ANC heavies jockey for the ultimate prize

William Mervin Gumede appraises the chances of the prospective candidates vying to succeed Mbeki.

Summary - Who will succeed Thabo Mbeki? Few questions are more widely debated within the ANC, but the discussions are kept strenuously out of the public ear. To talk openly of one’s leadership hopes, in ANC culture, is to sabotage one’s chances. Recall what happened to Tokyo Sexwale in 1996. The former Gauteng premier was a prime contender for the top job but when his ambitions became too widely known he was elbowed aside by then deputy president Mbeki and his supporters, who spread the damaging claim that Sexwale was only in politics to serve himself, not the people. Deputy president Jacob Zuma learned the lesson well and publicly insists that he has no leadership ambitions. Privately, he probably feels that he has earned his spurs by working his way up through the ranks and loyally playing a supporting role like a true selfless cadre. Once a favourite, Zuma now elicits only derision in Mbeki’s inner circle. Undeterred, he has been quietly positioning himself as president-in-waiting, honing his skills in the Burundi mediation efforts and as spokesman for the government’s Aids programme. His power and influence have grown steadily as a result and taken his detractors by surprise, most notably during the Ngcuka saga. Bulelani Ngcuka, then director of public prosecutions, announced that there was a prima facie case of corruption against Zuma but that Zuma would not be prosecuted as there was insufficient evidence to secure a conviction. The spat between the two men became nasty, with accusations – later discredited - that Ngcuka had been an apartheid-era spy. Ngcuka eventually resigned, despite the fact that he had Mbeki’s support, while Mbeki recoiled from sacking Zuma for fear of the political backlash. Zuma’s success now depends on whether he can survive the fallout from the Schabir Shaik court case and secure the support of the ANC’s angry left. The party’s leftists may well embrace Zuma in the absence of a credible candidate from within their ranks. But does the left have the clout to carry a candidate to victory? The ANC’s business wing is also an important player, and it may not trust Zuma to maintain the party’s centrist business-friendly policies. The youth league, which formerly played a decisive role, is mired in internecine tussles and full of ‘Gucci’ strugglelites who no longer roar but purr submissively. However, a resurgent left lobby within the league is backing Zuma. What about ANC chairman Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota? His chances were certainly not harmed by his delivery of the NNP into the bosom of the ANC. Party moderates admire him, and he enjoys strong grassroots support that extends to people outside ANC ranks, including many whites. However, the party is so tightly controlled that a populist candidate is unlikely to squeeze through the cracks. Cyril Ramaphosa could still have the presidency if he wants it enough, but he insists that he is ‘having too much fun’ in business. The election of either Ramaphosa or Lekota would boost business confidence. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, an Mbeki favourite, lacks finesse, and her Africanist leanings may count against her. Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, one of Mbeki’s most trusted confidantes, has the support of the business wing and must be counted as a top contender. Other possibilities are the ANC’s respected general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe, policy guru Joel Netshitenzhe and Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni. Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa has both business and trade union support, and the harder the Mbeki-ites fight Zuma, the higher Shilowa’s stakes will rise. Intriguingly, Mbeki has said nothing about whom he prefers. The only certainties are that he wants a smooth transition and a successor who will maintain his legacy of moderate, centrist policies. Both Lekota and Ramaphosa fit this bill.

Above the noise in stuffy township shebeens and in the air-conditioned Sandton hangouts of the new powerbrokers, few things are so widely talked about within the African National Congress, but at the same time kept so strenuously out of the public ear, as the question of who will succeed Thabo Mbeki. Why? Partly because the potential contenders are all making sure they keep their heads way below the parapets. In ANC culture to talk publicly of one’s leadership ambitions, is almost immediately to sabotage one’s chances.

For a case in point, re-wind back to the media-savvy Tokyo Sexwale in 1996. Then on the top of the political game, the former Gauteng premier was nose-bleedingly elbowed out by then deputy president Mbeki. The wily Mbeki or his loyal troopers, depending on whom you ask, cleverly exploited ANC branch tales that Sexwale had his eyes on the ultimate prize — the presidency — to spin a tale that the former Robben Island political prisoner was politically ‘ambitious’, or rather ‘over-ambitious’, thus casting aspersions that Sexwale was only in politics to serve himself, not the ‘people’. Sexwale’s political dreams were shattered.

Deputy president Jacob Zuma has made sure he regularly publicly insists that he has no ambitions ‘whatsoever’ to the coveted throne. “I am prepared to serve the ANC in whatever capacity”, says the man who cut his political teeth in the ANC’s controversial intelligence apparatus during exile. Most probably, the real truth is that Zuma and his backers are now convinced that he, according to the ‘time-honoured’ ANC tradition, has ‘earned his spurs’ to become president of the ANC. Didn’t he wait patiently in the wings, unglamorously playing the supporting act, like a true selfless cadre of the movement? Indeed, following the strict hierarchical system of the ANC in exile, Zuma had started from the bottom and patiently worked his way up, along the way ‘deferring to the leadership’, as a committed cadre should do.

But Mbeki-ites have different plans. Zuma, once the darling of the stellar circle around Mbeki, now only elicits derision. One senior ANC leader, close to Mbeki, sniffed: “Imagine Jacob Zuma having to give a comment on the strength of the rand?” Such detractors question the sophistication of Zuma, a man who proverbially dragged himself up by his own boot strings, from grinding poverty and little schooling in rural KwaZulu-Natal, to within a heartbeat of the most powerful job in South Africa.

Not surprisingly, however, Zuma has been polishing his skills. In plush Stockholm, Sweden, in mid-2003, he smoothly talked up the strength of the rand. His supporters believe his apprentice days are over. Indeed, Zuma has now quietly and undeniably crafted himself into a position as president-in-waiting. In the wider international political arena, he has worked to project a personality separate from that of Mbeki, not unlike the president’s own efforts in the mid-90s to forge an image separate from that of Nelson Mandela. Thus Zuma’s skills have been on display in the mediation efforts in the intractable conflict in Burundi and as head spokesperson for the government’s Aids programme.

Moreover, Zuma, according to his powerful ANC supporters, believes that Mbeki owes him the presidency since he has served him loyally, doing all the dirty and unglamorous work. Zuma’s influence is now more powerful than even the Mbeki-ites anticipated. Mbeki, though feverishly egged on by some of his closest allies, recoiled from sacking Zuma from his cabinet, the way he did Mangosuthu Buthelezi — fearing the political backlash. The resignation of former director of Public Prosecutions, Bulelani Ngcuka, even though he had Mbeki’s support, clearly points to Zuma’s power within the ANC. Even more ominously for his detractors, Zuma’s confidence has been growing as his tenure has lengthened. He brazenly took Mbeki on in public over the Ngcuka saga, sending statements in the name of the presidency, even though Mbeki cringed and heavily opposed the idea of bringing the presidency into the free-for-all.

Zuma now meets with the leaders of the ANC’s alliance partners — the Congress of South African Trade Unions and the South African Communist Party — on his own. When, at the height of the 2001/2002 squabble between the leadership of the ANC and the ultra-leftists, Mbeki boycotted alliance meetings, refusing to meet Cosatu leaders Willie Madisha and Zwelinzima Vavi and the SACP’s Blade Nzimande, and sent instructions for other senior ANC leaders to do the same, Zuma ignored his directive, and was regularly seen meeting them.

Zuma’s success now depends on whether he will be able to survive the expected fallout from the court case into alleged corruption of his financial advisor Schabir Shaik, and whether he will be able to firmly secure the support and sympathy of the ANC’s angry left (as seems likely). He and his supporters were buoyant after a Markinor survey ahead of the trial showed that a large majority of adult South Africans and ANC members believed the trial was somehow an attempt by his political rivals to frame him.

Mbeki will have a great say in who will be the next president. Remember the casting vote former president Nelson Mandela used — even if unwillingly — in anointing Mbeki as president against his rival Cyril Ramaphosa.

The ANC’s business wing is also an important player. It now deposits more money into the ANC coffers than the combined total of membership subscriptions do. Would they trust Zuma to lead the ANC further along the centrist ‘business-friendly’ path it currently follows? They would be very suspicious of Zuma’s attempt to recast himself as a figure of the left. Moreover, does the left now have the strength to carry a candidate to victory in the hard presidential contest?

Right now, though many in Cosatu and the SACP dream of putting their own man in the ring, there are few strong men of the left who would be appropriate candidates. At their most optimistic they ponder the suitability of Cosatu president Willie Madisha and general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi. They might have the talent, a lá Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva of the Brazilian Workers Party, to rally the workers. But they are too nice (at least now) to fight the brutal political dogfight that will be demanded of a presidential contender. Madisha fainted after wayward intelligence agents stalked him.

Zuma supporters hope that the left will embrace their man, in the absence of a credible candidate from their ranks. The ANC’s business wing has usurped the decisive role that the other kingmaker, the youth league, has played in the past.

Mandela’s generation of youth leaguers made JS Moroka president in 1949. The late Peter Mokaba’s generation helped make Mbeki’s bid. Now, the young lions don’t roar anymore, they purr submissively. Mired in internecine tussles, the ‘Gucci’ strugglelites are more interested in creaming off the profits of business. They are more pliant in the hands of the ANC’s resurgent business wing, although since the fiercely Mbeki-loyalist former league president Malusi Gigaba has been elevated to government, the left has launched a renewed attempt to capture the league. So, too has Zuma. Thus, one sees the extraordinary backing of his bid for the presidency by the resurgent left lobby within the youth league.

What about ANC chairman Mosiuoa ‘Terror’ Lekota then? Mbeki spectacularly used the position of ANC chairman to engineer his bid for the presidency, even when Ramaphosa was general secretary at the time, and arguably more in control of the engine room of the ANC. Certainly Lekota’s bid could not have been harmed by his delivering the New National Party into the bosom of the ANC. Ironically, Lekota, the man Mbeki would prefer not to be president, has delivered him the political coup he so desperately wanted: bringing a large section of white supporters under the ANC umbrella, not unlike the broad church Congress Alliance of the fifties, which included the white Congress of Democrats.

Lekota, like Ramaphosa, oozes the qualities that moderates in the ANC admire: strong grassroots support that includes support outside the ANC’s ranks, including the support of many whites. Can Mbeki’s intense prejudice against a Zuma bid induce him reluctantly to support Lekota?

Obviously, it won’t harm anybody’s candidacy to have some of the larger provinces — the Eastern Cape, KwaZulu-Natal or Gauteng — behind one’s bid, but the ANC’s internal processes are now so tightly controlled from the centre — that a ‘populist’ candidate is unlikely to squeeze through any of the cracks.

In spite of his successful sojourn in business, Ramaphosa could still have the presidency, if he wants it desperately enough. The question remains: is he sufficiently hungry? Who else can sport the formidable Mandela in his corner? Ramaphosa laughs off suggestions that the job is his for the taking. “Not in a hundred years,” he quipped. “I’m having too much fun.” “Chief, next question, please.” The election of either Lekota or Ramaphosa would give the country a boost of business confidence. Mbeki’s other favourite, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, is wilting under the intense scrutiny reserved for candidates. Lacking political finesse, she might falter. Increasing perceptions that she tilts towards the extreme Africanist wing of the party might count against her.

However, if some sections of the ANC want to push for a woman, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the minerals and energy minister, stands shoulder high. One of Mbeki’s most trusted confidantes, she has the firm support of the business wing. Some of the detractors of her husband, Bulelani Ngcuka, believe he has his eyes fixed on the prize. Whatever happens, the wife and husband partnership are there among the top contenders.

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, though now on the margins, can always light up the contest. Even if she does not stand, her quiet behind-the-scenes manoeuvres could still give somebody a push forwards or cause a stumble backwards, though the party machinery will make sure that her candidacy does not even get out of the starting blocks.

The calm, respected, trust-inspiring ANC general secretary Kgalema Motlanthe would be given the go-ahead if the race turned bitter, bloody or divisive. If it came to that, the left is likely to enthusiastically endorse his candidacy.

The ANC’s policy guru, Joel Netshitenzhe is clever, but he is almost a clone of Mbeki: intellectual, studious, preferring to work behind the scenes. The ANC rank-and-file might resist another reclusive Mbeki-type leader. However, if his challenge is not in the ring, Netshitenzhe will remain a kingmaker, and any future president must have his confidence, as he has been at the heart of government policymaking since 1994 and will remain there until at least 2009 or 2014, if Mbeki has his way.

The smooth Reserve Bank governor Tito Mboweni is another candidate who cannot be discounted.

The harder the Mbeki-ites fight Zuma, the more Gauteng premier Mbhazima Shilowa’s stake, as an alternative, would be boosted. He has the confidence of business, and could command large pockets of support from trade unionists. A man of humble roots and expensive tastes, as Gauteng premier, he has proved himself competent to manage well.

Making it all very intriguing is the fact that Mbeki has not opened his hands and declared his favourite. There are several reasons for that. First, Mbeki declaring a favourite now would cause that candidate to be given a hard time by others who think they should have the job. Secondly, to declare a favourite early would leave Mbeki a lame duck. And thirdly, to publicly declare such a favourite would open Mbeki to accusations of having manipulated the process. His ultimate aim is to make the transition smooth. No other liberation movement has got it right. Moreover, Mbeki would like to see his legacy continued.

One of the only certainties is that his successor will be of the same ideological mould as Mbeki, with centrist instincts. So, Mbeki would like his successor to maintain his economic legacy of moderate, centrist politics, on the liberal side of social democracy. Both Lekota and Ramaphosa encapsulate this kind of politician. At Mbeki’s opening of parliament speech this year, Ramaphosa said: “Much has already been done, a lot more needs to be done, but in terms of policies there’s not much that needs to change.” Such an outlook would curry favour — especially it if comes with a more open, consultative style of leadership — with the influential kingmakers in Mbeki’s circle and the ANC’s powerful business wing.

[William Mervin Gumede’s book, Thabo Mbeki and the Battle for the Soul of the African National Congress (Struik New Holland) will be published soon. He is a doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics.]