fore.

But where does this leave the party's electoral guidelines published in August, which state that anybody charged with or found guilty of unethical or immoral conduct, serious crime, or corruption, cannot be elected?

The almost in-your-face retort to the ANC's step-aside rule comes from none other than its suspended secretary general Ace Magashule, who recently said, "When I'm nominated, I can assure that I'm going to stand … whatever they nominate me for." He continued, "Charged or not charged, I'm going to stand if nominated because branches elected me."

The candidness and boldness of leaders who respect the wishes of branch members lie behind the aforementioned cliches and statements.

But a more profound problem underlines one fundamental truth about this line of argument: the party's branch decisions are seen as sacrosanct, and any rules or resolutions can be undermined.

If you want to observe a twist in this narrative, wait until some of these leaders are elected in December to observe how they – even shocking their own supporters – will lament the importance of respecting the very same resolutions they undermined.

Provincial elective conferences and the cycle of gender exclusion

The ANC's national elective conference – to be attended by 4 250 delegates this year – is preceded by branch and provincial elective conferences. In recent years, expert reviews have revealed the scale of chaos – ranging from postponements, branch verification, and audit issues to allegations of theft and cloning of accreditation – which accompany these conferences.

Some interpret the chaos as indicative of the division within the ANC. Official responses to such criticism are often textured with unapologetic surreality or polite requests for the public to allow the party the space to deal with its own affairs.

In addition to the provinces, the ANC's youth, women, and veteran leagues also have voting rights. A glimpse at the pronouncements of these voting structures indicates the possibility of President Cyril Ramaphosa securing a second term as party leader. However, this depends on how much support the ANC's biggest voting bloc, KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), will garner for former Health Minister Zweli Mkhize for the position of president. The province backs ANC Treasurer General Paul Mashatile as its candidate for deputy president, and Stanley Mathabatha as its chairman. At the same time, it stated it would like a woman to occupy the position of ANC treasurer general.

This is a decisive moment for the Minister of Cooperative Governance, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who ran against Ramaphosa in 2017, and has indicated her availability for the ANC president post. However, she is yet to be endorsed by any of the ANC's voting structures.

Apart from Dlamini-Zuma and Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, whose name has also been touted as a potential presidential candidate, the ANC's nominations for its top six positions raise several questions about the party's most publicised – and least questioned – efforts to break the cycle of women’s exclusion from the party's senior leadership positions.

The impact of the 2024 elections

After months of internal horse-trading, the ANC's focus will immediately shift towards the 2024 elections. And the electoral performance of the ANC, particularly in urban areas, should be a welcome recognition for the party that the ballot box is a powerful tool to hold parties accountable.

With hindsight, we now can say that much of the electoral performance of the ANC had to do with its internal parochial politics, aptly exemplified by the veil threats of aspirant leaders.

If this trend is not curbed and the organisation continues along the slippery slope, violence, intimidation, fraud, and unconstitutional means remain viable options for those ANC members who are hellbent on defending their power and ill-gotten interests.

But with an overly unforgiving electorate, the ANC should be bold rather than timid in electing its next leaders.

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