Eyes are on elections for the leaders of the African Union and of the resource-rich countries that will shape Africa's economic and political trends in the years to come. Countries from South Africa to Egypt are experiencing political shifts that are transforming national and regional balances of power
The African National Congress celebrates its centenery in January 2012, while the parties of the ruling triumverate choose their leaders and decide President Zuma's fate.
The partying for politicians in South Africa will start on 8 January, when the African National Congress (ANC), the oldest liberation movement on the continent, celebrates 100 years of struggle politics. The festivities will continue for much of the coming year.
The celebrants' ardour will be restrained by the growing sense that the ANC is a political party that is at war with itself. For much of the year ANC militants will be fighting their corner in a succession of elections within party structures and those of its affiliate organisations, such as the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party (SACP). These contests will culminate in the ANC's elective conference in Mangaung in December 2012, when members vote for the party's top leaders.
The triple alliance – the ANC, the trade unions and the communist party – is the dominant political force in South Africa. Many of the senior trade unionists and communists hold top positions in the ANC's committees. Lifelong ANC supporters such as COSATU's general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi point to the depth of the crisis within the ANC: "There is a poisoned atmosphere of divisions and fast-forming cliques and cabals, innuendos, gossip, backstabbing, character assassination, political and even physical assassination."
It matters a great deal who leads each of the three organisations, so the elections due this coming year will generate a lot of interest. President Jacob Zuma, the 13th president of the ANC in its 100-year existence, will lead the party's celebratory march on 8 January, and it serves him well to do so. A man of big ambitions, he is pushing to be re-elected for a second term in party elections in December and these past few months have seen him clearing all obstacles in his path.
Julius Malema, the president of the ANC Youth League, is a case in point. Formerly a staunch supporter of Zuma, Malema has veered off course and has been openly lobbying for Zuma to be replaced in December 2012. Zuma and his allies scored the first success in their campaign to take Malema out of the political arena when an ANC disciplinary tribunal ruled on 10 November that he should be removed as president of the ANC Youth League and his membership of the ANC should be suspended for five years.
If he could get Malema out of the way, Zuma hoped that he would storm the stage on 8 January as the main man of the ANC's show. However, 30-year-old Malema is in the fight for the long-term. Malema's initial reaction to the tribunal's sanction, "The gloves are off", suggests that there is a long struggle ahead.
Malema's supporters were in the streets organising protests on his behalf and he had the backing of ANC luminaries such as housing minister Tokyo Sexwale and Winnie Madikizela- Mandela. If Malema chooses to appeal the disciplinary tribunal's decision, he could drag out proceedings for much of 2012 and cast a shadow over the centennial celebrations.
Zuma also has to contend with Vavi, who has been COSATU's general-secretary since 1999. Initially, Vavi backed the ANC faction that Zuma led against President Thabo Mbeki in 2007, hoping that leadership change would increase the influence of the trade unions on the government. He was sorely disappointed and became frustrated with what he saw as Zuma's vacillation on key policy issues. In turn, Zuma quickly pushed Vavi out of the government's inner circle once he took office in May 2009.
Vavi fought back and surprised party barons by exposing the corrupt underbelly of ANC politics. In several headline-making speeches, Vavi questioned the conspicuous wealth of many of his political peers and accused senior ANC officials of crass avarice. This initiative is part of his campaign for re-election as COSATU general-secretary, but it is a risky move because COSATU is no longer as united as it once was.
In February, the ANC will release the discussion documents for the ANC policy conference in May. The party holds a critical conversation around policy ahead of each elective conference, and in 2012 the buzz word will be nationalisation.
That will again play into the hands of Malema's supporters. Late in 2009, Malema began to lobby for the nationalisation of the country's mines, which have an estimated value of $2.5trn. He pegged his plans to the 2012 elective conference, warning Zuma that if he did not launch a nationalisation programme that he would lose the backing of the Youth League.
In July, the SACP will hold leadership elections, with secretary general Blade Nzimande (who has broadly supported Zuma) and his deputy Jeremy Cronin standing again. There may be a challenge from an anti-Zuma candidate there too. Much of the interest in the SACP centres on the future of Young Communist League president Buti Manamela, whose star seems to be rising as quickly as his rhetorical skills. He called Malema's economic freedom march in late October the ANC Youth League's "one-night stand with the poor". Manamela strongly backs Nzimande's campaign for leadership of the party.
COSATU's elections, due in September, are likely to be more fraught. After a long spell of unity, rival factions have grown among the federation's two million members. One of the most divisive issues appears to be whether to support Zuma's campaign for the ANC presidency. Vavi has yet to publicly state whether he will stand for another term as general secretary. Mineworkers union head Frans Baleni is tipped to beat Vavi. Irvin Jim of the metalworkers union could also stand for the top job at COSATU.
In all these elections – among the trades unionists, communists and finally for the top leadership of the ANC – the common thread is loyalty to Zuma as ANC president. It will take all Zuma's legendary persuasive powers to emerge as the winner by the end of 2012, but few ANC activists would dismiss his chances.