The ANC top six. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI
The ANC top six. Picture: SIMPHIWE NKWALI

So the ANC emerges out of the election that was supposed to decide its fate as the same ANC that existed before the vote — with some new wrinkles. Since organisations don’t usually turn into something else overnight this, despite some of the shock which has greeted it, was always likely.

The ANC top-six leadership is split once again between its two factions because that was the only way a deeply divided organisation whose election processes are so contested that members can only settle them in court could have elected new leaders.

While ANC politicians have, inevitably, insisted that the result reflected the will of branches, the evidence suggests a deal between power brokers. How else explain that former KwaZulu-Natal premier Senzo Mchunu won 550 branch nominations more than Free State premier Ace Magashule but lost to him by 24 votes on a recount?

The deal was made because, as this column pointed out, this was the only way the ANC could achieve a result that was certain to stand. If either slate had won, the losers would have cried foul. The flying chairs ANC leaders are so proud of avoiding may have appeared. Even if they didn’t, court challenges and a new split were possibilities. The need to hold the ANC together in this way is also why, by Tuesday evening, a dispute about votes that could upset the balance had its leaders meeting in secret for hours.

This is partly so because, as ANC documents tell us, its elections are so open to manipulation that winners are rarely immune from challenges by losers. But it is also so because the ANC is divided. To see how divided, we need only look at the presidential election, which was not the result of a deal. Neither side could agree to let the other’s candidate become president and neither was open to a compromise candidate. So they probably agreed to allow the presidency to be contested before dividing the other positions. If so, the fact that Cyril Ramaphosa won by less than 200 votes shows that the ANC is split down the middle.

In the months before the election, its two factions were locked in a stalemate. Both were strong enough to prevent the other doing whatever it wants and the result was trench warfare: repeated battles as one side tries to turn the government into a patronage vehicle and the other blocks them. The new top six shows that this is still the reality.

Something else about the ANC also remains firmly in place — that its delegates do not take kindly to voting for women. This was shown in provinces’ choice of premier candidates over the past decade and was evident again now. Some blame the ANC Women’s League for backing a woman because she represented a faction, not because she was representing women. But this is merely a symptom of the reality — ANC delegates will not vote for women unless men tell them to do this.

What does this result mean for the ANC and the country? The split which was possible if no deal was done has been averted. Ramaphosa’s election may convince enough wavering ANC voters to ensure that it retains its majority in 2019. But if it does nothing to fix the problems that prompt its voters to stay away, a new leader may not be enough. It needs to tackle not only the sense by city voters that ANC politicians care about themselves but not the people who vote for them but the anger in rural areas at chiefs and politicians who combine to help themselves at the expense of the people.

Could it do this given that half the top six belong to the patronage faction? Yes.

The split top six has horrified some commentators because it rules out the happily-ever-after scenario: a united ANC leadership is not about to clean out the stables and make the country safe for the market economy. But that was always a fantasy. The division that runs through the ANC between those who are in the marketplace and don’t want it damaged and those who rely on patronage politicians because they are excluded runs through the country: until it begins to change, patronage politics will remain strong — in the country and in the ANC.

But the ANC and the country need not stay as they are. Trench warfare does not mean nothing changes — it means that changes are hard-won and every battle is followed by another. And so what happens is decided by the way in which events — court cases and exposes, for example — affect the ANC and how both factions respond. In this battle, the political skills of people inside and outside the ANC matter a great deal.

This may not be the fantasy world for which some hoped — but it is the real world in which the ANC and the country live. An outcome in which the gains will go to whoever is better at politics may be the best the country can expect in the reality in which we live.


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