Top officials in South Africa’s ruling African National Congress are pushing the party to reach an agreement on who will succeed President Jacob Zuma as its leader in December, to avoid a split that could see it lose power.
The bitter divide between supporters of the two front-runners, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the president’s ex-wife, could result in defections by supporters of the losing candidate as happened a decade ago when Zuma toppled Thabo Mbeki as party leader. Members who broke away formed the Congress of the People, which took 7 percent of the vote in 2009 elections, and three years later, the Economic Freedom Fighters, now the third-biggest party, was created by ANC deserters.
“We are concerned about the gradual decline of the ANC and we believe with unity we will be able to arrest that situation,” Sihle Zikalala, the party’s chairman in the KwaZulu-Natal province, said in an interview at a policy conference that’s taking place in Johannesburg. “If there are strong views about Nkosazana and Cyril, we must find a way of ensuring that all comrades who have those views are accommodated.”
The ANC’s next leader will probably succeed Zuma in 2019 as president, a post that wields immense power, including the right to dispense cabinet posts and other top government jobs. While the ANC could agree to accommodate both Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma within its top ranks, neither are likely to settle for the No. 2 slot, according to Mpumelelo Mkhabela, a political analyst at the University of Pretoria’s Centre of Governance Innovation.
“There is no way you can have one slate,” he said in an interview at the policy conference. “The issues that divide the two camps are too big.”
The former chairwoman of the African Union Commission, Dlamini-Zuma, 68, has echoed Zuma’s calls for “radical economic transformation” to address racially based income disparities that date back to apartheid rule. Ramaphosa, a 64-year-old businessman and former labor union leader, has emphasized the need to stamp out corruption and foster inclusive economic growth. Dlamini-Zuma’s most ardent supporters include the ANC’s youth and women’s leagues, which seem unwilling to back an alternative candidate.
“We have said there are that certain positions we are not willing to compromise on,” Collen Maine, the youth league’s president, said in an interview. “Those are the presidency and the secretary-general. We don’t just wake up and say ‘no, I am compromising.’ We will have to be persuaded.”
The divide between competing factions can and must be bridged, said David Mabuza, the ANC’s chairman in the eastern Mpumalanga province.
“Our differences are not ideological,” he said in an interview. “They are personal squabbles that can be resolved. We are going to demand unity.”
Support for the ANC slipped to 54 percent in municipal elections in August last year, from 62 percent in a 2014 national vote. That was its worst performance since taking power after apartheid ended in 1994. With general elections just two years away, the party will need to present a united front to ensure it maintains an absolute majority.
“All of these leadership battles are deeply bruising the ANC,” said Sithembile Mbete, a political science lecturer at the University of Pretoria. “That process is what is destroying and really eroding the moral standing and integrity of the party. It’s the kind of thing that puts many people off.”