Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS
Blade Nzimande. Picture: GCIS

Within the next three weeks – assuming the ANC’s elective conference goes ahead – South Africa will get indication of who the next President of the country is likely to be.

It is a watershed moment for a country that in three equal parts is experiencing the edge of an economic precipice, a depressing decline in governance and related institutions and a governing party in deep leadership and moral decay accompanied by sustained policy distress.

Whist the deep political intrigue of the conference plays out like the script of a Hollywood thriller, a little Free State municipality called Metsimaholo adds a subplot that perhaps will play a pivotal role beyond its 21 dusty wards.

Occurring barely 18 days prior to the scheduled commencement of the elective conference, the Metsimaholo results provide a clear snapshot of South African politics – not on 2017, but in 2019.

In a remarkable flash-forward, the ANC has split and the SACP now occupies an independent role having shed its Alliance links to mobilise its own electoral support. Both the DA and EFF largely remain on their current course neither gaining ground or losing any significant support. And, smaller entities – be they regional players or new upstarts – provide voters with a further menu of options and add to the fragmentation (on the fringes) of all the major parties.

But the flash-forward has largely already occurred – last week – in the Northern Free State. South Africa’s electorate have entered an era of volatility and splintering– that changes the dynamic of policy in a post-2019 environment.

Metsimaholo should therefore be embedded in every single ANC delegates’ mind at Nasrec. It affords the party a chance to look into a reflective mirror and see exactly what will occur when the Alliance splits. The ANC now simply cannot afford to lose anyone – including the much maligned and belittled SACP – who too almost 9% of the vote off their ‘mother ship’.

The SACP certainly did itself a favour by standing independently. It has created political leverage for itself on its very first outing as a stand-alone political entity. Until now, the EFF were the potential future king-maker should the ANC drop below 50% on any national vote. After Metsimaholo, the SACP can be added to this category.

Simply put, if the ANC continues to alienate the SACP – and the party continues to forge a separate course – the ANC is likely to drop below 50% of the national vote. The ANC can now no longer afford any slippage at all from its global tallies. The SACP provides a nightmare scenario – even without the impact of newer players like Makhozi Khoza’s new movement who themselves could siphon off the off percent or two.

The SACP’s historic showing might’ve only secured them 3 seats in the municipality, but in a pure PR 2019 election, it is more than enough to push the ANC into a minority positon. Ironically, the SACP now holds the shots.

So ANC delegates will now have to factor this into their decision over who to elect to lead the ANC into 2019. And this is where is gets interesting. Historically, the SACP have largely leaned towards Cyril Ramaphosa. Although the party now says it will not endorse a specific candidate, there is enough historical rhetoric and record to assume that Blade Ndzimande is not well inclined towards ‘Brand Zuma”.

Now with the advantage of a substantial electoral base to draw upon, it’s not just Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza who might be in the pound seats but Blade himself although the SACP run the further danger of being vilified as a result of their stand to weaken the ANC.

The critical issue now is which of the front-running candidates are more likely to keep the Alliance in-tact and restore the SACP to a position of supporting the ANC rather than weakening it. The issue is further complicated by a plethora of opinion polls that show voters preferences tending in increasing number towards the Ramaphosa candidacy.

The ANC increasingly therefore will have to make a choice. Is it about a better chance of retaining above-50% representation – and the continuation of power in 2019 – or will it be about support Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and thereby risking not only the SACP’s inclusion – but also that of broad-based voter support?

The 2017 elective conference is therefore not just about a leadership and economic re-boot so needed. It is about providing the ANC with a better chance of retaining power – or potentially condemning it to a minority status after the next election.

2017 may therefore be about a slate that ticks the boxes for preserving power. The notion of ‘unity’ therefore should be read with a likelihood to remain in power. And, every ’unity’ permutation should be to provide the best possible chance of securing more than 50% in the election in less than 18 months.

It is entirely possible therefore, that the slates and ultimate selections could be an unusual combination of those who through compromise are chosen to best prepare the ANC for retaining power in 2019.

Strange as it might seem, a Ramaphosa/Dlamini-Zuma slate (in that order) generally ticks the box of renewal, continuity and voter support – a true compromise and ‘unity’ play for the ANC which is likely to keep the SACP on board and even possibly woo the EFF to re-join. Other permutations include a Ramaphosa/Mabuza or Zweli Mkhize option but this leaves the much-promised gender representivity at the top missing.

Clearly, the future of the ANC as the pre-eminent majority and governing party is now at stake. Delegates will have to put aside all the personal, crony, graft and ideological differences to focus on one thing – how best to keep themselves in power. After all, that what politics is all about, isn’t it?

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