Murmurs of dissent audible in ANC ranks

William Mervin Gumede delineates and evaluates the diverse currents in the ANC ahead of its December national conference.

African National Congress Youth League president Malusi Gigaba fired the first shot in the battle to elect the next ANC leadership generation, when he declared, "The positions of president and his deputy are sacrosanct - there will be no challengers".

Battle will be declared at the ANC's national conference from December 16-20 in Stellenbosch, where delegates will elect new or retain current ANC leaders and endorse or modify present policies.

Mbeki has made it clear there will be no radical shifts in economic policy at the conference. Jeff Radebe, public enterprises minister, and close Mbeki ally, emphasises: "There will be no policy changes at the ANC conference. We will only look at the implementation strategy of current policies".

But, with its mind set on inducing policy changes in December, Cosatu has called a national 48-hour strike starting on 1 October, to protest against government economic policy. The South African Communist Party (SACP) supports the strike wholeheartedly.

Thabo Mbeki's position as president of the ANC is secure, despite criticism of his leadership by leftists in the tripartite alliance on several pivotal issues, especially privatisation of state-owned assets, the problem of rising unemployment, and the government's HIV/Aids policies.

For a brief period earlier this year it seemed that Mbeki's position was vulnerable, mainly over his handling of the HIV/Aids pandemic. Former president Nelson Mandela had to intervene. He publicly backed Mbeki for a second term in office in an attempt to halt speculation of a last-minute challenge to Mbeki at the ANC's December conference. "I would not support any other candidate for the presidency," Mandela said on a radio talk show in April.

The ANC's left, and all those in the broad church ANC alliance who are unhappy with the Mbeki government's policies, are keen to bring more independent candidates into the ANC's top posts. Of the top five positions, only the positions of Mbeki and ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe seem to be secure.

The top ANC leadership positions below Mbeki are deputy president (Jacob Zuma), general secretary (Kgalema Motlanthe), deputy general secretary (Thenjiwe Mthintso) and treasurer (Mendi Msimang). The position of national chairman (Mosiuoa Lekota) is seen as largely ceremonial.

ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma's position is particularly vulnerable. Different lobbies are independently trying to persuade Lekota to challenge Zuma at the conference. Though Lekota is mum on his possible nomination, ANC insiders say he is weighing his options and is consulting key figures.

That has apparently infuriated the Mbeki-camp. They have interpreted Lekota's public observation that Mbeki's quiet diplomacy had failed in Zimbabwe as a sign that he would consider standing for the deputy presidency. The response was swift. The ANC leadership demanded Lekota retract his offending statements. But instead of retracting his earlier criticism, Lekota defended himself, saying it was his personal view.

ANC spokesman and NEC member Smuts Ngonyama states: "There are no challenges for the deputy presidency at the upcoming national conference. But, obviously, if he [Lekota] wants to challenge for the position, it is his democratic right to do so." If Lekota ignores the national leadership and challenges Zuma, Mbeki supporters are lining up provincial & local government minister Sydney Mufamadi and Limpopo premier Ngoaka Ramatlhodi as candidates to take over Lekota's national chairmanship. Both are fierce Mbeki loyalists.

Associates of Ramatlhodi say he was bitterly disappointed that he did not get the post of safety and security minister after the former incumbent Steve Tshwete's death. It was given to SACP chairman Charles Nqakula instead. His position as premier of Limpopo is shaky as many ANC members there resent his uncritical loyalty to Mbeki. One Ramatlhodi associate says, "Having failed to secure the safety and security post, a senior position in the ANC would be a just reward for his loyalty to the president".

Leading black businessman and former Gauteng premier Tokyo Sexwale has declined requests by ANC members to accept a nomination for a top job in the ANC. Some ANC branches, notably in Gauteng, North West and Limpopo provinces, are pushing Sexwale, Mvelaphanda Resources Group chairman, to stand for the powerful position of ANC treasurer. ANC veteran Mendi Msimang holds the position at present. Sexwale says: "When I opted for the corporate world, it was a well thought-out strategic decision. I am very comfortable where I am".

The Mbeki-camp is also thinking of nominating housing minister Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele for Mthintso's position as deputy general secretary. Mthembi-Mahanyele is a close Mbeki ally. Mthintso's support is firmly among the Left. Ngonyama says the nominations have not been finalised.

The election of a new national executive is going to be crucial to the ANC's future and that of its president. Mbeki needs a majority of supporters on the NEC. At the 1997 ANC conference, the ANC left failed to secure a majority, leaving Mbeki supporters to dominate the current ANC NEC. The left has a second chance at the December conference.
The provincial ANC conferences have served as a pre-run of the likely battles expected at the December conference.

The provincial conferences, which elected new provincial ANC chairs and debated government policies, saw candidates regarded as pro-Mbeki and favoured by the national leadership generally losing out to local "grassroots"-backed candidates.

The ANC national leadership has been struggling to lift morale in the provinces. Rising disillusionment with centrally appointed premiers and the slow delivery of social services has provided ample space for "dissident" or alternative ANC leaders to emerge.

The ANC national leadership fears sentiment against candidates seen to be pro-Mbeki could spill into the ANC's December national conference at Stellenbosch.

Thus the ANC's national leadership is not keen to see "dissident" provincial leaders elected in time to raise their voices at the conference. It fears such leaders may form alternative power blocs, which could challenge central government policies.

In March, Mpumalanga premier Ndaweni Mahlangu spectacularly lost the provincial ANC chairmanship to the popular "Fish" Mahlalela. Mbeki appointed Mahlangu, a former bantustan (KwaNdebele) leader, as premier in 1999, using a new ANC policy which empowers the President to appoint premiers.

"The (ANC) grassroots are sending a message that they are unhappy with some of Mbeki's policy stances, especially on HIV/Aids and the lack of jobs," says an ANC leader in Mpumalanga who campaigned vigorously for Mahlalela. "As Mbeki is untouchable, the local membership showed their unhappiness by challenging the man (Mahlangu) most associated with him in the province," the ANC source adds.

Mahlangu lost despite Mbeki having sent the late safety and security minister Steve Tshwete, one of his most trusted trouble-shooters, to the province ahead of the conference to shore up Mahlangu's support after local figures openly rebelled against him.

There were ugly scenes at the North West provincial conference in June when local ANC members shouted derogatory slogans about ANC MP Thandi Modise, who was seen as "Mbeki's candidate". Modise stood against incumbent Popo Molefe for the provincial chair of the ANC. She was decisively beaten.

Other ANC provincial premiers appointed by Mbeki and seen by ANC grassroots as "Mbeki's-candidate" or the "national leadership's candidate" have gone the way of Mahlangu. Winkie Direko, premier of the Free State, lost out to popular outsider Ace Magashule. Direko lost even after Lutuli House had sent in a senior team led by Public Enterprises Minister Jeff Radebe to try to bolster Direko's position.

The position of Makhenkesi Stofile, premier of the Eastern Cape is also precarious. Mluleki George, chairman of parliament's safety and security portfolio committee has been nominated to challenge him for the chair of the provincial party.

Already the powerful OR Tambo region of the Eastern Cape, which includes Umtata, has sent Mbeki a memorandum calling for Stofile to be fired for incompetence and redeployed. Mkhuseli Jack, a prominent ANC figure and former UDF activist, has even gone so far as to write Mbeki a letter, dated 21 June, accusing Stofile's provincial government of mismanagement, corruption and inefficiency.

"The premier's (Stofile) political authority is totally diminished. The sad consequence of this is that he has harmed himself politically and it will be impossible to recapture his authority," Jack wrote to Mbeki.

Stofile, seeing the writing on the wall, initially decided not to contest the chair position at the provincial conference scheduled for late August/ early September. But he changed his mind after the national leadership persuaded him to stand "for the sake of continuity and stability". The perceived support from the national leadership could backfire against Stofile.

The position of Limpopo premier Ramatlhodi, one of Mbeki's closest allies in the provinces, is as insecure as Direko's was.

So far, Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa is the only centrally appointed premier to have won the chairmanship of the party as well. He was elected late last year. The political bases of provincial ANC leaders where the ANC is not in charge - Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal - do not seem too secure either.

The SACP July congress in Rustenburg is also sure to have an effect on the leadership outcome at the ANC's conference in December. There was a concentrated attempt to oust Mbeki-ites from the central committee of the SACP at the congress. Two senior pro-Mbeki men, Essop Pahad (minister in the presidency) and Jeff Radebe (public enterprises minister), were voted off the SACP central committee.

Geraldine Fraser Moleketi and Alec Erwin, the public service and trade and industry ministers, saw the writing on the wall and decided before the SACP congress not to stand.

The humiliation of Pahad and Radebe has added another dynamic to the ANC's December conference. It might see concerted moves to prevent prominent communists from securing re-election to the national executive as retaliation for the exclusion of Pahad and Radebe from the SACP central committee.

"There is likely going to be an all-out struggle by the Mbeki-camp to prevent left candidates being elected to the ANC NEC," says one ANC leader. In anticipation of a possible purge, SACP general secretary Blade Nzimande is considering not standing for re-election to the ANC's NEC. If he decides to withdraw as a candidate, it will be the first time in half a century that the SACP general secretary does not sit on the ANC's NEC - a clear indication of growing divisions within the ANC alliance.