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In a little over a week, the African National Congress will take one of the most important decisions in its 105-year history. At a drab convention centre near Soweto, thousands of delegates from the continent’s oldest liberation movement will gather to elect a new leader.
The winner will take over a party in crisis. He or she will replace — as party leader and then potentially as president — Jacob Zuma, whose scandal-ridden decade in charge of the ANC has seen an explosion of alleged corruption and cronyism, a damaging split and a once-unthinkable slide in the party’s popularity.
There has been a deadening drift in policymaking, too. The economy never properly recovered from the 2008 financial crisis and, though no longer in technical recession, is still shrinking in per-capita terms. Nearly one in four South Africans are unemployed and 17m of the country’s 52m people receive some kind of government benefit.
Business confidence is at its lowest since 1994 and, according to one report from the South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry, has sunk deeper than at any time since the 1980s when the country was facing the full brunt of international sanctions. One banker estimates companies are sitting on up to R1tn in cash because of uncertainty about the investment climate.
Whoever replaces Mr Zuma will be charged with reversing both the economic rot and the extraordinary slide in the ANC’s moral standing. He or she will also almost certainly lead the party into elections in 2019, the first time the ANC could actually lose since it came to power in a blaze of optimism in 1994.
Under pressure: President Jacob Zuma’s tenure in office could be cut short if Cyril Ramaphosa wins ANC battle © Reuters
“This conference is really about determining the depth of the ANC decline,” says Mcebisi Ndletyana, professor of political science at Johannesburg University. The party, he says, has lost about 15 percentage points of electoral support in the past eight years, falling to 54cent in local elections last year when it was robbed of votes by both the right-of-centre Democratic Alliance and the radical ANC breakaway party, the Economic Freedom Fighters.
“The decline will continue even after they have a new leader. It’s just a question of the extent,” says Mr Ndeletyana, who says that a probable judicial inquiry into allegations of “state capture” — especially the president’s connections with the powerful Gupta family — will unmask deeper corruption within President Zuma’s ANC, further eroding its electoral support. “The whole ANC will be on trial.”
Although up to seven candidates are vying for the top job — itself a sign of disarray in the leadership — barring a political earthquake, the next ANC president will be one of two people. On the so-called constitutionalist wing of the party is Cyril Ramaphosa, the deputy president and a successful businessman who has pledged to fight corruption and to restore the party’s centrist policies.
On the other, pro-Zuma wing of the party is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former minister in several cabinets, the former chairperson of the African Union, and Mr Zuma’s ex wife. Though a technocrat, she is wooing Mr Zuma’s supporters by adopting similar rhetoric about radical economic transformation. Rightly or wrongly, many expect she would do her best to stymie any inquiry into Mr Zuma’s relationship with the Guptas who are alleged to have had an undue influence over the presidency.
Most of the South African commentariat, including those who represent the new black middle class, have thrown their weight behind Mr Ramaphosa, who they see as more capable and more likely to halt the ANC’s decay than Ms Dlamini-Zuma.
“If Dlamini-Zuma wins, that will mark the point of no return for the ANC,” says Lawson Naidoo, executive secretary of the Council for the Advancement of the South African Constitution, a non-governmental organisation. A senior banker, and Ramaphosa supporter, says: “Everyone’s on bended knee, praying for a sane outcome.”
Main rival: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is promising to deliver radical economic reform if she takes control of the ANC © AFP
Given such partisanship, one must treat with a degree of caution consistent findings that Mr Ramaphosa is ahead in the delegate count for the conference, which starts on December 16. True, according to various soundings about the voting intentions of ANC provincial branches, Mr Ramaphosa appears to have a majority of the more than 5,000 delegates on his side. Depending on who you listen to, he is winning either by a whisker or a gathering landslide.
Yet ANC voting procedures are opaque and vulnerable to manipulation, analysts warn. There is also the possibility that Mr Ramaphosa’s supporters in the urban-based elite are hearing what they want to hear and ignoring sentiment in rural ANC heartlands, where Mr Zuma’s brand of politics still has considerable support. “Everyone thought Hillary was going to win, too,” one Ramaphosa supporter says, referring to the shock defeat of Hillary Clinton by Donald Trump in last year’s US election. Indeed, Mr Zuma’s own victory in the 2007 ANC conference against Thabo Mbeki, then president, took almost everybody by surprise.
There is also a concern that, if it looks as though Ms Dlamini-Zuma cannot win, Mr Zuma will try to scupper the conference on procedural grounds, kicking the contest into next year. Gwede Mantashe, secretary-general of the ANC, insists that the conference will come up with a result whatever it takes.
The leading contender: Polls of ANC delegates put Cyril Ramaphosa ahead in the race to be party leader © Getty
If Mr Ramaphosa were to triumph, there could be several consequences. Most economists predict an immediate jolt in market confidence which could, some say, overshoot his ability to exact real change, both within the ANC and the economy more generally. Still, Mr Ramaphosa would likely be able to tweak some policies, for example by amending a mining charter that — because of its threat of ownership dilution — is putting off investment in one the country’s most important sectors.
There is also an expectation that a Ramaphosa victory would lead to either the resignation of Mr Zuma as president before elections due in 2019 or a recall vote. “Zuma would be persuaded to step down very soon, to allow Cyril to take over to put in place a new executive leadership,” says Mr Lawson.
As president, many expect Mr Ramaphosa would try to create what Adam Habib, vice-chancellor of Witwatersrand University, calls “a new compact” between labour, government and business. The aim would be to revive the moribund economy by freeing up labour markets, encouraging new investment and persuading businesses to pay more tax. Mr Ramaphosa is promising an eventual return to the 5 per cent growth that had become the norm before Mr Zuma took over. “We must travel a transformation path that is radical in its content not merely in its rhetoric,” he told a Soweto rally.
Jobless: Nearly one in four working age South Africans are unemployed © EPA
Mr Ramaphosa has also set out his stall against corruption, saying he would seek to recover “stolen billions belonging to our people”. Prince Mashele, author of The Fall of the ANC — a best-selling book that one commentator calls a political obituary — says the party is “rotten in its entirety”. But most argue that Mr Ramaphosa could curb the worse excess of the Zuma years if only by returning to the milder corruption of the pre-Zuma years.
There could be other consequences of a Ramaphosa victory. One is the possible return to the party of Julius Malema, the former ANC youth league president who fell out with Mr Zuma and, in 2013, defected to form his own Economic Freedom Fighters party. Any return could bring back some of the 8 per cent of the national vote Mr Malema took with him, greatly improving the ANC’s electoral chances.
Not everyone is thrilled with the prospect of a Ramaphosa victory. His image as an anti-apartheid hero was tainted by his alleged complicity in a dispute with striking miners at a mine run by Lonmin in Marikana in 2012, in which 34 workers were shot dead by police. Mr Ramaphosa, who was a non-executive director at Lonmin, vigorously denies any responsibility.
He has also become immensely wealthy after ditching politics for business when he failed to replace Nelson Mandela as ANC president in 1997. He has gained a reputation for being out of touch with ordinary South Africans. He released this year a book about his passion for breeding expensive longhorn cattle, one of which sold for more than $1m at a recent auction.
Ralph Mathekga, an independent political analyst, wonders whether Mr Ramaphosa has what it takes to beat Ms Dlamini-Zuma in what could turn out to be a dirty contest. “To win this, you have to be cruel, and there’s no cruelty in Cyril’s character,” he says. “He’s like a churchman.”
What, then, would a victory for Ms Dlamini-Zuma mean? Mr Habib of Witwatersrand says markets would be sceptical and that she would need to show she could come up with policies — beyond vague rhetoric — to breathe fresh life into the economy. To the broader electorate, much of which is disillusioned with Mr Zuma, she would also need to demonstrate independence from her former husband.
According to Mr Habib, she would need “to do something dramatic, banish Zuma to Nakandla [his homestead] and create some new kind of social compact”. Failing that, he says, the ANC would face the real prospect of dropping below 50 per cent in 2019 elections, risking a spell in the wilderness.
Mr Mashele agrees, saying that a win for Ms Dlamini-Zuma would almost certainly mean a further ANC split, with members of the Ramaphosa-leaning “constitutionalist” wing breaking away. “That would be the end of the ANC, you can kiss it goodbye,” he says. “The road into South Africa’s unknown future would then be paved with coalitions.”
Seeking shelter: Many South Africans have not received the improvements in living standards promised by the ANC © AFP
One person who welcomes that prospect is Mmusi Maimane, head of the opposition Democratic Alliance. “If Cyril loses it will not be terminal for South Africa,” he says. “It could create the conditions for a coalition between those who share a common view: constitutionalism, non-racialism, a market economy, a capable state and an intolerance for corruption.”
For Mr Maimane, a former ANC member, his old party has gone the way of other African liberation movements, unable to make the transition from radical opposition to governing. “If Cyril won, there would be short-term euphoria, but what would he do after that?” he asks, arguing that the ANC is beyond repair. “What South Africa needs is a modern political party. You can’t modernise a national liberation party whose objectives were met in 1994,” he says, referring to the overthrow of apartheid.
Mbhazima Shilowa, a former premier of Gauteng province, where both Johannesburg and Pretoria are located, argues that talk of an ANC split is overdone. “People within the ANC have stayed this long because they believe there is some good can still come out of it,” he says. The idea that the party can “self-correct”, he says, is “an oxymoron”.
Still, some are holding out hope that a movement that once inspired an entire continent can yet overcome the Zuma years. “If Cyril were to win,” says Mr Naidoo, “there is a glimmer of hope that things can be pulled back from the precipice.”
Will Zuma ‘have his day in court’?
As the African National Congress gears up for next week’s leadership election, the most important number deciding South Africa’s likely next president may not be the 5,240 voting delegates — so much as the 783 counts of corruption, fraud and other charges that face the incumbent, Jacob Zuma, after he leaves office.
There is a widely held suspicion that Mr Zuma is backing the campaign of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in a bet that his ex-wife and a mother of his children will do everything to ensure prosecutors do not pursue him over the charges. For her part, Ms Dlamini-Zuma has said that her opponents are exaggerating the family connection and “only raise it now when it suits them”.
The charges, relating to allegations that Mr Zuma solicited payments in the 1999 arms deal, were first brought almost a decade ago, but were dropped just weeks before he took office in 2009 after prosecutors deemed that they were politically motivated.
In October, an appeals court reinstated the charges saying the decision by prosecutors was “irrational”. Mr Zuma had a deadline last week to make representations to prosecutors on why the charges should not be pursued. He has always denied the specific charges, as well as broader claims he has been involved in corruption.
“President Jacob Zuma can only hide for so long,” South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance said last week. “Make no mistake, he will have his day in court.”
But lawyers say that whoever succeeds him, Mr Zuma will be able to rely on the many years that have passed since the charges were first brought to delay a new case. The memories of key witnesses might have faded, they say. And at 75, Mr Zuma’s age makes it less likely he will ever see a jail cell.
This post originally appeared on Financial Times