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What is at stake in the ANC “succession” race?


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What is at stake in the ANC “succession” race?

Professor Raymond Suttner
Photo by Ivor Markman
Professor Raymond Suttner

16th January 2017

By: Raymond Suttner


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“The good news is that it was the last time we saw Jacob Zuma delivering the keynote speech at an ANC January 8 birthday celebration.” ‒ Max du Preez

South African political commentary at the moment is preoccupied with the race to “succeed” Jacob Zuma as president of the ANC and the country. The discussion abounds with references to how the ANC does things, what an ANC “tradition” is or what is “alien” to the ANC.


Many of the references are to fictitious traditions, invoked or dismissed insofar as they may help to advance the candidature of one or other person for the presidency, or marginalise or advance individuals more generally.

References to cultures and traditions, and what is alien or foreign to, or “unANC”, are part of a trend of inclusion and exclusion. The ANC is depicted as an organisation with essentialist, that is, unvarying qualities. Certain viewpoints or modes of acting politically are denounced as “unANC” or violating cherished traditions of the organisation. In truth, the ANC of 2017 can hardly be the bearer of the same values and traditions that motivated the ANC in earlier periods, especially the time of struggle, when most were motivated by a determination to defeat the apartheid regime and paid a heavy price for that role.


Even after 1990, with the leadership transfer from Oliver Tambo to Nelson Mandela, surrounded by some of the most revered names in liberation history, the ANC of the time had to be reconstituted on a completely new basis, as a legal organisation. In so doing it brought together streams of membership and supporters who derived from very different experiences, traditions of struggle and political cultures. Rebuilding the organisation was a complex process and if there are traditions and cultures that have developed since then, these are also not uniform and commonly agreed on.

What has emerged as a new “culture” or more developed culture of the ANC in post-apartheid South Africa, has been the culture of enrichment, building on old and new patronage networks – sometimes merging with corruption and other forms of illegality. This is one of the recognisable features of the ANC today, much more familiar to the public than the claimed culture of “selfless service” which is seldom to be seen.

From the public’s point of view, what is at stake in the forthcoming ANC elections is whether or not there can be a break with the especially venal forms of patronage, corruption and violence that have characterised the ANC under the presidency of Jacob Zuma.

Zuma did not invent these phenomena; over 10 years ago an ANC/SACP cadre in the Free State, Noby Ngombane, who was said to be “clean”, that is not corrupt, was assassinated in front of his wife and children. It is said that in talk in the shebeens it was well-known who the killer was.

Instead of that person being brought to book, Ngombane’s wife, Nokwanda, and her siblings were charged with the murder, though an inquest showed they had no part in it and the “investigation” entailed a range of irregularities, including the torture of Bongani Mlambo, Nokwanda’s brother. (See Raymond Suttner, Recovering Democracy in South Africa, Jacana Media, 2015, chapter 15). At the time ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama dismissed the suggestion that it was a political killing, saying, “ANC people do not kill ANC people”. If that may have been true or a rarity then, it is certainly not now.

There were also irregularities perpetrated without significant consequences as in the spending on the Sarafina debacle, with over R14.27-million in European Union funds being squandered in funding Mbongeni Ngema’s play, supposedly as a contribution towards the struggle against HIV/Aids. Although the Public Protector found that the then Minister of Health, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and her Director General had misled parliament, no consequences followed, nor did Dlamini-Zuma acknowledge any wrongdoing.

But everything has taken on a more extreme form under Zuma’s stewardship, with patronage, corruption and violence ‒ including murder ‒ becoming a common feature of government and ANC politics at every level. Most recently in KwaZulu-Natal, the ANC province with the largest, albeit diminishing membership, some 20 people were assassinated in the recent local government elections. In that province numerous elections at different levels appear to entail corruption and violence. The same holds in many other parts of the country.

For the public, business and the professions, the key issue that concerns people is whether whoever succeeds Zuma will clean up the state and put a stop to the irregularities and corruption. There is hardly a single key state institution that is not in disarray as a result of being used to fight battles that concern the president, either to remove those who are striving to hold him accountable for wrongdoing or to retrieve resources owed or wrongly acquired, or to act similarly on behalf of one or other of his allies or associates.

On the side of those who are aligned with President Zuma, in particular the Premier League, that is, the Premiers of Free State, North-West Province and Mpumalanga, with the assumed support of KZN, their efforts are bent towards ensuring that if Zuma is no longer state president, he will be left in peace to enjoy his wealth in retirement without fear of prosecution or forfeiture of whatever he has accumulated, no matter the means of acquisition. It is not only Zuma who needs this assurance, but the Premier League members are themselves associated with multiple dubious relationships and like Zuma, linked with the Gupta family and the attendant bending of state institutional resources and powers towards the needs of the family’s businesses.

It seems to be generally assumed that Zuma will not seek a third term as ANC president and that there is now a battle between contending candidates, primarily Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Cyril Ramaphosa. At this point in time it is difficult to call who would win such a contest, should these be the contenders, although there is not much clarity about what either will stand for, what vision they advance.

Ramaphosa has not provided a clear and bold alternative to whatever we may describe as the vision attaching to president Zuma and his supporters, including Dlamini-Zuma. He has been very deferential to Zuma throughout his term as deputy president and even now, whatever he has said has been in a low key. No statement he has made has provoked debate or been at all innovative. He has not advanced any clear ideas about what he would do if he were to be made president of the ANC or the country. His supporters might well defend him by pointing to how difficult his situation has been, how campaigning is frowned upon (according to ANC mythology) and he could not be seen to be undermining the sitting president and thereby advancing his own candidacy.

Ramaphosa has his own wealth, so that he would not need to draw from the wealth of the state in the way that Zuma and many others have had to do in order to be able to accumulate capital or live according to the opulent style they consider their due. Ramaphosa’s economic wellbeing does not depend on his becoming president. It is already in place. He may want more, but he appears to have enough for he and his family to be very comfortable for the rest of their lives.

Consequently, if there were to be a strong will to clean up the ANC and the state it is more likely to be found under Ramaphosa than those who are unbendingly devoted to continuing the path trodden by Zuma, or need their own unfulfilled economic aspirations to be met, and thus need continuity in the manner of governance of Zuma’s successor.

But what needs to be taken into account is that Ramaphosa needs support for his candidacy from members, many of whom expect their support for a candidate to translate into material support for themselves. How does Ramaphosa answer the expectation that the ANC should continue to be a source of jobs and contracts for those who support it? What power does he have to change this firm and widespread culture? Indeed, what appetite has he shown in his period as deputy president to change that?

Patrons, clients and corrupt individuals need certainty in the same way as big business does. They do not want disruption in relationships that serve them well. The exact qualities that may be needed for state stability and regularity may be the very reasons that will lose the support that Ramaphosa may seek.

It could well be a bruising battle and many may fear that it will leave the bleeding ANC more damaged than it already is. This would also further endanger the ANC’s hold onto majority support nationally.

Some may say that this is a time when true leadership is required, and what unity remains in the ANC needs to be put before the ambitions of any candidate. In consequence, supporters of Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma may be forced to compromise on an alternative candidate.

In this context, Zuma may well “be persuaded” to stay on for a third term, in the interest of “safeguarding the unity of the organisation”. It should be remembered that there are no limits on the terms any person can serve as ANC president. There is no reason to believe or there is no evidence that Zuma enjoys less support than either Ramaphosa or Dlamini-Zuma. If he still remains the most widely accepted leader, could Max du Preez not be premature in celebrating 2017 as the last January 8 speech delivered by Zuma?

If that calculation is correct, remaining as ANC president holds considerable advantages for Zuma. He needs to safeguard his position, in relation to the 783 criminal charges and other potential actions to retrieve ill-gotten wealth from him. Many of the pillars he has relied on for protection have been weakened – the NPA with a chastened and potentially dismissible Shaun Abrahams, and Nomgcobo Jiba, fighting her disbarment from the roll of advocates, the Hawks head Berning Ntlemeza facing potential judicial removal, and SARS under investigation on many fronts.

In such a situation Zuma’s position might be further weakened if he were to retire and have no power base. If he were to remain president of the ANC he might, according to ANC doctrine, still demand some measure of accountability from his successor as State President. Who that successor will be is merely a postponement of the current Dlamini-Zuma/Ramaphosa or similar contest and an ANC going into elections with Zuma still as party president stands to lose more support.

There is no clear solution to the ANC’s woes, but we must remember that there is one clear rule guiding Jacob Zuma and that is that no sacrifice is too great to be paid ‒ by others ‒ in order to safeguard his interests.

Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst.  He was a political prisoner for activities in the ANC-led liberation struggle. Currently he is a Part-time Professor attached to Rhodes University and an Emeritus Professor at UNISA.  He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities.  His prison memoir Inside Apartheid’s prison will be reissued with a new afterword, by Jacana Media in the first half of this year. He blogs at and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner


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