As factional politics in the ANC comes to a head, it is obvious to state that there will be winners and losers. The $64 000 question is: Who will win and by how much? In this high stakes contest, the policy and future prospects of South Africa depend on the outcome. Politics, not economics, is the primary driver of the country’s future. Analysing and projecting political trends into the future is always difficult. On some issues there is reliable information upon which sound inferences might be drawn. On other issues, where there is imperfect information, drawing inferences and making projections is problematic.
A desire for certainty or a particular outcome in the factional conflict should not gloss over the uncertainty and taint an expected outcome. Identifying the areas where credible inferences can be drawn and demarcating them from the uncertain aspects leads to better political risk assessment of democratic stability and policy volatility.
South African politics is quite peculiar. The governing party, the ANC, is divided internally and shrouded in controversy and corruption at national, provincial and local level. This should provide the opposition with infinite ammunition and opportunity to attack the ANC and weaken its hold on power. Instead, opposition party support is declining (DA) or plateauing (EFF) with their influence in elected bodies decreasing rather than increasing.
More and smaller parties are grabbing seats and diluting opposition to the ANC. There are many contributing factors to continued ANC dominance, but the fragmentation of the opposition enables the ANC, even with declining support, to keep its head above 50% of most municipalities, provinces and in Parliament. Post 2016, local government coalitions also did not enhance the credibility of the many parties in coalitions at local level, enabling the ANC to escape some criticism.
Constitutional Pragmatists vs. Radical Economic Transformers
In terms of the so-called “known knowns”, it is clear that the ANC is divided between two main groupings: the Constitutional Pragmatists (CP) aligned to ANC and South African President, and the Radical Economic Transformers (RET) loyal to former President Zuma and current ANC Secretary General, Ace Magashule. Recently, the former President has gone further and questioned South Africa’s constitutional democracy, calling for a simple parliamentary majority system. While Zuma’s call for majoritarian democracy might have more to do with his battles in the Constitutional Court, his corruption cases and refusal to appear before the Zondo Commission, it adds an additional dimension to the anti-CP agenda in terms of the future stability and sustainability of South Africa’s constitutional system of government.
It is also clear that the ANC Parliamentary Caucus is divided along this line as demonstrated in the recent vote on the suitability of the Public Protector. In that vote, 62 ANC MPs did not cast a vote and it is fair to assume that most of them nailed their colours to the RET mast. Several known RET figures voted for the motion and did not break party discipline. This means that at least 25% of the ANC Caucus is RET and this is likely to be even higher.
“Stand aside” resolution victory
The crucial ANC NEC meeting in late March provided further insight into ANC leadership dynamics. This body, the highest decision-making body of the ANC between conferences, had to clarify and then implement a long-standing controversial matter, that of the “stand aside” resolution taken in 2017, which stipulates that leaders charged with serious offences must vacate their positions. The CP won this one and Magashule has about three weeks now to stand down or face suspension and disciplinary action.
But does this NEC victory indicate a fundamental shift in power away from the RET faction? Based on NEC outcomes, this faction has had the upper hand since 2018, albeit with a slender majority. Have the CP been able to finally swing NEC members over to their camp through inducements, cajoling, career offers or even, unlikely as it may be, RET aligned people undergoing a “Road to Damascus” change of loyalty? There is no clear indication of whether this victory is a permanent realignment.
The reason why caution is necessary in evaluating the recent NEC outcome is that there are a number of possible motivations for RET NEC members to support the CP on this single issue. Magashule is a potential electoral liability for the upcoming local government elections and is disposable. Furthermore, the RET faction may have jettisoned Magashule as they know that his replacement will likely be the current ANC Deputy Secretary General, Jessie Duarte, who recently attacked the Zondo Commission through a published letter.
Magashule’s removal will not necessarily change the power balance
As Acting SG, the RET power-hold over ANC administration and branches management in Luthuli House is in safe hands. The CP faction will then be able to appoint a supporter in Duarte’s place as Acting DSG giving them a touch more influence in the daily affairs of Luthuli House. In short, throwing Magashule under the bus does not necessarily indicate a permanent shift in the NEC power balance.
The RET faction, before and after the key NEC meeting, began mobilising support for Magashule and Zuma, and even released a RET policy manifesto. They went further in stating that only ANC branches, or an elective conference, have the power to remove ANC office bearers. At the level of both policy and procedure, the RET faction was challenging the very foundation of the ANC in a fight for the heart and soul of the party.
Factional sparring to continue despite ban
The post NEC statement revealed a clear banning of all factional activity with the threat of disciplinary action against those who continued in this vein. This statement too does not reveal a clear realignment of NEC power as the call for unity is the best cover for factional activity. ANC Treasurer General, Paul Mashatile, a major player in Ramaphosa’s narrow Unity 2017 victory, is calling for caution in acting against the RET grouping while Northern Cape Premier, Zamani Saul, foresees the emergence of a new party out of the RET faction.
This shows the discord within the ANC itself on the status of the RET faction within ANC structures. Furthermore, current COGTA Minister and 2017 ANC President contender, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, recently stated that RET is inherent in the Freedom Charter, a lodestar ANC policy document. Magashule has since echoed this in declaring that RET is ANC policy. This suggests that the factional activity will continue and take innovative forms within the ambit of established ANC practices and policies in the ongoing struggle for dominance.
A possible split in the ANC?
Will these skirmishes and battles lead to a split in the ANC? If the CP faction is able to establish that it is a small group with limited influence, they may pursue disciplinary action resulting in their expulsion. The ANC has done this before in dealing with small faction and this is how the UDM and EFF came about in recent times with the expulsion of Bantu Holomisa, Julius Malema and Floyd Shivambu respectively. The expelled RET people may then form a new entity as per Zamani Saul’s view. On the other hand, if neither faction knows how strong they are in relation to each other, the battle will continue up until the electoral conference in 2022 with the losing faction possibly resigning on mass to form a new party, as was the case with COPE.
The RET faction is also trying to subvert the NEC decision on “stand aside” by linking the process to branches and an electoral conference. This gets to the crux of the matter in the ANC factional battle. It all comes down to numbers – the number of branch delegates who participate in policy and electoral conferences, and the number of members in branches for them to be quorate and legitimate. It is well known that questionable branch and membership creation has and will continue to distort ANC internal politics. The ANC SG is responsible for managing all of these processes. This is partly why Duarte will be accepted as Magashule’s replacement.
Where do the branches stand?
Magashule seems to know something we don’t, which is why he continues to call for the branches to be involved. Or perhaps he is gambling. There is little doubt that since 2018, he and others in Luthuli House have been engaging in branch enhancing activities while working actual branches to build up support for the RET faction. If it comes down the branches, it is anyone’s guess which way it will go.
Will the CP faction in the next two years be in a position, based on their current victories, to influence the branches away from RET? What will Deputy ANC and South African President, DD Mabuza, do with his branch support that was crucial to Ramaphosa’s 2017 victory? What do his recent overtures to the RET faction mean? Most importantly, will there be an internal audit of the branches to establish their standing? If this were to happen, it would indicate a strong shift of power towards the CP faction.
Future policy direction
All the dynamics above are of the utmost importance in predicting ANC future policy direction. Sometime in 2021, the ANC will hold its National General Council (NGC). This gathering of branch-nominated representatives, convenes to assess the ANC’s performance in government. It is a kind of performance review, not a decision-making conference and it is highly unlikely that the RET faction will propose removing Ramaphosa as ANC President there. What is likely to happen at the NGC is the mounting of a concerted and orchestrated campaign by the RET faction.
This will include issues such as deviation from previous Conference resolutions on land expropriation, a state bank, nationalising the Reserve Bank, establishing a sovereign wealth fund, and ownership of mines. Magashule recently stated this explicitly and declared that “The [South African] economy must be in the hands of the African people”. The increase in poverty and unemployment will also be part of this assault couched as a failure to implement policy to improve the lives of citizens.
The CP faction seems to be expecting this and the Minister of Finance, Tito Mboweni, has tweeted his support for a state bank and other policies. Does Mboweni genuinely believe that they will contribute to rebuilding South Africa’s economy? Or is he flying a kite to defuse a policy confrontation at the NGC? Whatever the Minister’s intentions, these statements contribute to policy uncertainty and volatility and are counterproductive. If it is a political strategy, then it shows again how South African politics negatively affects the business climate and investor confidence.
If ANC policy and leadership is determined by branch delegates, then it is crucial where the balance of power lies deep within ANC local branches, the local patronage networks, and their cynical power politics. The short answer is nobody knows, including Magashule and Ramaphosa. Both will have support in parts of the country, but it will come down to critical mass. This means there is significant risk in the current situation, despite the CP faction making some noticeable indicative gains that do not demonstrate the weakening of the RET faction. The factional war will stumble from battle to battle, hindering government from executing existing policy and responding to pressing economic challenges.
About Professor Ivor Sarakinsky
Professor Ivor Sarakinsky has been Dynasty’s primary consulting political analyst for some years now. He is a Senior Lecturer at the Wits School of Governance and holds a PhD in Political Studies from the University of the Witwatersrand. His teaching and research interests include political philosophy, comparative and South African politics, public governance and the green economy.
He has achieved much in his career — for example he was an expert for the ANC’s legal team in the Idasa case; previously served as Chief Director in the Economic Development Department, and his work has been published in reputable international scholarly journals as well as the EISA Election Update 2014.
This article has been exclusively written for Dynasty clients.