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Picture: Gallo Images/Jeffrey Abrahams
Picture: Gallo Images/Jeffrey Abrahams

Let me start by making this point: it no longer serves South Africans to invest — mentally, emotionally, intellectually, economically or otherwise — in the factional rancour of the ANC. It is a party painfully limping to the 2024 finish line of its demise. No matter which way you spin the electoral data, the ANC will lose its majority power in 2024.

Despite the near certainty of that fact, it is almost irresistible to be curious over whether President Cyril Ramaphosa will remain president of the ANC and, by extension, the country after the party’s electoral conference in December. This is normal. A potential change in the presidency outside a general election is not an ordinary event in our democratic existence.

Unlike Jacob Zuma in the lead-up to the Mangaung conference, when there was some certainty that he would secure a second term, Ramaphosa’s job security is not guaranteed. This is made all the more precarious by the so-called “Farmgate” scandal at his Phala Phala game farm.

Stepping aside the step-aside rule

So with that context, will Ramaphosa survive beyond the ANC electoral conference? Let’s start with the Phala Phala scandal. This certainly has the potential to take him out of the race for presidency in the ANC altogether. Should he be charged by the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA) before December, the ANC’s step-aside rule will disqualify him from standing for office again. This is certainly something his detractors in the party would like to see happen, and some are actively campaigning for it.

However, the investigation is likely to take a lot longer than six months, because the NPA will naturally approach this situation with a great deal of caution and will want to be certain of its prospects for success before deciding to charge Ramaphosa. Assuming, of course, that Ramaphosa is found to be criminally culpable.

If the NPA pulls the trigger after December, it may have no real impact on Ramaphosa’s political prospects anyway, because there is a real possibility the step-aside rule will no longer exist in its current form for two reasons. The first is that the rule, which was never actually meant to restore the integrity of the ANC but rather to neutralise factional threats, will have served its purpose and will no longer be needed as such. The second is that the ANC could have scrapped the rule before then — its KwaZulu-Natal, Limpopo and Mpumalanga regions have already indicated that his is their intention.

No matter which way you spin the electoral data, the ANC will lose its majority power in 2024.
Oliver Dickson, political analyst

There is, however, also a possibility that the public protector will find that Ramaphosa violated the executive ethics code, among other things. While an adverse report by the public protector does not trigger the ANC’s step-aside rule, it would place significant pressure on both the president and the ANC’s integrity commission.

As we have learnt from the public protector’s Nkandla report, when the president is found to have violated the executive ethics code, the sanction is left up to parliament — which, as things stand, is structurally incapable of holding a president to account. At best, it may trigger a vote of no confidence or, more dramatically, an impeachment vote, either of which can also be expected to fail because while the ANC is hopelessly divided along factional lines, its parliamentary caucus remains largely obsequious to the party line.

However, a negative report by the public protector would do significant damage to Ramaphosa’s campaign for re-election, because it would undermine his already discredited transparency and clean-governance image. This, among other things, may well be what branches latch on to in December at the party-conference ballot box.

It is also currently unclear whether Ramaphosa enjoys significant support among ANC branches. With five of the party’s biggest provinces already having held their elective conferences, a clear picture should have emerged by now about which way the party vote is likely to swing as the provincial conferences are usually a useful leading indicator. But this time has been different.

While some Ramaphosa allies have made it into senior positions in the various provincial leaderships that have had their conferences so far, it was not by an overwhelming majority. The picture of Ramaphosa’s prospects becomes especially nebulous if you consider that there is no slate around him, with barely five months to go. This is not a good thing as many potential useful allies may decide to hedge their bets with other candidates while awaiting a signal from Ramaphosa about what their positions will be, if any, within his slate.

The fact that Ramaphosa’s slate has not yet emerged signals that he either has not found the right fit, especially for deputy president, or he does not yet know who he can trust, which means he is in a more vulnerable position than most analysts appear to believe. 

• Dickson, a former communications adviser to the home affairs ministry, is a political analyst, policy and political risk consultant and talk show host.

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