Mangaung may cap year of damp squibs

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For those who believe our politics is only about leadership elections, this could just turn out to be the year of the damp squib.

So far, the ANC’s two allies have held conferences and not a single post was contested. As Mangaung approaches and we are told constantly of the looming battle ahead, it is not out of the question that, for the third time, there will be no contest.

Since this view is usually greeted by disbelieving laughter, usually by political journalists, the argument needs to be spelled out.

Only two ANC leaders have been mentioned as contenders for Jacob Zuma’s job: Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale and Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe.

This is, of course, not the first time Sexwale has shown an interest: he signalled in 2007 that he wanted to lead the ANC. Then he did not land up on the ballot and this time may be no different.

Sexwale does not have the votes to win: if he had, he would not have been jeered rather than cheered at the ANC policy conference. It is probable that he knows this and that all the talk of his presidential ambitions are actually an attempt to ensure that he becomes the candidate for deputy president on an anti-Zuma ticket.

That, of course, leaves Motlanthe. Despite all the hype about his candidacy, he has never said that he wants the job.

True, he has not denied it either and this has been seen as a sign that he is a candidate but that he will not say so until the ANC’s ban on candidates saying they are available is lifted later this month.

But people who want the ANC presidency often find ways of dropping hints despite the ban – Sexwale and Zuma have done this. Motlanthe has not and so it remains more than possible that he has not decided yet because he is waiting to see whether he is likely to win.

Motlanthe is a cautious politician. He also comes from a generation of ANC politicians who do not challenge sitting presidents lightly. And there is talk of an attempt to hammer out a deal among the ANC factions to avoid an election this time.

Take all of that together and it seems likely that he is waiting to see which way the wind blows. If the signals from the branches and other sources are that he is the overwhelming choice, he may take the plunge. He would then insist that he was hearing the unmistakable voice of the movement and had no option but to accept.

But two recent events make it less likely that Motlanthe will hear a clear voice urging him to stand.

First, after Cosatu re-elected its entire leadership unopposed, general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi publicly told ANC secretary- general Gwede Mantashe that it was challenging the ANC to also opt for unity rather than a divisive election. This makes it likely that Cosatu will endorse the current leadership and oppose a contest.

If it does, Motlanthe’s position would be difficult. Not only would he be accused of dividing the ANC – the accuser would be the union movement from which he comes. It may not be easy for a former general secretary of NUM to ignore an appeal by Cosatu to avoid a presidential contest.

Second, the audited membership figures released by the ANC show strong growth in provinces expected to support Zuma and this is said to place him in a stronger position. Of course, no-one knows how individual delegates would vote and it is possible that, in provinces where the leadership is supporting a candidate, active members might support someone else.

The audited figures have also produced grumbles that the process is not fair. This is the result of the ANC leadership’s inability or unwillingness to ensure a process in which all the factions took part rather than one in which leaders could be accused of slanting the audit in a particular direction. It is possible that those who feel aggrieved will challenge the audit.

But, at the time of writing, the audit faced no challenge and this too might persuade Motlanthe not to make himself available.

They surely show that, if he can win at all, it would only be after a close contest. Would a cautious man who would prefer to be a source of unity be eager to engage in a battle he might lose?

Of course, even if Motlanthe decided not to stand, there could be competitive elections for other posts: Sports minister Fikile Mbalula still seems eager to challenge Mantashe and there could be contests for other Top Six positions.

But not even this is assured: if Motlanthe is not available, his supporters may decide that a campaign would be too risky and settle for a deal to delay a contest until next time.

If all of this does happen, our national debate will be tested. An ANC conference without an election would still be important. How it chooses to deal with the problems it and the country face could affect our future.

  • Prof Steven Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Johannesburg and Rhodes University.  This article was published on The New Age online.