And so it begins…

For those of you back at home in the UK the opening today of the African National Congress (ANC) Conference in Mangaung won’t have registered, but here in South Africa the build up to this conference has been a consistent feature of the news since the day I arrived back in September.

Given its significance, beyond solely South Africa, I thought I would provide a quick guide to what is actually going on for those back home that are interested. I should add however that, like all political systems, South African politics is complex and if in my attempt to simplify slightly if I have missed anything out or made any mistakes I’m sorry!

 So what actually is Mangaung?

The party conference occurs every five years and, amongst other things, sees the party delegates elect their executive committee for the next five years. These positions are the President, Deputy President, National Chairperson, Secretary General, Deputy Secretary General and Treasurer General


Jacob Zuma is the current President who is seeking re-election.

Why does it matter?

Well it matters for a number of reasons. Firstly, barring something unbelievably monumental it is highly likely that the ANC will win the next general election in 2014 and therefore whoever wins will be the next country President and will be in power until 2019. It is therefore not surprising that most South Africans, ANC voters or not, have at least some vested interest in how it turns out.

Secondly it matters for the rest of the African continent. Although South Africa has suffered the effects of the global recession in recent years it is still very much a leader on the African continent with the biggest economy and an undeniable political clout. For example it was only earlier on this year that (current) President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife Noksazana Dlamini-Zuma  was elected head of the African Union Commission after being heavily pushed by South Africa, against fierce competition from incumbent Jean Ping who was supported by much of Francophone Africa.

Thirdly it matters for the ANC as a party. In power since 1994 the party which fought against apartheid is increasingly finding itself torn apart by internal corruption and factionalism, whilst also facing criticism from the population for what is perceived to be slow progress in development. The ANC is one of the oldest, and most recognised African political parties on the continent and how it deals with these issues will be critical both in terms of the party’s legitimacy both within the country and internationally.

A bit of background to the conference

South Africa hasn’t really had the best couple of years politically or economically as a recent Economist article pointed out highlighting the slowing growth rate, decreasing foreign investment and poor performance in many social indicators such as education (South Africa was recently rated 132nd out of 144 by the World Economic Forum for primary education).

coverThe article which has now become infamous in South Africa

Whilst some have argued against the points made in the article more of the criticism has been focused on the tone rather than the content (patronising, unhelpful etc). Many in South Africa are all too aware of some of the key challenges the country faces and the Marikana mining disaster in August this year, during which the South African Police Service opened fire on striking mineworkers at a Lomin mine killing 34 miners on one day, the worst day of such violence since the Sharpeville massacre under apartheid, has futher highlighted some of the tensions and issues which the government faces in an ever-changing country.

Aside from the social and economic issues some of South Africa’s politicians haven’t exactly helped themselves. In particular the current president, Jacob Zuma, has found himself the subject of numerous corruption allegations (he has been charged in the past with the charges dropped under less than transparent circumstances). The most recent scandal to hit was when it was alleged that millions of taxpayers money was being used to fund upgrades to his homestead in his home town (dubbed KwaZulu-Natal’s Disney Land). This then escalated when opposition leader Helen Zille tried to ‘march’ to the homestead but was refused access. Again this escalated even further when Zille referred to this building as a compound, a term that was used and remains associated with apartheid, which then led to accusations of racist language.

Add to this suspicion around what has been dubbed a ‘Secrecy Bill’ which will see anyone who releases/uses classified information publicly facing an automatic jail term, even when it can be proved that it is in the public interest as well as recent incidents where it appears as though political interference has resulted in the withdrawl of media deemed ‘offensive’ to the president and you have a very unsettled political climate.

We should also not forget (well, I certainly can’t) that Zuma is the guy who has spoken openly about knowingly having unprotected sex with a HIV+ woman (who he was actually accused of raping and was then acquitted) and when questioned in court said that he took a shower post-sex as a form of protection. All while he was head of the national AIDS commission.

Given his colourful past you may ask how it is that Zuma ended up as President and for this you have to go back to 2007, and to the last ANC conference which was held at Polokwane. It was at this conference that long-term fractions within the party came to the fore as incumbent ANC President, and President of South Africa at the time, Thabo Mbeki was unceremoniously ousted by Zuma and his supporters. In what was a bit of a shock election Mbeki found himself no longer party president in what was the first time a position had been contested in the nearly 100 years of ANC history. To make matters worse (for Mbeki) whilst officially he was expected to carry on as country President till the next general election in 2009 he was then ‘fired’ from the party in 2008[1], leaving a space open for Zuma to enter.

How does the Mangaung process work?

In order to be re-elected at Mangaung, Zuma first needs to be nominated which is a process which reaches from the local branches and started many months ago. Firstly each branch of the ANC throughout the country has a meeting to decide who they would like to nominate for each of the positions on the executive committee. These branches them come together at the provincial level and each province (there are 9 in South Africa) as a whole puts forward who they would like to nominate for each post. For example the Eastern Cape have nominated Zuma as President whilst Limpopo have nominated current deputy Kgalema Motlanthe. People do not put themselves forward to be nominated, they have to come from the branches.

This process is far from smooth with allegations of corruption being made at both the branch and provincial level. Just to give you a taste I was recently sat in a taxi listening to the radio as they talked about the Limpopo nomination meeting at which the list of delegates who were at the meeting and able to vote had been stolen in the morning only to reappear in the evening. This led many Zuma supporters to claim that the list had been doctored (everything is done on paper rather than electronically – in order to reduce the risk of manipulation ironically) and many walked out and Montlanthe was nominated. Whilst all of this was being spoken about the taxi driver next to me just shook his head with painful resignation and muttered something in Xhosa which I shall not repeat (he didn’t realise I understood him and was mortified when I told him I did!).

Alongside each province the ANC youth league and the Women’s league also get to put forward their own nominations (the first of which is a whole other blog post in itself). Once these have all been done these nominations go forward to the conference where each of those nominated either accepts their nomination and runs for the post, or declines it.

Once at the conference the final vote on each of the positions is cast by the delegates who are there with each province sending a certain number of delegates. This number is decided no in terms of population but rather in terms of ANC membership. Those provinces with the larger ANC membership will have more delegates at the conference. And the final decision lies with the Secretary General who decides which branches can, and cannot send delegates with often those in good standing being offered more spaces. This last point is important as it highlights some of the ethnic dimensions of the political process which come into play.

Traditionally the Eastern Cape has been the heartland of the ANC producing many of it’s leaders such as Mandela, Walter Sislu, Oliver Tambo and most recently Thabo Mbeki, all of whom were isiXhosa. This has meant that usually the Eastern Cape has the highest number of delegates. Zuma is isiZulu and at this conference the highest number of delegates will be coming from his home province of Kwazulu-Natal which has seen an increase in ANC membership in recent years, likely attributable to Zuma’s leadership. Conversely the membership of the Eastern Cape has decreased. This means that the largest say about whether Zuma will continue to be in power is with his own supporters.

Can anyone challenge Zuma?

This is the question that everyone has been asking. The only likely candidate that was put forward was Kgalema Motlanthe but until two days ago it wasn’t clear whether he would accept his nomination or not. But he has which means that there is at least going to be a contest. How much of a contest it is not yet clear although few seem to think that he stands any real chance.

Kgalema-Motlanthe-31-May.jpgCan Motlanthe pose a serious challenge?

If this whole post seems a little lacking in policy this isn’t me just being lazy, but rather reflects what appears to be a dominance of personality and popularity over what it is that each candidate represents. This may be in part due to the fact that, as contenders do not accept their nomination till very close to the conference, there is no time or space for them to establish a policy platform for themselves. Rather the papers are filled with stories of who will side with whom[2].

What do South African’s think?

In my no way representative discussions with my South African friends and colleagues there are two things that have really stood out:

1. People are getting sick with the old guard leadership of the ANC and the personality politics which dominates. They are tired and are looking for a new generation of leaders to take the party forward but as yet don’t see this coming from anywhere.

2. This will not stop them voting for the ANC or at least will not lead them to vote for the opposition as it currently stands. Whilst the main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance Party, has made major gains in recent years including taking control of the Western Province,  to many it is still not seen as a viable party either because it is too ‘white’ and the idea of a white leader (albeit a very liberal one) is still too difficult, or, because what black members there are within the DA are seen to be from the emerging middle class which is still alien to much of the black population.

But I guess what makes me really sad is the number of people, particularly young people, who I have spoken to say that in the next election they just won’t vote. They cannot bring themselves to vote for the ANC leaders as they are, yet can’t see themselves voting for someone else. This sense of resignation, less than 20 years after the first every free elections, is both heartbreaking and a sorry reflection of how people are starting to feel about the party which once led them to freedom.

[1] He was ‘recalled’ as it was adjudged that he had used corruption charges against Zuma for political means when he had fired him as Deputy President in 2005. Mbeki has consistently denied this and the corruption cloud over Zuma continues to loiter.

[2] There isn’t space to go into all of the possible King Makers here but key names to look out for are Cyril Ramaphosa and Tokyo Sexwale amongst many others


About raqueld83

A social policy PhD student with a passion for young people and all things (South) African. Currently embarking on a year of fieldwork in this amazing country - read on for updates on my (mis)adventures.
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