The African National Congress’s new leader must secure the balance of power in its top decision-making body, the national executive committee, to implement his election promise of purging corrupt officials from South Africa’s ruling party.
South Africa's deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa, beat his rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to the ANC's top job on Monday at the party's 54th national conference in Soweto, Gauteng Province.
But the moment was soured for him by the fact that three of his running mates for the party’s other top five positions lost out.
The ANC's newly-elected deputy general secretary, Jessie Duarte, secretary general Ace Magashule and deputy president David Mabuza are staunch allies of outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma. He had backed Dalmini-Zuma, his ex-wife, to succeed him.
Although the validity of Magashule's election victory on Monday for the secretary general post was being challenged by his defeated rival, Senzo Mchunu, until it is overturned he remains in the position.
As a result, the ANC’s new leadership team is effectively split down the middle between the party’s two main factions – a situation that could result in paralysis when it comes to pushing for new policies or acting against internal party corruption at that level.
The situation among the ANC’s top six seems even more compromised because both Magashule and Mabuza have been accused of corruption in their respective provinces.
However, if Ramaphosa – who played a key role in the Northern Ireland peace process as an IRA weapons inspector – can gain a majority in the 86-strong national executive committee, which should be elected before the conference ends on Wednesday, he would have the clout to override any dissension from his top aides.
The beleaguered Zuma has numerous corruption charges pending against him that he has desperately been fending off through the courts, at taxpayers’ expense, since he first became South Africa’s leader in 2009.
Dlamini Zuma has been sidelined by her election loss, leaving her ex-husband exposed. But he could try to turn to his high-placed allies in the party for protection during the remainder of his term as South African president, which ends in 2019.
Zuma’s legal situation puts him on a collision course with Ramaphosa, who promised party branches ahead of the elective conference that he would cleanse the ANC before the general election of 2019.
The party’s popularity with voters is on the decline, and one of the main reasons is the pervasive corruption that has seeped into the movement and government under Zuma’s watch.
For many observers the first step to reviving the ANC’s popularity involves Ramaphosa pushing for the party to recall Zuma from his position as South Africa’s president – as early as possible. It would also show voters in the run up to the election that Ramaphosa was a man of his word.
Richard Calland, associate professor of public law at the University of Cape Town, told The Irish Times that Ramaphosa is facing a particularly difficult task when it comes to uniting the ANC's top leaders behind him.
“There are now a lot of competing interests [in the ANC’s top six] that could try to block Ramaphosa from achieving his goals. However, the ultimate decision-making body in the ANC is the national executive committee.
“The NEC can recall Zuma from his stint as South Africa’s president early, as the party deployed him as its candidate for the position in the previous presidential election,” he said.
Asked whether he thought Ramaphosa’s camp had a good chance of filling the NEC with ANC members who would follow his lead, Calland said the best indicator of what that body’s make-up will be is the outcome of the party’s top six election.
“I think the NEC will reflect the top six in many respects. This is a very divided ANC and the divisions are reflected from the top down,” he said.
Calland concluded that if Ramaphosa could get more than 45 ANC members from his camp into the party's NEC, South Africa could see Zuma recalled by the party in the first few months of next year.
“If he can’t, then he will have to try and convince Jessie Duarte, Ace Magashule and David Mabuza that their political ambitions for the 2019 general election are not best served by having Zuma around during the party’s election campaign,” he concluded.
Ramaphosa, a former trade unionist known for his negotiating skills, could feasibly achieve this, but no doubt he would rather not have to try.