As the ANC’s national conference looms, the phrase "unity" has emerged more strongly than ever. What is unity and what will it mean for the ANC and the country?

Unity talks began between ANC provincial chairmen months before the nomination process, which culminated last week in
Cyril Ramaphosa getting the nod from
1,860 branches against Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s 1,358.

Naturally, panic set in among Dlamini-Zuma backers and they moved swiftly to regain lost ground.

On Friday in Nelspruit, legitimate ANC delegates complained that they were being sidelined in a "verification process" run by President Jacob Zuma’s lieutenants from the national executive committee (NEC).


A unity ticket or a 'mixed state' is unlikely to succeed as it would force polar opposites to work together

The delegates were mostly from the Nkangala region of the province — one which overwhelmingly nominated Ramaphosa — and were selected by their branches to attend the elective conference, only to be told their attendance was not guaranteed.

In the Free State, chairman Ace Magashule — nominated for the post of secretary-general on Dlamini-Zuma’s slate — convened a provincial elective conference despite a court order compelling the province to rerun 29 branch general meetings before it holds an elective gathering. Defiant, Magashule went ahead.

The disgruntled group, aligned to Ramaphosa, are now set to interdict the Free State’s delegation of 409 voting delegates from attending the conference. The matter is set to be heard on Thursday.

In the North West, there are similar legal challenges, brought mostly by Ramaphosa supporters who are being excluded from the national conference by the provincial leadership — which is aligned to Zuma and is backing Dlamini-Zuma.

It is a dirty game being fought in the name of the presidential hopefuls. On the Ramaphosa side, his backers are taking Zuma-aligned chairmen to task in these provinces, mainly through court processes.

The race is that close. Every vote counts.

The "third way" is the "unity" option, in which party leaders are hoping to reach consensus on leadership. Part of this — for one group pushing for unity — is to ensure that the ANC constitution is amended to increase the number of its top leaders from six to nine.

The original aim of the so-called unity ticket was to prevent another damaging split from the governing party, which would most certainly once again dent its electoral support.

The increase of the top leadership structure would mean an additional deputy president and two additional deputy secretary-generals.

This would allow the maximum number of leaders from the two camps and various provinces to be represented in the top leadership of the ANC.

The initial work, however, on bringing about "unity" through a handful of ANC chairmen and in which treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize played a key role, has morphed considerably and has effectively been "hijacked" by the Zuma faction.

This is clear from the meeting Zuma had with the party’s seven candidates as well as a meeting with provincial chairmen and secretaries two weeks ago.

While Zuma had raised the dual deputy presidency at the ANC’s policy conference in June, the idea was first mooted at its national general council (NGC) in 2015.

The proposal emanated from and found agreement in a number of provinces back then — including Gauteng, Limpopo, Eastern Cape, Mpumalanga and the Northern Cape — which led to its endorsement at the NGC.

The Dlamini-Zuma camp, in its bid for unity, and through discussions with the candidate for deputy president on her slate, Mpumalanga chairman David Mabuza, has opened up talks with Gauteng chairman Paul Mashatile to include him as treasurer on her slate.

But Mashatile is unlikely to bite, given that the central concern of his province is further electoral losses in 2019 for Gauteng. Ramaphosa’s backers appear reticent about buying into the unity approach, sticking to their guns with the deputy president announcing his running mates ahead of
the conference.

The difficulty of a unity ticket is that it would very likely lead to paralysis in the ANC.

While a large chunk of the party wants to make a clean break with the trajectory of the Zuma administration, Dlamini-Zuma and her backers are likely to retain the status quo and intensify the Zuma project.

A senior leader on the national executive committee, backing Ramaphosa, has questioned how unity could be obtained through an unholy alliance between factions with values that are effectively "polar opposites".

Dlamini-Zuma backers, it was bluntly put, wanted to continue the looting project, while Ramaphosa backers want to see the renewal of the ANC and government.

The trend in the ANC has been for its national executive committee to take a decision, but for the president and his lieutenants in government to simply ignore those instructions and do their own thing.

This has been the trend since as far back as 2014, when Zuma was told he ought to pay back the money in the Nkandla matter.

Instead he fought all the way to the constitutional court in 2016 and subsequently conceded that he should pay.

A "unity" ticket or a "mixed slate" is likely to lead to the continuation of this trend. It would split the party down the middle, leading to government paralysis, which SA can ill afford. The ANC, too, would be doing itself a disservice as the enormous damage done to its image by the current administration is unlikely to be reversed while  those responsible still form a key part of  its upper echelons.

There has never been this much uncertainty around an ANC elective conference, with court battles from various quarters and an incumbent leadership with everything to lose if their candidate is unsuccessful.

A split, therefore, is very likely even if a third way or unity option is accepted — there is already one under way, with the SA Communist Party contesting its first election under its own banner and discussions set to continue next year to potentially contest the 2019 election. This in itself is already a move towards a split and with the Ramaphosa ticket not biting on the "unity" option, a loss for him could lead to the SACP project being revitalised and supported by his backers inside the ANC.

What is clear is that the conference is going to be one rough journey for the party and the country.

A provincial chairman, who wished to remain anonymous, said the unity talks are set to continue but he is not confident they would yield much of an outcome because branches have already made up their minds and are too far gone with support for their candidates to back down now.

What is clear is that the conference is going to be one rough journey for the party and the country.

It will begin on Saturday — with an opening address by Zuma, which is likely to set the tone.

The first and biggest battle of the conference takes place shortly afterward: the battle over credentials.

The credentials of the conference are akin to an attendance register — where an assessment is done of all those present and whether they are legitimate representatives of party structures. This process is set to be hotly contested.

Once credentials are adopted, the elections will begin, separately for each of the top posts. This would ensure that should Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma lose the race for the presidency, they would be open to contest for the post of deputy president. Ferocious lobbying and behind-the-scenes horse trading for the remaining posts is set to follow the election of president.

SA will soon know its fate, for better or for worse.

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