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‘It’s going to be a tough election’: South Africa’s ANC votes for a new leader

By Crystal Orderson in Johannesburg
Posted on Tuesday, 5 December 2017 14:17

Zweli Mkhize, or ‘TG’ as he is affectionately known to African Nat­ional Congress (ANC) staffers at Luthuli House, is seen as a voice of reason within the party – a calm figure but a loyal party man. A member of the party since his teens, he says that he is a loyal cadre of the movement and someone who can also be critical of the state of the governing party.

The soft-spoken medical doctor and vice-chancellor of the University of KwaZulu-Natal is often deployed to troubled ANC branches and provinces where in-fighting and tensions are high. During the height of the violence between the ANC and Inkatha Freedom Party in the early 1990s, Mkhize, alongside Jacob Zuma, was key in negotiating peace in volatile KwaZulu-Natal Province. Mkhize is currently criss-­crossing the country to address the ANC and business leaders about the state of the party.

The ANC’s most recent policy documents reflect a party in decline, with party branches discussing a way forward. According to one party document on strategy and tactics, ‘the ANC faces declining fortunes with internal squabbles, money, politics, corruption and poor performance in government all conspiring to undermine its legitimacy in the eyes of the broader public.’ The range of documents offer a frank assessment of the party and how it will deal with factionalism and vote-buying within its ranks. These debates will culminate in a members’ meeting in June.


These problems were evident in the run-up to the 2016 local government elections, which delivered the ANC’s worst electoral performance since 1994. It received just 55.6% of the vote and lost the three major metropolitan areas: Johannesburg, Tshwane (Pretoria) and Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth). Mkhize calls the result a “a rude wake-up call”. He asserts that the party has no choice but to right wrongs if it wants to remain the governing party.

Mkhize says: “We have to correct the mistakes that people have identified. Processes of elections which were faulty need to be corrected, and the issues of manipulation of membership need to be corrected. And, of course, we need to focus the party on the key issues that are worrying the country – the economy, the issues of social and economic transformation.”

He admits that party infighting, especially in light of the race to be the ANC’s candidate for the 2019 elections, is weakening the ANC’s support. “As a result of the predominance of issues which the ANC seems to be looking at inwardly, it makes it even more difficult to showcase the achievements that have continued to be scored by the ANC in government.”

The ANC’s December elective conference will see Jacob Zuma step down as president, with ­Cyril Ramaphosa and ­Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as the main contenders to replace him. However, of late, Mkhize’s name has been bandied around as a potential candidate. Political analyst Soma­doda Fikeni tells The ­Africa Report: “Mkhize could well be a compromise candidate if there is no consensus between the different ­factions in the party.”

Mkhize has the ear of both Zuma and Ramaphosa but is coy about his plans. He is following party protocol by not actively campaigning for any position. He says: “I don’t have separate plans from the ­party. I’m part of the leadership of the ANC. I expect to be part of the leadership if I’m elected and I can leave it at that.”


Mkhize says he is more worried about the internal dynamics in the run-up to the elective conference. While open lobbying for positions is frowned upon, that is not stopping people from lobbying for their candidates. The ANC is talking about creating an electoral college, and Mkhize says this will stop the “temptation to manipulate some of the [selection] processes”.

The ANC’s reflection documents warn that ‘underhand practices increasingly define interactions between various spheres of government and the private sector; and private interests seek to capture and control not only the state but also the ANC itself.’

Part of the ANC’s internal electoral reform would be the screening of candidates for leadership positions. Mkhize explains: “No one must interfere with those nominations. There must be a body that is a custodian that has got no direct interest in the outcome of the elections. What we’ve seen in the past is that because of the access to positions of power, people would like to preserve the positions that they are in. So they would then dispense patronage and tend to try to dictate as to whom must be in what structures so that they keep those who are like-minded, those who are likely to protect them, those who are going to ensure the perpetuation of their position.” With just five months to pick a new ANC leader, it is unlikely that these changes will be in place for this vote.


Whoever is leading the party will have two years until the crucial 2019 election. “It’s going to be a very tough election because by 2019 we’ll have been a quarter of a century in power. And so there is a huge change in the demographics of the country, but the ANC intends to win the 2019 elections. We intend to correct what went wrong.”

While the ANC continues to campaign for “radical economic transformation”, its current policy documents do not advocate for constitutional changes to allow for land redistribution without compensation. Mkhize, who owns a farm in the Natal Midlands, says the party is not about to expropriate land without paying for it and dismissed the Economic Freedom Fighters’ offer of its support to change the constitution to allow it to happen.

Likening the question of land reform to the country’s 1994 democratic transition, Mkhize argues the ANC must strike a fine balance: “You’re going to have to manage this process so that those on the one side must not be so anxious. They must know that there is a law that protects them. Those who are angry must also not be impatient because they know that the system is opening up for them to be able to participate.”

The choice of a new ANC leader at the end of this year and the 2019 election will show if the party is doing enough to reassure voters that it is moving fast enough and in the right direction on land reform, service delivery, economic transformation, the provision of education and many of the other topics that dominate headlines.

From the April 2017 print edition

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