In less than two weeks the African National Congress will gather in Mangaung – the metropolis around Bloemfontein. They will select the party’s president and – almost certainly – the next president of South Africa. The election has been a protracted, bloody and even murderous affair.
One victim was Councillor Wandile Mkhize. On the 30 June he arrived at his home in Manaba, on the south coast of Kwa-Zulu at ten at night. He had come from an ANC meeting, at which he supported Jacob Zuma. But when he got out of the car men driving a Toyota Corolla drove by, opened fire, and left him dying in the road .
He had received death threats before, but never taken them too seriously. In a campaign of many months, the ANC election has pitted its president, Jacob Zuma against his deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe. At the meeting Mkhize had led ANC delegates in songs praising Zuma and had become involved in a confrontation with rival Motlanthe supporters.
Once his murder would have been blamed on political rivals outside of the ANC, like the Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP); but no longer. This was a struggle for influence within the ANC. As Zwelinzima Vavi – Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) general secretary - put it : “Political killings are so commonplace in KwaZulu-Natal that we can no longer blame them on the IFP warlords because it's an inside job," Vavi said.
In this province alone there have been nearly 40 political murders since 2010 . Dozens more have been killed in provinces like Mpumalanga, North West and Limpopo. The ANC has repeatedly promised to act to halt the attacks. “The ANC has never condoned violence,” said its spokesperson Jackson Mthembu.
Yet party meetings continue to be broken up and the assaults continue unabated. On the 30 November the ANC conference in Limpopo to select the party’s leadership had to be abandoned. It “…was collapsed [on Friday night] by violent hooligans," provincial spokesperson Makonde Mathivha said. "Delegates had to flee the venue. It was terrifying."
There have also been repeated allegations of membership manipulation, with “ghost members”  being paid for in order to win backing for particular candidates. Party members have claimed that auditors padded the figures for provinces crucial to Jacob Zuma's re-election campaign.
The whole ANC leadership is up for re-election, but this still does not explain why such extraordinary steps are being taken to win what are, after all, only internal party positions.
The reason is not hard to find. Even minor positions, like a ward councillor, provides access to state resources and an influence over government contracts. Supporting the right faction is the surest route to political power and this is often the only means of escaping poverty. With more than 30 per cent of South Africans unemployed, gaining a foothold on the political ladder is a means of winning access to contracts and key resources, like housing.
A study by Professor Doreen Atkinson concluded that municipal malpractice had become “extensive”.* She set out just how these corrupt practices work.
“There are numerous ways in which municipalities lend themselves to personal enrichment. Typical problems are the abuse of mayoral funds, unauthorised transfers of municipal money to outsiders, favouritism in procurement processes, the payment of bribes to secure services the abuse of travel allowances, fictitious tenders, involvement of councillors with companies which then win tenders, non-payment of municipal services by councillors using municipal facilities for party-political or personal purposes, and irregular performance bonuses.”
Backing a winning slate is therefore worth fighting for.
It is now certain that Jacob Zuma will win the contest for the presidency, since he has already received the backing of nearly 60 per cent of the 4,500 delegates . For his deputy, the quietly spoken Motlanthe, the outlook is bleaker. He is not on the Zuma slate and looks likely to be replaced by the millionaire businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa.
For a while it looked as if the Marikana massacre, in which 34 miners were gunned down by the police, would sink Ramaphosa’s chances of election. Although once a miner’s leader himself, he is today South Africa’s second richest man, with a stake in Lonmin, which operates the Marikana mine . His election would be seen as a powerful encouragement to business, at a time when multinational companies have been reducing their holdings in the country, following this year’s damaging wave of strikes.
If elected, Cyril Ramphosa will be in a position to succeed Jacob Zuma. This would be a turning point for the ANC, which since 1994 has been run by the exiles who carried the movement through the apartheid years. Ramaphosa would be the party’s first leader to have won his spurs inside the country. He made his name during the union revival of the 1970s and the growth of the United Democratic Front of the 1980’s. Both were built on the principles of grassroots democracy, very different from the ANC’s practices in exile and the underground.
Cyril Ramaphosa, once favoured by Nelson Mandela as his successor, could revive the ANC at a time when it is facing a critical test. Popular support is ebbing away. The previously derided opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) is becoming a credible challenge. At the DA’s party conference in November it elected young blacks men and women onto key positions and declared that it was ready to take on the ANC in the 2014 elections .
To achieve this would require a transformation of their electoral fortunes. But as they meet in Mangaung, ANC stalwarts know they need to undertake a root and branch renewal of their party, if it is to slough off its current reputation for corruption, nepotism and violence.