In South Africa, contenders emerge for ANC presidency
Deputy leader and Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife among those sounding out party and electorate
Cyril Ramaphosa (left) with Jacob Zuma in Soweto on Sunday for a ceremony marking the ANC’s 105th anniversary. The ANC hopes that Ramaphosa’s return to politics after a spell in the business world will help repair the party’s battered image among voters. Photograph: Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images
Although the African National Congress election conference is still 11 months away, two senior party members have already emerged as leading contenders in the race to take over from scandal-plagued Jacob Zuma.
Cyril Ramaphosa, deputy president of both the ANC and the country, confirmed in December that he was willing to take on the mantel of leadership if called upon to do so by a majority of the party’s branch structures.
Speaking on South African radio station Power FM on December 14th, Ramaphosa said he was available to stand for the position of president in December 2017 if enough ordinary party members backed him.
“It would be very humbling to get into a key position like that, to lead,” Ramaphosa told his interviewer, before adding, “We are not there yet though. As the saying goes in English, do not count your chickens before they hatch.”
Ramaphosa’s decision to go public about his ambitions is against the ANC’s long-held view that leaders do not canvass for positions in the organisation, but rather wait to serve the will of its members at election time.
His stance also undermines the party’s stated goal of forging a new level of unity between ANC members who are divided by Zuma’s numerous scandals.
And it seems Ramaphosa is not the only one in the party breaking ranks. Last weekend at the ANC’s 105th birthday celebration, the party’s women’s league president, Bathabile Dlamini, officially anointed outgoing African Union chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma as their preferred candidate to lead the former liberation movement
ANC national spokesman Zizi Kodwa called the declaration premature, divisive and defiant of the party’s highest decision-making body, the national executive committee. The committee had called on structures to discuss the qualities of leaders at this stage of the election process, rather than backing individuals.
The women’s league hit back on Tuesday, saying it would not be persuaded to stop calling for the ANC to elect the party’s first ever woman president in December.
Indeed, the positions taken by both camps at this early stage of the electoral process would suggest that achieving party unity and healing internal divisions in the ANC will be extremely difficult.
Dlamini-Zuma is the president’s ex-wife and a political heavyweight in her own right, having held a number of ministerial positions in different ANC governments over the 15 years prior to her appointment as African Union chair four years ago.
While she has yet to publicly comment on her future plans, she recently declined to stand for a second four-year term with the African Union. Mother to three of the president’s children, she is believed to be Zuma’s preferred candidate, although he has not endorsed her publicly.
When Zuma came under attack at during a motion of no confidence debate last November, Dlamini-Zuma reportedly defended his right to see out his term in office.
While Dlamini-Zuma is seen as the early front-runner because of the support she could receive from Zuma loyalists, Ramaphosa’s challenge should not be discounted.
In November, union federation Cosatu endorsed the deputy president as its preferred candidate to lead the ANC. The South African Communist Party has also pegged its colours to his political mast. Furthermore, he is well-liked by many of the anti-Zuma members on the national executive.
Until his appointment as ANC deputy president in 2012, Ramaphosa had not been active in the party’s internal politics for nearly 15 years.
He was former ANC president Nelson Mandela’s preferred candidate to take over as leader at the party’s 1997 elective conference, but lost out to Thabo Mebki, a protegee of former ANC president Oliver Thambo’s.
Ramaphosa quit active politics at the highest level and went onto become one of South Africa’s most successful businessmen in the post-apartheid era, benefiting from numerous black economic empowerment deals.
His decision to return to active politics as Zuma’s deputy did much to ensure the latter was re-elected party leader in 2012.
ANC members had hoped Ramaphosa’s re-emergence would help repair the party’s battered image among an electorate, which has become increasingly dismayed with the corruption affecting many of its senior officials.
Still, it was not until mid-2016 that he began to speak out publicly against the corruption undermining the credibility of the ANC elites.
Gabriela Mackay, a political analyst at the Institute of Race Relations, told The Irish Times that despite being Mandela’s “chosen one” 20 years ago, it was very difficult to say whether he would get the ANC’s top job next December.
“The alliance behind Ramaphosa is an uneasy one ideologically, encompassing groups like Cosatu, the Young Communist League, and the anti-Zuma members of the NEC.” she said. “So the challenge is, how do you sell such a group to the ANC branches as a viable option to lead the movement?”