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14 December 2017updated 09 Sep 2021 5:57pm

Will the African National Congress shake the influence of Jacob Zuma?

A crucial conference is about to take place in South Africa. 

By Martin Plaut

On Friday, 5,420 delegates elected by branches across the country will begin arriving in Johannesburg for the African National Congress’s national conference. But the party that was once graced by leaders of integrity and stature, like John Dube, Albert Lutuli, Oliver Tambo and – of course – Nelson Mandela, is a shadow of its former self.

Once a party that served the people, it has become a machine to serve its elite. Its president, Jacob Zuma, has 783 corruption charges against him. None of the charges have been heard in court, with cases interminably delayed by clever legal manoeuvres.

This is Zuma’s last conference as president of his party. He could remain president of the country until the next election, due in 2019, but pressure might mount for him to hand over to the leader the party selects. Zuma is doing all he can to ensure that his successor is his former wife, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, largely in the hope she will protect him from prosecution – and prison.

If Zuma was just one rotten apple it would be bad enough, but he is not. Mcebisi Jonas was deputy minister of finance until March this year. He was fired after clashing with Zuma’s notorious Indian backers, the Gupta family, who allegedly offered Jonas a bribe of R100m (£34m), which he rejected (the Guptas denied the allegation). 

Jonas claims that South Africa is losing more than R100bn (£34bn) with most of it leaving the country. He believes the ANC conference is the last chance, not just for the party but for the country as a whole. “It is not about choosing leaders…it has gone beyond that‚” he said. “Those going to December 16‚ you are going there to save the country.”

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The run up to the conference has been traumatic. Political murders – generally to capture political posts and the cash that can be extracted from them – have become routine. At least 10 died in KwaZulu-Natal alone in bitter internal party feuds. There have been violent clashes at party meetings, with chairs thrown and ANC members hospitalised. There have been a plethora of challenges in the courts, alleging irregularities in the selection of delegates. 

Dlamini-Zuma is confronting South Africa’s deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa. Both are backed by factions inside and outside the ANC.

Dlamini-Zuma (a doctor by training and previously Minister of Health and Foreign Affairs before taking on the Chair of the African Union) has the support of her former husband – the president. She is also backed by the ANC’s Women’s League and the party’s Youth League. A number of the key provincial bosses back her, including KwaZulu-Natal, which has the largest delegation at the conference. Dlamini-Zuma is seen as clever but cold: an aloof personality, with a distrust of the West.

Ramaphosa, is a former trade unionist who negotiated the end of apartheid, only to be pushed aside as a ANC leader by Thabo Mbeki. He went on to become a multi-millionaire businessman and then Vice-President. He has the support of the left. He is backed by former Finance Minister, Pravin Gordhan, the South African Communist Party and the United Democratic Front.

Ramaphosa also won the largest number of branch nominations and is popular with the public. He could take votes from black supporters of the official opposition – the Democratic Alliance – something Dlamini-Zuma cannot

None of this means that Ramaphosa is certain to win. Votes can be bought and sold, often at astronomic prices, making the outcome of this race impossible to predict.

David Makhura, the ANC’s leader in Gauteng (which includes Johannesburg) is frank about this. “A conference is a conference, so people may not always vote in accordance to what South Africa needs at the moment,” he told Bloomberg. “There are a lot of influences. People may vote according to what is factional politics or buying of votes.” 

As if the stakes were not high enough, news has broken in the last week that President Zuma is planning to introduce legislation allowing for a state of emergency. This would be the first time such measures were contemplated since the end of apartheid. They include indefinite detention and would allow officials to cut communications, including the internet.

Why are such draconian measures being discussed with the military now? One answer is that Jacob Zuma’s future liberty could be at stake in the coming months, and that is not something he is willing to contemplate.

There have been suggestions that the differences run so deep that the losing faction could stage a walk-out, possibly even establishing a rival organisation.This weekend’s ANC conference – the 54th since the party’s foundation in 1912 – could be its most divisive.


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