ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa toasts with former president Jacob Zuma and secretary-general Ace Magashule during the ANC 107th anniversary celebrations at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. Picture: AFP/RAJESH JANTILAL
ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa toasts with former president Jacob Zuma and secretary-general Ace Magashule during the ANC 107th anniversary celebrations at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban. Picture: AFP/RAJESH JANTILAL

As the ANC celebrated its 108th birthday on Sunday in a commemoration that featured celebrity music shows, a golf tournament and an 8,000-word statement stressing organisational unity, many of us watching at home knew that such gestures cannot paper over divisions within the ruling party.

Most visibly, the power struggle between President Cyril Ramaphosa, whose tenuous grip on power is expected to be tested again in 2020 as the ANC heads towards its national general council, and his predecessor, Jacob Zuma, whose vaguely defined economic policies strike a responsive chord among top leaders within the ANC, including secretary-general Ace Magashule.

New Eskom CEO Andre de Ruyter’s job  ...  will be near impossible with the ruling party distracted by factional battles

We care about the vicious infighting because as the ruling party — which, by and large, retains power in SA due to emotional support and its glorious past — it is trusted with the management of the Eskom crisis, containing the fallout from what looks like a sure bet in Moody’s Investors Service downgrading our sovereign credit to junk status, ensuring SA does not slip into a devastating debt trap and kick-starting the economy stuck in its lowest downward trend since the end of World War 2.

Under such legendary leaders as Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Oliver Tambo, the ANC’s January 8 statement, which accompanies the organisation’s birthday bash, gained near mythical status among many black South Africans as it gave hope in its outline of Africa’s oldest liberation movement’s priorities for the coming year.

Sadly, the 2020 commemoration at a stadium in Kimberley, calling for “clear and irreversible progress in building a united, cohesive, ethical and strong ANC — an ANC that is able to continue effectively serving the people of SA”,  is an empty statement aimed at reassuring South Africans that the ANC is not distracted from tackling deeper problems facing the country.

Even with the theme “Year of United Action to Grow SA”, it is not difficult to imagine that 2020 is more likely to be the year of peak political tension that could result in the regrouping of those sidelined under Ramaphosa’s two-year stewardship of the organisation. The party’s national general council — its midterm policy gathering — in June is likely to be used to test the president’s reformist credentials on land expropriation without compensation and the nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank.

Chances are that even as Ramaphosa was slicing the enormous birthday cake, which took more than a dozen men to carry it on stage, there were some within the ANC, as well as within the party’s allies, the SA Communist Party (SACP) and trade union federation Cosatu, who were preoccupied with how the party can do better with someone other than Ramaphosa or his cabinet ministers such as public enterprises minister Pravin Gordhan at the helm.  

Outwardly, it might look like a genuine desire to build what the ANC calls “a capable state” that serves all South Africans but, given the organisation’s track record and failure to address the rot within, it is easy to believe critics both in the movement and outside that some ANC leaders are driven by selfish desire to indulge in the spoils of office and squander our taxes.     

As party leaders rallied in Kimberley under self-congratulatory slogans, Eskom, the single biggest economic risk to SA, was scrambling to keep the lights on. It had just lost its chair, Jabu Mabuza, while its new CEO, Andre de Ruyter, had been just a few days at the job.

From where we stand, De Ruyter’s job — which includes cutting billions of rand in costs, substantially cutting the utility’s R440bn debt mountain and, crucially, ensuring the economy is not plunged into prolonged load-shedding — will be near impossible with the ruling party distracted by factional battles.

The rolling blackouts, which embarrassingly came a week earlier than Ramaphosa had promised, are weighing on already dismal expectations for economic growth for 2020. Last week,  the World Bank and Nedbank cut their 2020 growth forecasts for SA, citing persistent policy uncertainty, constrained fiscal space, weak business confidence and poor electricity supply.

If the ANC takes its eye off the important issues to focus on its internal power battles, Nedbank and the World Bank will not be the last ones to rethink their economic forecasts for 2020.