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A Guide to December’s ANC Party Congress

The much anticipated 54th National Elective Conference of South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), is scheduled to kick-off in Johannesburg on December 16, 2017. The primary objective of the conference is to elect a successor to incumbent ANC President, President Jacob Zuma. The person appointed ANC president is expected to lead the ANC in South Africa’s general elections scheduled for 2019, and to become South Africa’s next head of state.

President Zuma is serving his last term as president, and the outcome of the ANC party congress is crucial for his life after government. Over the last 10 years, 783 criminal charges for corruption, fraud, racketeering and money laundering levied by the National Prosecuting Authority against the President have been in abeyance. With a change of the guard, and depending on the outcome of the ANC leadership battle, there is a possibility that these charges could be reinstated.

The tension in the air is palpable with predictions of the outcome of what arguably is the most important elective conference in ANC history. For the first time since the organization was founded in 1912, there are seven presidential candidates.

The two frontrunners are Cyril Ramaphosa, the current Deputy President of the ANC, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the ex-wife of President Zuma and former Chairperson of the African Union. President Zuma is on record as supporting his ex-wife to be the heir apparent and is trying to throw his rural base behind her. Ramaphosa is believed to have the support of the urban constituencies and some grass roots backers. Many commentators argue that for President Zuma, a win by Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma will ensure that he stays out of prison and possibly keep the pendulum of corruption, defined by his enduring relationship with the Guptas, going.

There are a number of predictions about the impact on South Africa’s political landscape if either Cyril Ramaphosa (the CR17 campaign) or Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (the NDZ17 campaign) wins.

One such prediction is that if the NDZ17 campaign triumphs, the ANC risks losing the 2019 General Elections. In this scenario, ANC supporters will turn their back on the party, as they would perceive a Dlamini-Zuma win as facilitating a continuation of President Zuma’s legacy of corruption and partisan control of government agencies and law enforcement institutions. The fact that Dlamini-Zuma will be the first female president in the history of the 105 year old organization does count in her favor, and so does her impeccable liberation struggle credentials.

The CR17 campaign is working to restore ANC unity and has adopted a strong anti-corruption position. A CR17 win is expected to lead to cohesion and unity of purpose within the ANC and amongst its alliance partners, the South Africa Communist Party (SACP) and trade union confederation Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU). In addition to Cyril Ramaphosa’s uncompromising stance against corruption, as well as his insistence on compliance with corporate governance, he is promising to restore confidence in public service, which has been badly depleted. Ramaphosa’s track record also gives hope to those outside government and the ANC, given Ramaphosa’s prior career as a successful businessman, trade union leader and chief negotiator of the interim constitution which guided the transition from Apartheid to democracy. Many believe that a Ramaphosa-led South Africa would stimulate economic growth and job creation and improve the provision of services throughout society. The principal weakness to Ramaphosa’s campaign are a series of emails that linked him to the Marikana massacre in 2012, where the South Africa Police Service (SAPS) opened fire on a crowd of striking mineworkers, killing 34 and leaving 78 seriously injured.

The competition for the ANC leadership post could also lead to another party split, or realignment, such as the one that occurred in 2007 after Thabo Mbeki lost the ANC presidency to President Zuma.

As far as the other five presidential candidates are concerned, they include: ANC Treasurer-General Zweli Mkhize, South African attorney and politician Mathews Phosa, Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu, Minster in the Presidency Jeff Radebe and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete.

Political analysts contend that the prospects for these candidates are not as promising as the two front runners, Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma. According to the tallies released beginning of December 2017, press reports indicate that Deputy President Ramaphosa has won the endorsement for the ANC presidency from 374 branches in Gauteng and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma was supported by 64 branches of the province, which include Johannesburg and Pretoria. Ramaphosa secured nominations from the Western Cape, Northern Cape and Eastern Cape, while the Free State and North West back Dlamini-Zuma. The remaining two provinces are expected to announce their favoured candidates by December 5, 2017.

The current developments provide a glimpse of the race for the ANC Presidency that has essentially turned into a two-person contest. It is evident that the upcoming national elective conference of the ANC is not only important for the future of South Africa, but also for the future of the ANC. The party’s future, and perhaps that of the country, will be determined by the votes cast by the estimated 4500 ANC branch delegates in two weeks time.

© 2017 Covington & Burling LLP

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About this Author

Kgabo Mashalane, attorney, Covington

Kgabo Mashalane is a corporate and project finance associate in the international Project Development and Finance practice in the Johannesburg office, having been admitted as a South African Attorney in 2015. She has advised on international energy and infrastructure development projects across Africa and the Middle East.

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