Can the ANC end its ‘winner takes all’ politics?

Rhodes>Perspective>2013 Archive

Is learning half a lesson enough to keep the African National Congress (ANC) together for the next few years? The answer may tell us whether 2019’s election will be the first national poll whose result is in doubt.

Since the ANC’s Mangaung conference last year, reporting on its internal politics has dried up. The reason is clear — the incessant leaks from within the ANC are now muted because the battle for its leadership has ended for now. The nationalist faction that challenged President Jacob Zuma’s slate took a beating and is in no condition to fight back. So ANC politicians are less inclined to use the media to fight their battles.

But a reminder that ANC politics did not end last December came in two reports last week. One revealed that moves are afoot to replace branch leaders who support Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale, who campaigned for the losing slate. And in North West, former provincial secretary Kabelo Mataboge, another supporter of the losing group, was suspended for three years. This continues a trend that began in Mangaung — politicians who were on the losing side are being pushed out of ANC positions as the group that backed Zuma tightens its grip.

Why should anyone outside of the ANC care? Because the future of our politics will be shaped by events inside the ANC: a national change of power at the ballot box is unlikely unless the governing party splits again.

The ANC is likely to lose ground in next year’s election. Its own documents acknowledge that many of its voters are unhappy — it lost by-elections at Marikana and Nkandla, the first in the wake of the shooting of strikers, the second in response to reports of lavish spending on the president’s home there. This shattered the myth that most voters are uncritical and unthinking. But the unhappiness is unlikely to deprive it of a majority any time soon because most voters do not believe they have an alternative to the ANC. Across the spectrum, voters here support the party they believe speaks for people like them — most voters do not feel any opposition party speaks for them.

That would change dramatically if two parties, both of them with a constituency in the governing coalition, were competing for the ANC vote. The race to win a majority would be uncertain for the first time.

Some sceptics say ANC politicians would never split from it as long as it retains the ability to hand out posts. But that argument falls away if the politicians who lose ANC elections are deprived of office — they might have no option but to form a new party.

Others argue that the Congress of the People’s experience will deter a breakaway. But its story could be seen as an encouragement to anyone planning to leave the ANC. It was formed only a few months before an election by politicians who had no strong support base. It then blundered by choosing a presidential candidate who never held ANC office, sharply reducing its appeal to ANC voters. Despite this, it won more than a million votes. Presumably a party formed by ANC politicians with a bigger support base and who did not alienate potential voters would do a lot better.

The ANC leadership seems to understand that pushing the losers out could trigger a split — and so they are being pushed out of ANC posts but not government office. The rug is being pulled from beneath Mathale’s feet but he remains premier of the province. Kgalema Motlanthe is still deputy president of the country; Tokyo Sexwale and Fikile Mbalula remain Cabinet ministers. Zuma and those around him seem eager to avoid a repeat of the events that followed former president Thabo Mbeki’s recall. As long as the losers have no base in the party, the fact that they hold office is no threat to the winners.

The balancing act of keeping the losers in government office while excluding them from ANC posts and committees makes a split unlikely. But it is hard to see how it can last long.

After next year’s election, it may be very difficult for Zuma to reappoint government office bearers in the losing faction — those who voted for the winners will resist. It will be even more difficult to ensure that the losers get the share of posts to which their support entitles them. So the tightrope act may come apart next year. That may not trigger an immediate split but the losers are unlikely to stay indefinitely if posts are barred to them.

The ANC winners could delay the split by including the losers in party as well as government posts. All large parties experience factionalism; those that stay together find posts for the minority. But there is little sign that the leadership has the will or the power to end "winner takes all" politics. Unless they do, a split remains possible.

How these trends will play out is unclear. What is obvious, though, is that, despite the lack of leaks, the internal politics of the ANC remain as fluid, and as important, as they were before Mangaung.

Written by: Steven Friedman

  • Friedman is director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy. This article was published on Business Day.