Steven Friedman is a political scientist and guest author.

The ANC AFTER its December congress looks very much like it did before it – with only one change. But this change may make more of a difference than we are being told.

Last year, investors – and everyone else – were told repeatedly that the ANC conference would decide the direction of the governing party and the country. Either Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and the faction which supports president Jacob Zuma would win, turning government into a piggy bank for the connected, or Cyril Ramaphosa and the anti-Zuma faction would triumph, and quickly begin fixing corruption and state capture.

To anyone who knows the realities inside the ANC, this always seemed highly unlikely. It was very hard to see how a governing party increasingly unable to hold an internal election without the losers taking the winners to court could survive a hotly contested election in which one faction won everything and the other lost everything. It seemed inevitable that the losers would refuse to accept the result, creating a crisis for the ANC from which it might not recover. And so the only way out seemed to be some sort of a deal in which both factions received enough to persuade them to accept the result.

And so it proved. The ANC’s top six leaders are split evenly between the two factions. Estimates of alignments on the national executive committee (NEC), which runs the ANC in the period between its five-yearly conferences, depend on your sources. But the safest method is to take the lists both sides circulated among their supporters and to check how many candidates from each were among the 80 members elected. If we do this, the NEC, like the ‘Top Six’, is divided down the middle.

So, either nearly 5 000 delegates voted spontaneously to produce the result needed to prevent the ANC from coming apart, or a deal was done to ensure this. What seems most likely is that neither faction would allow the other’s candidate to become president by agreement and so there was an open contest for the presidency. Positions were then divided equally: faction leaders presumably told supporters to vote in ways which produced this result.

Whatever the method used, the result was the one the ANC needed to ensure that the election of a new leadership would stand. It achieved this by remaining divided – as it was before the conference. It again has a ‘Top Six’ split equally between the two factions and an NEC in which neither has a clear majority. This has produced a torrent of pessimism from commentators who were pinning their hopes on Ramaphosa winning in the ‘winner takes all’ result we were promised. The ANC’s leader may have changed, they argue, but the ANC remains the same and so it will behave as it did before the conference.

This may seem logical but may be at most partially true. The result does show that the hope of many commentators and analysts that the Ramaphosa slate would win and then begin cleaning up the ANC and government without opposition was always a fantasy. The pro-Zuma faction was never about loyalty to one man. It is about using politics to acquire wealth which can be used partly to buy support. And it is a symptom of a reality which does not go away because one candidate wins an ANC presidential election: that many are still excluded from the marketplace, and that politics and government have become a way of creating opportunities which the market does not yet offer.

As long as that continues, there will be a strong faction in the ANC interested in access to public money, not boosting the economy. Ramaphosa and his supporters cannot simply impose solutions on the ANC and government. They will need strategy and staying power if they want change. But this does not mean that nothing in the ANC has changed. Something obvious has changed – the presidency. To know why that is important, we need only look back over the past few years when the ANC was split as it is now – but with Zuma as president.

Because he presided over a divided ANC, he could not get whatever he wanted: if he could, Des van Rooyen would have remained finance minister, probably keeping the seat warm for Brian Molefe. But he could get some of what he wanted because the president has the power to appoint. He could fire finance ministers and appoint heads of the SA Revenue Service and national prosecutors loyal to his faction. Ramaphosa will be able to do the same when, as seems likely, he becomes president of the country. This is not only a source of power in itself; it also sways politicians, and so the NEC may well turn out to be more solidly behind Ramaphosa than the numbers suggest.

Right now, calculating who will vote which way is complicated by the fact that some of the 80 elected in December were on both lists and some on neither. But Ramaphosa probably enjoys only a two-vote majority. The provinces and the ANC’s leagues also sit on the NEC and here the split is 50-50.

But this may have changed already. Some members of the Zuma faction were supporting a sitting president and will switch to Ramaphosa. The provinces face a shake-up because of court actions and the movement of Zuma faction premiers into the national leadership. This may strengthen the Ramaphosa camp. He may well enjoy a working majority. Some in the Zuma faction may also shift priorities now that he does not control the presidency: Zuma himself may be a casualty since both factions may have decided that it is in the ANC’s interest for him to go soon.

So, despite the deal and the apparent deadlock, we may well see significant changes in personnel: Zuma could go, and there may be a new Cabinet and new appointments in key posts. But changes to the underlying patterns which many want Ramaphosa to address will depend on how much stomach he has for a fight, and how he and his allies play their cards.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author.

Steven Friedman is a political scientist and guest author.

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