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Why the ANC’s leadership race is wide open

Unresolved lawsuits could affect who attends the elective conference and branches could switch allegiances.

The race to lead South Africa’s ruling African National Congress is in overdrive. While current nomination tallies from the ANC’s branches indicate that Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa has the edge ahead of the party’s national elective conference that starts December 16, its voting structure and procedures mean his main rival Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma could still win. The victor is likely to become the country’s next president. 

1. What’s at stake?

The ANC holds a national conference every five years to pick its top leadership. Because the ANC has held power in South Africa since apartheid ended in 1994, the winning candidates typically go on to top positions in the government. Jacob Zuma, the nation’s current president, won control of the ANC from Thabo Mbeki in December 2007 and took office in May 2009.

2. Why isn’t Zuma running again?

While the ANC’s rules don’t explicitly ban Zuma from running for a third term, they specify that the party’s leader must be its presidential candidate in national elections. The constitution limits the nation’s president to serving a maximum of two five-year terms, and Zuma’s time will be up in 2019. The party will probably be loath to bend the rules to keep Zuma on — his immersion in a succession of scandals has eroded its support and cost the ANC control of Johannesburg, the economic hub, and Pretoria, the capital, in last year’s municipal elections. 

3. Who decides the ANC’s leadership race?

The 5 240 voting delegates who will attend the conference. The ANC’s branches will be represented 4 731 delegates. The incumbent leadership structures in the nine provinces will send 27 delegates each, the party’s national executive committee has 86 delegates and three leagues representing the youth, women and veterans have 60 delegates each. While the party has previously elected a president, deputy president, secretary-general, deputy secretary-general, chairperson, treasurer-general, it is considering proposals to enlarge its leadership structure, which would enable it to accommodate more members of competing factions.

4. What do the nomination tallies show?

Ramaphosa, one of the wealthiest black South Africans who has served as Zuma’s deputy president since 2014, secured the endorsement of 1 860 branches for the ANC presidency and majority backing in five provinces, while Dlamini-Zuma, the former chairwoman of the African Union Commission and the president’s ex-wife, was backed by 1 330 branches and had the most support in the remaining four regions. There are enough undeclared votes for Ramaphosa’s lead to be wiped out.

5. What are the two leading candidates promising?

Ramaphosa has pledged to revive the ailing economy, reduce a 28% unemployment rate and combat corruption if elected, while Dlamini-Zuma has echoed Zuma’s call for “radical economic transformation” to place more of the country’s wealth in the hands of the black majority.

6. How do endorsements translate into votes?

The number of branches don’t correlate with the number of provincial delegates because some bigger branches — known as super-branches — can send more than one delegate. While delegates are supposed to vote as instructed by their branches, there’s no guarantee they will because the ballot is secret. The nomination tallies and stated preferences of the leagues indicate that Ramaphosa should win 54% to 56 of the vote, according to the South African Institute of Race Relations’s modeling, although its chief executive officer Frans Cronje stresses that his victory still isn’t assured.

7. What could sway the vote?

Unresolved lawsuits and internal party disputes could still affect who attends the elective conference. Delegates could be bribed in exchange for their votes — a concern raised by several of the ANC’s top leaders — as could the representatives from 223 branches in Mpumalanga province who want the ANC to elect a consensus candidate and so far have declined to say whom they support. There were also branches in some of the other provinces that didn’t endorse anyone or nominated one of the five other presidential candidates who stand little chance of winning. These branches could now switch their allegiances.

© 2017 Bloomberg

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