When the ANC’s national conference ended on Wednesday night, the country was left with its biggest problem: the ANC. There is lots of optimism about the election of Cyril Ramaphosa as ANC president, which is well founded. But the main cause of SA’s economic stagnation and paralysis has not been President Jacob Zuma alone; it has been the internal contestation and resultant dysfunctionality of the ANC. Because of the ANC’s dominance, this problem has infected and affected the political life of the nation.

It will make a difference that the person at the head of the ANC is not someone there for the primary purpose of enriching himself and his family. It will make a difference that the ambiguity that has existed in government departments over the implementation of the National Development Plan will end. And, because ANC political praxis asserts (at least in theory) that it is the ANC that is the centre of power, Ramaphosa will for the first time have the ability to make a difference to what happens in the government.

However, for the ANC’s leadership election to make a real difference to the country, Zuma must be removed before Parliament opens in February. There is a very narrow window of opportunity for the country to ride the wave of Ramaphosa’s election, avoid the ratings guillotine and restore business confidence. Short of money and faced with the prospect of cutting infrastructure budgets and grants to public entities, confidence is the only ingredient the government has the capacity to dispense to get the economy growing.

If Zuma remains as state president, his Cabinet of largely corrupt and inept individuals remains too, as will key appointments at state-owned enterprises and in the justice cluster. The opportunity for Ramaphosa to pull the country out of its downward trajectory will evaporate.

So will he have the power to remove Zuma?

While the ANC has at its conference repeated its maxim that the party is the centre of power and not the state, the finer details are important. Its national executive committee holds that power — particularly in the case of an important matter such as a recall — and not the ANC president. The balance of forces in the national executive committee is unknown at the time of writing. Bear in mind that a 50-plus-one majority won’t cut it: the ANC functions by consensus and to get a decision through requires overwhelming support. Bear in mind too that while some of the Zuma allies will switch sides to Ramaphosa, the Zuma camp has too much to lose to readily relinquish their grip on state power.

It has been suggested by some that if the national executive committee fails to remove Zuma, Parliament could do it. The MPs supporting Ramaphosa plus the opposition would have the numbers. But to do it without national executive committee support would cause internal strife and damage the ANC’s unity even further. Yet if Ramaphosa was serious enough to make a deal with Mpumalanga Premier DD Mabuza to get to the presidency of the ANC, he must be prepared to use his power.

While it will be worth it in the end, waiting for Parliament to act will lead to momentum that could propel positive sentiment being lost: Zuma will deliver the state of the nation speech and Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba the budget.

Removing Zuma will finally put Ramaphosa at the centre of what is, contrary to ANC romanticism, the real centre of power. The changes he could make to the Cabinet and other key appointments could have an immediate positive effect. Business would certainly be happy in the immediate aftermath. But for the ANC, it would be the beginning of another five years of internal division and paralysis.

For the ANC, the more things have changed with a new president, the more they have stayed the same. What this conference did was to confirm the negative cycle in which the party is trapped: internal corruption, factionalism and a compulsive tendency to feed off state resources and use patronage to secure political loyalty.

The first similarity to the past five years is that there is again a divided top six — and again it is going to get messy. This time the split is a three-way one. Treasurer-general Paul Mashatile and deputy president Mabuza, on whose alliance the whole edifice of the Ramaphosa presidency depended, are the main power brokers. Both have rejected the Guptas but both have been very close to private business interests: it is well known that Mabuza’s benefactor is Gijima’s Robert Gumede, while Mashatile is referred to as being part of the "Alex mafia" that has been accused of much tender manipulation in Gauteng.

More likely than not, Ramaphosa will have to turn a blind eye to their business activities and relationships for the sake of maintaining control among the officials.

Then Ramaphosa and ANC chairman Gwede Mantashe’s personal and political relationship goes back decades. Mantashe too has had his fair share of tender-related scandals, which have been linked to procurement transactions for his wife and son. Neither of them holds paid, full-time positions and Mantashe, like Ramaphosa, will be hoping for a quick deployment to the Cabinet.

Just like the other problems it has – factionalism, entrenched patronage and corruption – there will be no avoiding the internecine conflict that the state-capture inquiry will bring

Finally, there is the secretary-general’s office, headed by Ace Magashule and his deputy, Jesse Duarte. Magashule is the CEO of the ANC. Any decision of consequence taken in the party must go through his office. Together the two – both Gupta associates – will be in charge of the ANC’s organisational machinery, supervising provincial conferences and managing the membership lists.

Apart from the obvious dangers of a secretary-general’s office that is partisan in the ANC’s factional battles, the political will to modernise the organisation will slowly drain away. Magashule is the great beneficiary of the politics and structure that are responsible for corruption in the ANC and its financial insolvency.

Then comes the most damaging repeat of the dynamic that has shaped ANC politics since 2005 — the use of the justice system to settle scores among one another.

Magashule will probably be criminally implicated through the judicial commission of inquiry into state capture. While this will not amount to abuse of the justice system in the way Zuma used it against Pravin Gordhan, it is very similar to the attempts to prosecute Zuma for corruption while Thabo Mbeki was president.

Mbeki may well have been politically complicit behind the scenes in urging the prosecution of Zuma. Ramaphosa might not be playing the same political game. Assuming he allows the law to take its course, the ANC will once again be in the thick of a conflict, with top officials on opposite sides of the justice system.

Just like the other problems it has – factionalism, entrenched patronage and corruption – there will be no avoiding the internecine conflict that the state-capture inquiry will bring.

The ANC will very soon be submerged again in the compelling dynamics that will result in the party’s destruction.

• Paton is deputy editor.

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