Carol Paton Writer at Large

What’s the chance a deal will be struck before the ANC delegates go to the polls on Sunday?

That is the question of the week, the answer to which will have a bearing on all of our political futures.

Over the next five days we can expect frenetic political activity among the various power brokers in the ANC as each tries to line up a deal that will work both in their own interest and, significantly enough, in the interests of others, to build an alliance.

While there are two main factions, the interests within those factions compete, and at times can be in opposition to one another.

This is because the key power brokers are not Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma themselves. They include provincial leaders, opposing provincial factions, key figures in the party’s three leagues and to a lesser extent nowadays, the key figures in Cosatu and the South African Communist Party.

There are also the key backers of each faction to consider: for instance, Ramaphosa cannot easily disregard the views of former finance minister Pravin Gordhan and the United Democratic Front network to which they both link.

Similarly, Dlamini-Zuma’s key backer is President Jacob Zuma himself, who remains the most influential player in the game as a whole.

Underlying all this is the problem of the buying of votes. On both sides there are always those who can be bought. Corruption will be relentlessly at work under the surface as the factions tot up their certain votes and their maybes on a daily basis.

So the deal-making process is complex.

There is more to it than making a deal that provides the two sides with an equal number of people in the top six or top eight, or whatever it will become.

There is also more to it than deciding which of the two top candidates should be president, and making an arrangement along those lines. The motivation for a deal is obvious. Neither side knows yet with certainty that it has victory in the bag.

There is also the possibility – although diminishing — of a split after the conference, in which the losing side walks out to found another party.

But whether a split is a real threat or not, the reality is that if the factions are divided by only a whisker, would it not be better for the future of ANC if the two sides were to unite? Only if a faction is certain of its strength will it be rational to go for broke. This, though, is the heart of the problem. While staying together and making a deal is a rational short-term choice for the ANC, it is the worst outcome for the country.

A deal would deliver a top leadership that would of necessity include the chairmen of Gauteng, Mpumalanga and the Free State. Even if Ramaphosa was to be given the presidency, the necessary impetus for a break with the Zuma years that would roll back corruption and reset us on a path to a well-managed economy simply could not occur with a leadership corps weighed down by Free State chairman Ace Magashule or Mpumalanga chairman DD Mabuza.

Both have presided over appalling corruption in their provinces. Both are in politics not for people but for the spoils of power.

Every appointment and every decision would be contested. Who would manage the Treasury, and the mining and energy portfolios? Will the grand plan be to save Eskom or to loot it further?

For SA to escape its downward spiral — which means pulling out of the ratings trap, fixing state-owned enterprises, putting the fiscus back on a sustainable path – there must be a decisive break with the Zuma years.

There is no other option.

Dlamini-Zuma will not deliver this break. Not because she is the former wife of Zuma — she saw fit to divorce him despite social mores to the contrary — but because she is an inherently conservative politician, who looks to the past and not the future for solutions.

She is deeply suspicious of the outside world, in particular the West, and in all her public statements to date has demonstrated ignorance and disregard for the role of the market.

Similarly, a consensus package of leaders will also not enable us to make a decisive break with the past. Under this option, we will muddle along with key decisions and appointments contested and a stalemate over the short-term measures that are needed to change path.

This is why Ramaphosa must say no to a unity offer that would make him king. Rather put the interests of the country first and go for broke against Dlamini-Zuma.

• Paton is deputy editor.

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