The ANC’s national executive committee (NEC) has yet to fire the starting gun on the leadership race, but already teams have been assembled to back the various candidates vying for President Jacob Zuma’s position as leader of the governing party at its national conference in December.
The conference was initially set to take to place in Kimberley, capital of the Northern Cape, but will probably be moved to Gauteng because of logistical and financial constraints.
Campaigns taking shape
City Press understands that behind-the-scenes opponents of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa are discouraging support for him by saying he is beholden to Jewish business interests.
Those opposed to ANC chairperson and National Assembly Speaker Baleka Mbete have flooded the rumour mill with stories that she is very ill.
African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s detractors have cited her renewed close relationship to the president as a source of potential conflict should she assume the highest office. She has been accused of hijacking the “female president” campaign, initially tabled with Mbete in mind.
Other campaigns taking shape quietly behind the scenes include former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and Minister in the Presidency Jeff Radebe.
And the allegations of money exchanging hands are a common feature.
ANC leaders said that even Zuma, who a few days ago virtually endorsed Dlamini-Zuma and shot down the notion that ANC tradition dictated that the deputy president should succeed the incumbent leader, could be persuaded that the time had come for members to openly discuss aspirant successors.
A Zuma ally said the president had long been concerned that the debate was “getting out of control”.
Zuma said as much when labour federation Cosatu declared its support for Ramaphosa in November.
His radio comments this week – just a day after a Luthuli House official called on ANC structures and leaders to desist from discussing the matter of succession – were an indication of this.
Mbete told City Press that, in terms of ANC culture, the succession debate was usually declared open soon after the midyear national policy conference, which is always held a few months before the elective conference.
However, others say the ANC in effect opened up the debate late last year, when provincial leaders were authorised to discuss succession among themselves.
An insider in the Zuma camp told City Press that Mbete, the most senior female leader, was “the candidate people had in mind when the idea of a woman president was proposed”.
He said Mbete’s candidacy was championed by the North West bloc of the Zuma group as its members saw her as “one of their own” since she was previously married to a Kgositsile (referring to poet and political activist Keorapetse Kgositsile).
However, Mbete’s backers were slow off the starting blocks and the initiative was seized by Dlamini-Zuma’s KwaZulu-Natal backers.
The Zuma ally said there was concern that Ramaphosa would be a liability to the party because he was “in the pockets of the Jews”.
The best way to quash his ambitions was to push hard on the female president campaign.
“He is a good leader. But he is an unreliable leader on the bigger scale of things,” said the insider.
“And if he becomes president, he will have to answer for the next seven years about the buffaloes and what happened to the people in Marikana.
“It begged the question: Does the ANC want to put forward a candidate with that unfortunate background?”
Ronnie Mamoepa, Ramaphosa’s spokesperson, rejected the “puppet of the Jews” taint as a “smear campaign”.
Lobbyists spread rumour
A Limpopo-based Ramaphosa lobbyist said his detractors had hoped he would not have the courage to stand for president. “Now they are making up stories to discredit him.”
Mbete told City Press that she had cottoned on to the “malicious campaign” about her health some years ago, “but it reared its head quite strongly as we started to get into the final year of this [ANC] term.
“Because we had just come out of a hectic election campaign, I was physically ravaged,” she said.
“I even spent time in hospital because of my back. And when I came out, suddenly there were issues about cancer or something else. At one point, I was said to be suffering from Alzheimer’s [a type of dementia that causes problems with memory, thinking and behaviour].”
Mbete also referred to a time she had not eaten all day and felt dizzy ahead of the state of the nation address. “I am dizzy. It is nighttime and we have to do this walk. I felt that I might collapse and decided to confide in [Zuma] so that he would not be surprised if I fell. I said: ‘Hey President, I’m feeling dizzy. He said, ‘Let me hold you.’”
Mbete’s lobbyists suspect the rumour was spread by those in Zuma’s camp.
Mbete’s unexplained exclusion from discussions last week among female leaders regarding the female presidency debate culminated in last Saturday’s declaration of support for Dlamini-Zuma by the ANC Women’s League.
Mbete told City Press that the health rumours were “generated to counter what I am likely to do this year.
“I really have no serious health issues,” said the 67-year-old.
“Like everybody, at this point we become diabetic and doctors can explain these things. But I am as fit as a fiddle…I can tell you that,” she said.
“Those who want to harp on about issues of health, I think we can take tests together with people of my age – or even those older or younger [than me] – and you will find that I am quite healthy.
“Diabetic or no diabetic, I am a very healthy mother.
“I am here, I am fit, I am ready and I see nothing on the horizon that makes me think I should retreat or throw in the towel.”
Engaging with the issue
Regarding her availability to stand for the presidency, Mbete said: “There will come a time when, officially, it is possible to tell who is availing themselves and who is not.
“For as long as I am healthy and young, I am here – available to be at the service of the ANC and the people.”
She said she had been an ANC member for more than 40 years, including these past 10 years as a member of the party’s top six.
She said that in about September 2015, “these thoughts came to me that the ANC honoured me, making me aware that it thought there was something I could offer as a person and be part of the team that led the organisation at this level”.
She added that over the past 40 years, the ANC had “invested something in me”.
“My deliberations centred on these questions: What do I give back to the ANC? What is my responsibility to the party?
“It was at that moment when I started engaging with the issue of where I was.
“For me, the question then became: What do I give back to the ANC, which has given me this honour?
“I continue to grapple with that question.”
A lobbyist in the Zuma camp said what stood in Mbete’s path was that she sometimes lost control of parliamentary sittings and the NEC meetings she chaired.
“So, it becomes difficult to consider her for a much bigger role,” he said.
Mbete said the ANC was increasingly being pushed in a direction where people would campaign openly and declare their ambitions.
“The reality of the world in which we operate is consistently saying to us: ‘Maybe you ought to rethink,’” she said.
She added that this could also assist branch members to get to know and interact with aspirant leaders and mitigate against “slate” politics.
Expressing concern about the influence of money in ANC processes, she said: “It will be a sad day when it is mainly money that determines who leads the ANC.
“The fact that you have lots of money [means you can] buy people or make people feel obliged that you should be the person at the helm of the party.
“These are not the values of the ANC.”
Mbete warned that the scourge of pecuniary politics which was running riot in the ANC would lead to the party abandoning the poor.
“This country is not for sale and the ANC is not for sale. So, it must not be allowed for money to become a major factor in our organisation and its processes,” she said.
A lobbyist in Mbete’s camp said her strength lay in the fact that “she is someone who is not tainted in one way or another” and is “not corrupt and corruptible”.