While the so-called "ANC rebels" celebrated outside the Pietermaritzburg High Court following a decisive victory against their own party leadership‚ another man‚ several hundred kilometres away‚ would have been quietly smiling to himself.

That man was presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa‚ who could emerge the unlikely beneficiary of Tuesday’s ruling which‚ effectively‚ renders the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal leaderless and in disarray. And with the province among the biggest backers of Ramaphosa’s strongest rival for the party’s top job‚ Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma‚ any instability in KwaZulu-Natal could prove decisive.

This is the view of KwaZulu-Natal political analyst and researcher Thabani Khumalo‚ speaking in the wake of a ruling by Judge Jerome Mnguni that the ANC’s 2015 provincial elective conference was unlawful. The ruling renders the election of the party’s top five‚ and of the other 25 members of the provincial executive committee‚ null and void — effectively overturning their election and leaving the party rudderless.

The ruling came after complaints were lodged by a faction supporting ousted chairman and KwaZulu-Natal premier Senzo Mchunu‚ who lost to Sihle Zikalala in a bitter and bruising internal battle. The application was led by Vryheid councillor Lawrence Dube and four other ANC members representing 43 branches. They went to court in July last year asking for a re-run‚ citing various irregularities.

The KwaZulu-Natal ANC said it was studying the judgment and was considering an appeal. The party’s youth and women’s leagues have called a media conference for Wednesday morning.

Khumalo said with more and more ANC branches starting to back Ramaphosa‚ the court’s decision‚ which could result in fewer delegates from KwaZulu-Natal attending the December conference‚ throws the presidential race wide open. But‚ he said‚ this was also a decision that threatens to widen already clear fractures within the party and weaken the party’s voice in December — and Ramaphosa could be the one who benefits.

"What this outcome does is add to the acrimonious relations that already exist between those that support Mchunu and those that support Zikalala. For [Ramaphosa]‚ this has boosted the morale of his supporters in KwaZulu-Natal. You are now likely to see many others coming out in support of his campaign‚" said Khumalo. "This has clearly sent a loud message. Unlike the Free State‚ KwaZulu-Natal will not go to the elective conference with an influential voice."

He believes that Zikalala’s influence could wane now he’s no longer in a position of power‚ with the elected party structure he leads declared illegitimate. But KwaZulu-Natal ANC spokesperson Mdumiseni Ntuli said it was not all over for the provincial executive committee‚ of which he is a part. They are expected to meet later on Tuesday.

"We will discuss this outcome and we will consult with the National Executive Committee (NEC) to determine our next course of action. We believe, however, that we presented a cogent‚ rational‚ logical and justification on why the [2015] conference should have been held‚" he said.

Hinting at an appeal‚ he added: " It’s very possible that another layer of court will arrive at a different decision." However‚ despite the likelihood of an appeal‚ he said the party would reconvene the conference if instructed to by the NEC.

Former KwaZulu-Natal premier‚ ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize‚ told journalists in Durban on Tuesday morning that the NEC did not want to rush into a decision as the outcome was still fresh. At the time of his comments he had not read the full judgment. "I don’t believe one can speculate on what will happen. A decision will come out of an NEC meeting," he said.

KwaZulu-Natal ANC Youth League chairperson Kwazi Mshengu said despite victory against Dlamini-Zuma’s backers‚ the league was still firmly behind the former African Union chairperson. He was also adamant that the outcome would not affect the December conference‚ nor KwaZulu-Natal’s participation in it.

"You must remember [the December conference] is a conference of the branches‚ not the provincial leadership. So this won’t hamper any plans behind our preferred candidate‚" he said.

Meanwhile‚ two leaders of the so-called rebels extended an olive branch to the losing provincial executive‚ saying unity was paramount. They said even if Zikalala won at a reconstituted provincial conference they would respect the outcome — provided it was a free and fair election.

The main applicant in the case Lawrence Dube said outside the court: "We will be talking to them on how we can now forge unity."

Sithembiso Mshengu‚ who has acted as the group’s spokesperson‚ said the long road to unity had now begun. "Now the most wise thing to do is for the NEC to take over the process of rebuilding the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal‚ or put in place an interim structure. If they refuse‚ that would mean they don’t want us to be part of this broad church that is [the] ANC."

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