South Africa: Could Ramaphosa lose the ANC presidency?

By Romain Chanson
Posted on Wednesday, 2 March 2022 10:18

Cyril Ramaphosa at the podium of the ANC's anniversary meeting at Polokwane stadium, 8 January 2022 © PHILL MAGAKOE/AFP

Cyril Ramaphosa, South Africa’s head of state and president of the African National Congress (ANC), is expected to stand for re-election as party leader in December. But behind the scenes, several rivals are sharpening their weapons and arguments.

Has Cyril Ramaphosa watched The Godfather? “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer,” says Michael Corleone in the famous trilogy about the New York mafia. The South African President seems to have followed the advice to the letter, placing his rivals in many ministries. But their proximity does not guarantee their loyalty and several of them may now challenge him for leadership of the African National Congress (ANC).

Lindiwe Sisulu on the offensive

This year began with a showdown between the President and his tourism minister, Lindiwe Sisulu. In an out-of-the-blue speech, Sisulu attacked the “judiciary’s upper echelons” where “those Africans whose mentality has been colonised” are said to be located.

She mentioned the Constitutional Court judges who had incurred the wrath of some politicians by sentencing Jacob Zuma to 15 months in prison for contempt of court. “When you put them in power or have them interpret the law, then they are worse than your oppressor,” writes this close friend of the former president.

After two weeks of controversy, Ramaphosa decided to summon his minister. According to a presidential statement, he reprimanded her and then she apologised. This version of events was quickly contested by the woman concerned, who accused the head of state of having distorted her words. These repeated affronts could have been enough to justify her dismissal. But the ANC is careful not to alienate its political families. Sisulu is a party figure and her parents, Walter and Albertina, are liberation movement heroes.

By initiating this fight, the minister kicked off her campaign for the ANC presidency, observes political scientist Susan Booysen, author of several books on the party. “She had to do it early, without waiting to see if the branches [ANC locals] would nominate her. She had to show them that she was available,” says the professor at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Sisulu has learned from her mistakes. In 2017, she launched her campaign for the ANC presidency late and had to drop out due to a lack of support.

Her attack on the judiciary is very much a call to action to Zuma’s supporters. Grouped under the unofficial banner of the Radical Economic Transformation (RET), they criticise Ramaphosa for not carrying out the ANC’s most radical reforms, such as expropriating land without providing compensation and then redistributing it to the black population. But this faction, which was very active in 2017, has lost influence in recent years.

It seems a long time ago that Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, their standard-bearer, won 48.10% of the vote against Ramaphosa in the ANC race. The current minister of traditional affairs – and Zuma’s former wife – is now on the sidelines of the battles waged by the branch she represented. Despite her popularity, Booysen doesn’t think that she will run: “At the moment, I don’t sense any enthusiasm or passion for politics in her.”

Duduzane Zuma, endorsed by Jacob

But one Zuma can hide another. The rising star is Duduzane, one of the former president’s sons. This rather handsome man in his thirties with a youthful face wants to represent the next generation. When he appears in public, people call him “president.”

A Twitter account called “Duduzane Zuma For ANC President” was created in September 2021. A few months later, he was elected to lead one of the ANC’s local branches near Durban. This small victory led to a video in which Jacob Zuma meets with his son to congratulate him. The two men stage a form of power transfer. “We all started out like this,” the father happily says. “I’m glad that you think I’m on the right path […]. We have the same final goal,” his son replies.

Muscular, tattooed and wearing a designer shirt, Duduzane Zuma looks more like a jet-setter than a party leader. “I don’t think people in the ANC take him seriously, it doesn’t work like that,” says Booysen. “The ANC is about people of stature, who have a reputation for doing things. Driving sports cars is not enough to become president.”

This aspiring party leader is known more for his bad connections than his political background. He was associated with the Gupta brothers, who formed South Africa’s most sulphurous quartet. The anti-corruption commission is now investigating them for their links to Jacob Zuma when he was president. In the Zondo commission’s second report, which was submitted at the end of January, Duduzane Zuma is also present at the Guptas’ home during meetings between corrupt businessmen. But his role has not yet been clearly established.

Ace Magashule and Zweli Mkhize ambushed

In the race for the ANC presidency, former party secretary-general Ace Magashule could cause problems for Ramaphosa if he continues to pull the strings in Free State, the province he led and bribed for several years. Under his influence, delegates from this small province can swing a close election.

The fact remains that the man who was Ramaphosa’s main opponent is now a shadow of his former self. His trial for corruption in an asbestos removal contract case has sidelined him, as the ANC is now demanding that those charged with such offences step aside.

Another name that has resurfaced after a few months in the wilderness is Zweli Mkhize. At the beginning of the month, the former health minister mobilised the support of 100 traditional and religious leaders. A few weeks later, one of the ANC’s biggest branches in KwaZulu-Natal announced its support for his candidacy. But what is the political weight of the man who was removed from government on suspicion of corruption in the midst of a pandemic? Given that he was a presidential candidate in 2017, it is unlikely that he will have the wherewithal to stage a comeback.

With 10 months to go before the congress, Ramaphosa seems to be the favourite to win. Although he is not yet a candidate, he has received support from the province of Limpopo, where his family comes from. It is the second region in terms of ANC delegates – and therefore voters – after pro-Zuma KwaZulu-Natal. Some of the party’s heavyweights, such as treasurer-general Paul Mashatile and justice minister Ronald Lamola, are already saying that he should serve a second term.

If he were re-elected as head of the ANC, Ramaphosa would then be the party’s candidate for the 2024 general elections. He would have two years to turn around a political party that is losing significant ground in the polls. For the first time since 1994, the party fell below 50% of the vote in the November 2021 local elections. It seems that the only thing that Ramaphosa has to fear are voters.

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