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Khaya Sithole unpacks the ANC’s national elective conference

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FIFI PETERS: Politics is the name of the Market Update today (Monday, 19 December). We are continuing with our analysis of the ANC’s 55th Elective Conference that took place over the weekend. Usually what you would find on important events like this and important outcomes like this are statements being issued by key business groups here in South Africa. I’m talking about Business Leadership South Africa and Busa, Business Unity South Africa, even Sacci, the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry. But a lot of the CEOs and some of these business leaders have already gone on leave. In fact, most people, smart people, took their leave from 15 December, last week. So we haven’t really had or seen a reaction from them.

Fortunately, we do have an independent analyst who’s given us his time this evening, who was also not smart enough to take leave [laughing], Khaya Sithole. It’s been a long time, sir.

KHAYA SITHOLE: Yes, it has been. Good evening to you and the listeners.

FIFI PETERS: Good evening, Khaya. Just your initial impressions of the outcome of the ANC’s Elective Conference, and I suppose specifically starting with the makeup of the top seven? Is this what you saw coming and what do you make of them?

KHAYA SITHOLE: I think obviously the big question for a lot of people was whether the president was going to retain his position. I think that mattered more than most other positions because, at the end of the day, the understanding that we have is that it is the president who then has to impress upon the rest of the top six and now the top seven, the rest of the NEC (ANC National Executive Committee) and the rest of government, what his own particular agenda is. That is really what people are buying into.

Over the past couple of weeks there’s obviously been [great] anxiety regarding the president’s own position.

We do know that he considered resigning a couple of weeks ago when the Phala Phala report came through and obviously his foot soldiers impressed upon him that it was not in anyone’s interest for him to step aside. But of course he then came through to the conference and he also emerged victorious in the conference.

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So that was the big story – whether he was going to retain his position. The reason that mattered a lot is that, unfortunately, because for a long time it was just assumed that he was going to get a second term, a lot of people never deliberated on [who] the alternative candidates would be, what the policies or the ideological orientation of those alternative candidates would be, and of course whether those were the type of policies that the country wanted.

So it became a belated process where people would then say, well, hold on, what happens if the president cannot stand, either because of Phala Phala or for some other reason? Or, if he doesn’t win, what do we know about the alternative candidates? Will they stick to the same agenda that he’s been trying to put together for the past five years and, if not, what exactly is going to be the new agenda? So the anxieties were really based on that.

I think now that the president has emerged, there’s a whole lot of relief from a lot of circles that I’ve spoken to on the fact that at least we don’t have to engage and deliberate on questions of the new president is, what they want and how they’re going to make it happen.

FIFI PETERS: But what do you make of the latest sort of legal case that now the president has been drawn into on the part of the former president, and what that ultimately means for his ability to stay the course and focus on this reform agenda?

KHAYA SITHOLE: The key thing about that particular case is that it was very clear that, because it was a last-minute action, it was a political rather than a legal step. So anyone who could see that could see that there probably wasn’t much merit in it, otherwise these issues [would] have been ventilated much earlier. It was simply designed as a process to then pose to the delegates at the conference to say, wait, hold on, did you not sign up for the policy five years ago, let’s say, that whoever has charges against them must step aside.

Unfortunately, what those people who issued the letter seem to have missed is that the ANC has always been very clear that it must be legitimate law-enforcement agencies that have put a case against the person, that that is the basis for stepping aside.

A private prosecution is not something that the ANC had ever imagined would ever be the basis the basis for anyone stepping aside. So that was the first problem. It was simply too late.

And I think also the timing of it simply meant that by the time some delegates who [got] to the conference, a lot of them were already on their way to Nasrec, driving from different provinces. By the time this was issued, it wasn’t an issue that had gained the type of traction that they expected it to have.

Unless you were on Twitter, you didn’t even know that such a thing had been put up – I don’t even call it a case, so you didn’t even know that such a thing had been put up. So unfortunately, it was a political move that just never fired because it was just way too late and everyone could see right through it.

FIFI PETERS: Do you think it’s significant, the quantum or the number of votes that President Cyril Ramaphosa won by this time around? What is often cited is the fact that his victory at the previous of conference against the previous candidate, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, was pretty slim, although Dr Zweli Mkhize did come in fighting. But the president won by a wider margin than he did at the last conference. Do you reckon that is significant, and do you reckon that speaks to the popularity and perhaps even the likability that President Ramaphosa has gained in the past five years within his own party?

KHAYA SITHOLE: No. I actually have a different view and my view is that looking at the margin itself sort of dilutes the essence of what the picture is. In 2017 President Cyril Ramaphosa was actually the underdog. I think if you looked at the delegate who arrived at Nasrec on day one, the momentum was it was all Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. And until some delegates were actually disqualified on the first day on the basis that there were pending cases regarding their legitimacy, and also the fact that then David Mabuza did that last-minute switch, that victory that the President had in Nasrec was actually a massive last-minute turnaround. So that, for me, had a much greater impact.

What we saw here is that Zweli Mkhize’s campaign was not the same campaign as Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s in 2017. A campaign that is quite methodical starts quite long in advance, and everybody knows exactly what it is that they’re pursuing. So in 2017, she had a much greater sense of momentum.

With the Mkhize campaign, it did feel like part of it was really [an] afterthought. You didn’t see him travelling across the country, trying to convince different provinces to back his candidature.

And even when the nominations came in, with the exception of KZN and the ANC Youth League, he actually did not get a universal endorsement from different provinces.

So that indicates that the president had a huge margin coming in. His margin of victory reflects what the momentum was. And in fact one might argue that the margin of 579 is much smaller than it should have been, given the momentum that he had. When you get backed by eight out of nine provinces and all the leaders except the Youth League, you’d think you should get a much greater margin of victory than this one. So that’s the first part.

The second question that tends to emerge is whether people then say, well, because his margin is greater this time, it means that he’s got a much greater mandate, he’s got a much stronger mandate. I don’t think that’s the case.

I think his mandate is the same as it was and has been over the past five years, and the people said, look, you are the president of the ANC and, unless you screw up spectacularly, we are not in the habit of removing an ANC president. So that was just a reflection of that. Mkhize had to be the one that won, and he quite simply did not put a strong enough case for delegates to say ‘we are going to abandon a sitting president of the ANC’.

FIFI PETERS: Okay. So do you then think, given the fact that President Cyril Ramaphosa had more of a head start here, and the fact that he didn’t win by as much as he should have in your view, that was down to Phala Phala?

KHAYA SITHOLE: I think Phala Phala definitely played a role in getting a lot more candidates to start asking questions that they were not entertaining until a few days ago when the Phala Phala report came in. And those are the questions that probably started emerging, I think, at the end of September when Former President Thabo Mbeki started asking ANC members to say, wait, hold on, what happens if the reports that are currently pending come out say something against the president? Have we started deliberating on that? So a lot of people just said, no, it’s simply not possible.

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A lot of people thought that the parliamentary report was surprising in the fact that it found against the president, in at least as it said that there were questions that he needed to answer, and there was a process that needed to be taken forward. So on the basis of people having seen that surprise, it then made it easier for people who were lobbying for him to be removed to say well, actually this man is not the innocent vanilla-candidate that we’ve thought he was for the past five years.

He is a candidate who has a cloud hanging over him. So if you are sitting on the fence as [to] a candidate, then perhaps this is a reason that you switch. And then you say, well, actually, until you clear that particular cloud over your head, perhaps you are not the candidate we should be voting for.

Tragically for the candidate, the only other candidate on the ballot was someone who has a longstanding cloud hanging over him. So it wasn’t really the type of decision that said, oh dear, you have a cloud. Let me go to the clean slate. There was no such [situation].

FIFI PETERS: All right. Khaya, we will leave it there for now, thanks so much for your analysis. [We] enjoy your analysis and your thoughts on the political economy of South Africa always. He is an independent analyst, Khaya Sithole.

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