Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma, treasurer-general Dr Zweli Mkhize and ANC presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa at the 54th ANC national elective conference held at Nasrec. Picture: MASI LOSI
Outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma, treasurer-general Dr Zweli Mkhize and ANC presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa at the 54th ANC national elective conference held at Nasrec. Picture: MASI LOSI

The ANC elective conference is hurtling towards a photo finish. Both sides believe they can win. Their confidence and bravado — captured in their imaginative songs about the candidates — are unnerving.

At one moment, it looks like CR17 is louder and has greater numbers; at the next, it seems the opposite.

Initial projections on the basis of provincial general councils have now been overtaken by the consolidated branch nominations, which were presented in the conference plenary on Sunday evening.

Intense lobbying is also continuing. So even though delegates are being "looked after" and quarantined in hotels, they may still shift their allegiance.

And then there is the final difficulty: even though delegates carry a mandate from their branch and maybe another from their province or faction, voting is by secret ballot, making it possible for delegates to pervert either the will of the strong men in their province, their faction or their branch.

It is incredibly difficult to read.

As much as the ANC resolved to avoid 'slate politics'  — the practice by which both sides put forward a slate of 86, with the logical result that the strongest side sweeps the board — it is right back there again

The market has made it clear which candidate it prefers and has shown it with a strengthening rand at key points in the ANC election race. Cyril Ramaphosa would be infinitely better for corporate and investor SA. This also makes him better for investment and job creation, which even Cosatu, which frequently espouses ideology to the contrary, realises will also be good for workers and the poor.

With him at the helm, there is the possibility of avoiding a Moody’s downgrade at the end of February. But more important than that, there is the possibility of a decisive break with the Zuma years. If he wins, he will be able to take advantage of the immediate dividend that change will bring and swiftly change the Cabinet, set about repairing key institutions and put state-owned entities back on track.

But there is an equal chance, right now, that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma could win. If so, she will not experience the same positive momentum that Ramaphosa can harness simply by coming into office. Dlamini-Zuma may very well be faced with an automatic credit ratings downgrade just on coming into office, given the view of her the market holds and will have to try much harder to persuade those who call the shots in our economy that investment is her priority.

It will be even more important then that should she win, she takes the bold steps required to persuade the market of her bona fides rather than allowing negative perceptions to take root and set in.

For both the governing ANC and all the citizens of SA, the outcome is critical.

As much as the ANC resolved to avoid "slate politics" — the practice by which both sides put forward a slate of 86, with the logical result that the strongest side sweeps the board — it is right back there again. There are only two players in the game and the rest have been knocked out or subsumed.

The ANC had wanted to eliminate the practice for obvious reasons: it means some of the most competent ANC leaders are left out, such as was the case when Kgalema Motlanthe failed to make it in 2012 even as an ordinary member of the national executive. It also means that the organisation has the tendency to split into factions well in advance of a national conference and to stay that way. This is why so many ANC election contests end in the splitting away of the losing group.

For an organisation that wants to hold onto state power, this is obviously a bad thing and it tends to return from each successive conference as a diminished force. Again, this is one of the scenarios it faces.

But as citizens right now, we all stand riveted to our phones and television screens, helpless to affect the outcome.

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