On 22 November, the head of the African National Congress’s (ANC’s) electoral committee, former president Kgalema Motlanthe, announced the procedures and results of branch nominations for the party’s top six positions ahead of the party’s 55th National Conference, due to start this week

Soon after the announcement, the ANC and South Africa became embroiled in the fallout from the Section 89 panel report commissioned by parliament into events at President Cyril Ramaphosa’s private game farm, Phala Phala.

The Phala Phala matter is serious. It has constitutional and political implications for the separation of powers and the rule of law. It also relates to the degree of accountability and transparency we, as citizens, can expect from our leaders in a democratic society.

South Africa’s President Cyril Ramaphosa gestures as he addresses African National Congress (ANC) delegates at the National Recreation Center (Nasrec) in Johannesburg on July 29, 2022 during the first day of the party’s National Policy Conference. (Photo by PHILL MAGAKOE / AFP)

However, it would be a missed opportunity if Phala Phala distracts ANC delegates and leaders from considering other critical, longer-term issues relevant to South Africa and its ruling party.

These include the fight against corruption, rising instability, the energy crisis, growing dissatisfaction with democracy, and the ANC’s approach to the imminent prospect of coalitions at every level of government.

Although the electoral politics of the conference will dominate proceedings, whomever emerges victorious out of the conference must be clear-eyed about these difficulties the party and country face.

On conference processes

Politically, one area of interest in the run-up to the 55th conference is how the results of the branch nominations were not slate based. Ramaphosa is leading the presidential contest without a slate or other candidates with whom he is contesting.

The absence of rigid slates suggests a dynamic state of play, where even candidates who are not supported by their home provinces find expressions of support in and outside their home provinces. This is seen in how the leading candidate for the position of secretary general, Mdumiseni Ntuli, the former ANC KwaZulu-Natal secretary, is leading nominations despite not being the officially preferred candidate of his home province.

Although these branch nominations give a picture of what the outcomes of the conference may look like, there are still some possibilities for deviation. Branches, depending on their membership size, receive different delegate allocations in terms of voting power.

These last-minute dynamics were also at play during the 54th ANC conference in 2017. The most prominent example was when incumbent deputy president, David Mabuza, used his “unity” approach to support Ramaphosa against Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma.

At the time, Mabuza’s home province, Mpumalanga, had the second highest number of branches, all of which then followed Mabuza’s approach. We can expect such undercurrents to re-emerge at the 55th Conference.

The fight against corruption and the ANC’s step aside rule

Following the Section 89 report’s recommendation that there may be grounds to institute impeachment proceedings against Ramaphosa, the applicability and future of the “step aside” rule is once again a key discussion point.

The step-aside rule effectively determines that any ANC leader with viable charges of public wrongdoing against them should step down from their position within the party.

Linked to this is the broader emphasis Ramaphosa himself has placed on the rule when facilitating the suspension of party leaders including Ace Magashule, an emphasis upheld by the Constitutional Court.

Should Ramaphosa be criminally charged post-conference, and the step aside rule, therefore, is applicable to him in the future, the next deputy president of the ANC might be the one to take the party to its 56th National Conference in 2027.

As impeachment is a political process, the ANC, after its National Working Committee and National Executive Committee (NEC) meetings, decided that the party would vote against instituting impeachment proceedings in parliament.

On the 13th of December, the ANC used its  57.50% majority in the National Assembly to vote against the section 89 report, effectively putting an abrupt end to this legislative process. However, the ANC and its members have not always maintained a clear relationship with democratic centralism. That is, political decisions taken by the ANC’s NEC, the highest decision-making body between the party’s National Conferences, are meant to be binding upon all members of the ANC. In practice, this is not always the case.

In 2017, for instance, to counter a motion of no confidence former president Jacob Zuma, the NEC decided that the ANC in parliament would be voting against the motion. Yet, citing their  conscience, some ANC MPs decided that they would ignore the party line and vote for the motion of no confidence. The issue was brought to the fore again this week when four ANC MPs voted in favour of the section 89 report.

At the ANC’s Policy Conference in July, some members and provincial leaders expressed their frustration with the framing and application of the step-aside rule. Some called for a review of the rule, while others called for its scrapping.

Looking at the political dynamics presented by the section 89 report, which has resulted in some members and leaders of the ANC calling for Ramaphosa to step aside as ANC president and president of the country, it is vital to track what the position of the ANC on the step-aside rule will be.

Will those who were calling for its scrapping retain this position, or will they attempt to leave it as it is and hope that it will soon be applicable to Ramaphosa? The outcome from this debate will have major long-term implications for the fight against corruption in both the ANC and state institutions.

Coalitions, Stability and the Road to 2024

Another longer-term discussion point that the ANC needs to start addressing this week and beyond is developing an approach to coalition governments beyond “being open to talking to everybody”.

An actual plan on coalitions is both overdue and requires renewed urgency given the tangible possibility that the party loses its absolute majority in 2024 national elections.

The issue of coalitions was a brief discussion point at July’s policy conference. But apart from a solitary mention of the potential need for legislation to help formalise coalition agreements, most discussion on the topic was self-serving. The report lamented the instability of coalitions without reflecting on how the ANC’s reduced esteem among voters caused these coalitions to emerge in the first place.

Up until now, neither the ANC nor opposition parties have adapted to this altered state of affairs. At the metropolitan council level in both 2016 and 2021, opposition parties essentially refused to productively engage with the ruling party in coalition talks, despite the ANC still maintaining its status as the largest party in most of these councils.

Initially consigned to the opposition benches in these councils, the ANC has, with some success, tactically exploited divisions in weak coalition governments. Such instability has had a materially adverse effect on the provision of basic services in cities like Johannesburg.

The consequences of this dynamic extending to the national level after 2024 would be disastrous in exacerbating unstable governance and consequent despair amongst citizens. As the largest party, the ANC and its incoming leadership bear a unique responsibility requiring it to develop a coherent approach to this issue.

Any plan pursued requires humility and reflection from the ruling party, especially regarding the shifting demographics of the country. Presently, the median South African is in their late-20s.

So, the ANC must realise that for much of the country, it is not seen as an exiled and imprisoned symbol of hope and resistance that overcame the evils of apartheid.

Rather, it is the only party of government tens of millions of South Africans have ever known at any level – for good and bad.

As ever, Nelson Mandela serves as a lodestar on the pragmatic approach required. Recently, Long Walk to Freedom ghostwriter, Richard Stengel, emphasised the importance that Mandela and his contemporaries placed on the attribute of maturity through its association with “judgement, self-control and measuredness”.

To operate as the stabilising force our country needs, it is essential that the party our founding democratic president once led is resolute in exemplifying these qualities.

* This article also appeared in the Mail & Guardian, on 14 December 2022

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Pranish is a Senior Data Analyst within the Governance Insights & Analytics programme. He holds a Master of Arts in-Science obtained with distinction from the University of the Witwatersrand. This degree formed part of the Department of Science and Innovation's National e-Science Postgraduate Teaching and Training Platform. His research interests include comparative politics, local governance, quantitative social analysis and political geography. 

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Mxolisi Zondo is a Researcher in the Governance Delivery and Impact programme at Good Governance Africa. He holds a BA Honours in International Relations and a Bachelor of Political Science from the University of Pretoria (UP). He is currently pursuing his Master of Arts Degree in Diplomatic Studies at UP. His dissertation looks at the extent to which South Africa’s involvement in peace missions on the African continent serves the country’s national interest. Before joining Good Governance Africa, he worked as a Public Policy Intern at Frontline Africa Advisory. He has also worked as an Assistant Lecturer and Research Assistant at the University of Pretoria.