ANC's high stakes elective conference set for ultimate showdown

By Ronesh Dhawraj

What is the National Conference

The African National Congress (ANC) will meet at Nasrec, Gauteng this December to thrash out new policies and elect a new leadership core at its 54th National Conference.

The gathering is held as per rule 10 of its constitution, serving as the supreme ruling and controlling body of the ANC and shall - among other things - elect the National Executive Committee (NEC) in accordance with rule 11.4. The NEC then serves as the party's all-powerful administrative arbiter between conferences.

The NEC in turn sub-delegates key functions to a National Working Committee (NWC) which interacts with party faithfuls on the ground for report-back to the NEC.

National Conference is preceded by a Policy Conference where policy proposals are discussed and debated by attending delegates.

Once the Policy Conference is over, these discussion documents are sent for more input to the branches.

As such, no decisions are taken at the Policy Conference but at National Conference where they are effectively rubber-stamped for implementation by the ANC. After National Conference, the party takes stock of progress made since its last conference in the form of a National General Council (NGC).

The NGC is thus considered a mid-term review of National Conference resolutions. The last NGC was held in Gauteng in October 2015. The next NGC is scheduled to be held in October 2020.

At the 50th National Conference held at Mafikeng, North West in December 1997, it was decided future national conferences would be held every five years.

National Conferences before and after ANC unbanning in 1990

Until the ANC was banned in 1960, national conferences were held annually.

During its years as a banned organisation, the ANC held major conferences sporadically, usually to consider shifts in policy required by changing circumstances.

After the ANC's unbanning in 1990, national conferences were held every three years until December 1997.

At the 50th National Conference held at Mafikeng, North West in December 1997, it was decided future national conferences would be held every five years.

Six national (elective) conferences have been held since the ANC's unbanning in 1990. These gatherings were held in:

1991 – Durban, KwaZulu-Natal – Nelson Mandela, President

1994 – Bloemfontein, Free State - Nelson Mandela, President

1997 – Mafikeng, North West - Thabo Mbeki, President

2002 – Stellenbosch - Western Cape - Thabo Mbeki, President

2007 - Polokwane, Limpopo – Jacob Zuma, President

2012 – Mangaung, Free State – Jacob Zuma, President

The 2017 national conference in Johannesburg, Gauteng will be the seventh (7th) time the event will be held.

For the first time in as many years, the top post of the ANC is being contested with renewed vigour. 

So why is this 54th National Conference so important

Every national conference of South Africa's governing party since democracy is important.

Apart from being a forum where new leadership is elected, the ANC cements issue and policy direction here. These would have been discussed and debated during branch meetings before and after the convening of the policy conference.

These rubber-stamped policies would then filter its way into the party’s election offering to the electorate during an election cycle or through legislation in parliament.

However, the prime reason why the 54th National Conference is being watched with hawkish eyes is for the highly-charged presidential race.

For the first time in as many years, the top post of the ANC is being contested with renewed vigour.

The ANC president’s post is a powerful one. With it, comes the responsibility of steering Africa’s most industrialised economy.

Importantly though, it is a position of immense authority and influence.

In other words, whoever is elected in December gets to call the shots over the party’s surging membership and deployed cadres at all tiers of government.

At its 2007 policy conference, the ANC resolved that it was "preferable" for the party president to be the president of the country. In practice, this means that whoever leads Africa’s oldest liberation movement is likely to steer the country as its First Citizen by virtue of the ANC’s huge parliamentary majority.

Analysts too - who have been observing developments since current president Jacob Zuma’s ascent in 2007 – are predicting a close contest between two entrenched factions within the party.

On one side is former businessman, trade unionist and incumbent deputy president, Cyril Ramaphosa; and on the other end is seasoned politician and well-respected ANC senior, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.

This, however, is not the full picture as it were.

As the dominating media narrative endures, many argue that this is really a battle for the so-called heart and soul of the ANC, between those who want to restore the party to its former glory; and those that seek to 'capture’ it to continue with the ‘state capture’ project.

The populists within the ANC – as some from the ‘other side’ would argue – are seeking to install Dr Dlamini-Zuma to safeguard her former husband from corruption charges; and extend his legacy of reckless decision-making since 2007 by continuing unsavoury relationships with tainted business networks.

Dr Dlamini-Zuma - they argue - is the best person to forward the ANC-ordained policy of radical economic transformation.

And the fact that she is a woman adds to the progressive thinking of the ANC.

When it comes to the so-called faction spearheaded by Cyril Ramaphosa, the rallying cry is the ANC has lost its way; and is in serious electoral peril moving towards the 2019 elections.

For this reason, unity has to be forged, corruption and the corrupt have to be removed; and a wholesale clean-up needs to be ushered in.

To win decisively, one needs only provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape (13.72%) and Limpopo (13.61%).

So who are the main players at this year's conference

It is no secret that national conferences are about the numbers.

The bigger the delegation to conference, the more influence you are likely to exert on leadership elections and policy leanings.

KwaZulu-Natal, for example, has consistently been a dominant region over the past 20 years. In 1997, the province was the biggest with 13.67% delegates, the second biggest in 2007 (15%), the biggest in 2012 (22%); and the largest in 2017 (18.41%).

In combination with a few other 'bigger’ blocs, national conference leadership races amount to nothing else but number crunching.

For example, in this year’s leadership battle, Mpumalanga is being highly courted for the sole reason of it being the second most dominant province (15.58%).

To win decisively, one needs only provinces such as KwaZulu-Natal, Mpumalanga, the Eastern Cape (13.72%) and Limpopo (13.61%).

Add to this the leagues and ANC leadership (8%); and the battle may well be shut.

The converse argument is that branches are the ones who determine who gets elected. They cannot then be assumed to be proverbial voting cattle for factional leaders.

Unfortunately, this is not how politics in its true sense work.

Branches at national conference congregate as provincial delegations.

All even have caucus meetings before plenaries, spelling out provincial standpoints on key issues and voting directives if there is a vote to be decided upon.

As much as individual branch members seek to carry the ‘mandate’ of their branch delegates at conference, this does not realistically happen because branches form part of a collective region and provincial delegation.

‘Mandates’ become diluted in the process of consensus decision-making.

This is the first part in a series of pieces on the ANC’s 54th National Conference. In the next opinion piece, the spotlight will fall on the provinces.

Ronesh Dhawraj is a researcher with the Research & Policy Analysis unit in the SABC News department.