News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - Southern Africa The ANC’s Downward Spiral

As its National Conference approaches, South Africa’s leading political party is riven by factionalism and internal strife



Rebone Tau,

[Translate to en:] ANC-Unterstützer versammeln sich in einer Stadt.
ANC supporters at a victory rally in Johannesburg following the parliamentary elections, 12 May 2019. Photo: IMAGO/Michele Spatari

The African National Congress (ANC) has governed South Africa in a “tripartite alliance” with the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) since apartheid ended in 1994. But as the party gears up for its fifty-fifth National Conference, scheduled for 16–20 December, relations within the alliance are tense and its future uncertain.

Rebone Tau works as a programme manager at the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Southern Africa Office in Johannesburg.

Workers affiliated to COSATU did not allow President Cyril Ramaphosa to address them at the unions’ May Day rally earlier this year, nor did delegates to COSATU’s national congress in September allow ANC National Chairperson Gwede Mantashe to deliver a message of support from the ANC. Workers had already prevented former President Jacob Zuma from addressing the rally back in 2017. On the other side of the aisle, the SACP is threatening to put up its own candidates for the 2024 general elections. This follows the party’s participation in a 2017 by-election in Metsimaholo Local Municipal in the Free State province, where they did not win a single seat.

These signs suggest that all is not well in the tripartite alliance. Will COSATU back the SACP if it decides to contest the 2024 elections? Or will the upcoming National Conference manage to bring the splintering coalition back together?

Leadership Challenges and Corruption Allegations

The ANC, which has been riven by divisions for years, now stands at a crossroads. The party received only 45.59 percent in the last local elections, its lowest result since the dawn of South African democracy. Supporters have been abandoning it in droves, not necessarily to support other parties, but rather driven by deep disappointment with the ANC’s development record in recent years. Unemployment currently stands at 37 percent, rolling power outages cause factories to stand idle, and rural communities are struggling to feed themselves as land reform stalls.

Internally, leadership challenges abound. The party suspended Secretary-General Ace Magashule in the build-up to the conference, after he was arrested in November 2020 on corruption allegations related to an agribusiness deal in his home Free State Province while he was serving as premier. According to rule 25.70 of the ANC Constitution, leading members are temporarily suspended when charged with a crime or appearing in court. This so-called “step-aside” rule was adopted to curb corruption in the country, but some provincial ANC leaders have called for it to be scrapped.

Recently, several provincial leaders charged with corruption were elected, along with one leader suspected of murder. The move sparked an outcry among South Africans, and the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the ANC was forced to review its decision on allowing members to be elected while on step-aside, declaring in April 2022 that “members affected by the step-aside rule will no longer be eligible to contest for ANC’s positions”. Although elections will not be nullified for those who were elected before April 2022, some party members feel that the rule has been applied unevenly to target political opponents.

These days, public debates around corruption have focused on the committee investigating President Ramaphosa. The committee dates back to June 2022, when former State Security Agency Director-General Arthur Fraser opened a criminal case against Ramaphosa, alleging that millions of dollars had been stolen from his Phala Phala game farm in Limpopo and subsequently covered up. The opposition parties, led by the African Transformation Movement, then tabled a motion to launch an independent investigation into the allegations. The committee handed over their report to the speaker of parliament on 30 November, having found that President Ramaphosa may have committed crimes worthy of impeachment.

This led ANC acting Secretary-General Paul Mashatile to call an emergency NEC meeting on 2 December 2022, which, however, was adjourned after 30 minutes. Ramaphosa was also not present at the meeting, something that did not make sense to many NEC members, including former President Mbeki. The meeting was eventually reconvened on 5 December, and resolved that ANC MPs should vote against the panel’s report when it is tabled for consideration in parliament, as Ramaphosa himself had it placed under review.

Parliament will meet on 13 December 2022, three days before the ANC’s National Conference starts. Some members of parliament, including some ANC representatives, feel that President Ramaphosa should resign. Regardless of the outcome, it has heavily damaged his standing and will likely affect his ability to govern in the months to come.

Factional Frenzy

As the conference draws closer, South Africa’s governing party finds itself splintered into a number of factions. One faction calls itself the Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction, linked to former president Jacob Zuma and suspended Secretary-General Magashule. Another is known as CR17, short for “Cyril Ramaphosa 2017”, and aligns with the current president.

These divisions are not new. The current intraparty divisions began in 2005 when former President Thabo Mbeki recalled Jacob Zuma from his position in government. This was during the run-up to the 2007 National Conference in Polokwane, where Zuma emerged as the President of the ANC. About eight months later, the Zuma-led NEC recalled Mbeki from his position as President of South Africa. This led to Mbeki shunning the party during the Zuma era. It was only after Ramaphosa’s election that he returned to an active role.

The party’s alliance partners, COSATU as well as the SACP, have played a crucial role in exacerbating internal divisions.

Looking back, some might say that both Mbeki and Zuma are responsible for the divisions from which the party has yet to recover. At the same time, the party’s alliance partners, COSATU as well as the SACP, have played a crucial role in exacerbating them. COSATU and SACP supported Zuma for president in 2007, while ten years later they supported Ramaphosa. Both forces regularly take sides in ANC factional battles, weakening the alliance as a whole and distracting it from its proclaimed mission of improving the welfare of the working class. Some go so far as to argue that they have abandoned their base and no longer serve as effective vehicles for working-class interests.

The situation in the ANC’s auxiliary organisations is equally grim. For the first time in the party’s history, neither the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) nor the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) have elected leaderships. The ANCYL was disbanded in 2019 and the ANCWL followed one year later, after both organizations supported Zuma in 2017. Both the leagues have interim leaderships and it is unclear when they will hold their own conferences, but it certainly will not be before the ANC’s National Conference. This is another uncharacteristic event, and further indication that the ANC is struggling to deal with growing internal challenges.

Provincial Politics

All ANC party structures exhibit signs of real division, with party functionaries from the same structure often affiliating with up to three different figures at the top of the party, hoping to line up behind someone who will become president and offer them a bigger role in the future.

KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), Zuma’s home province, has been difficult for Ramaphosa’s allies to control. Many ANC leaders continue to visit Zuma’s home to get political advice from him. Being seen with him publicly also seems to be a political strategy for many in the province. Those closest to him in the build-up to the provincial conference won the majority of positions.

KwaZulu-Natal will send a delegation of over 800 members to the upcoming conference. In 2017, the province did not have a representative in the so-called “Top Six” of the leadership for the first time since the party emerged from illegality — a major blow. We may see history repeat itself, as the provincial party’s policy positions do not align with the rest of the ANC.

Back when Zuma was still leader, the province’s delegates operated as a bloc at National Conference. This year, KZN put forward Dr. Zweli Mkhize for President of the ANC and is currently lobbying other provinces to support its candidate. It is notable that KZN has always had a candidate in the presidency since 1997, losing for the first time in 2017.

The Free State, Magashule’s home province, supported Zuma’s run for president in 2007. Magashule never got along politically with former President Mbeki, making him a natural ally for Zuma. The Free State also faces accusations of giving business to the controversial Gupta family, which has close ties to Zuma, whose son Duduzane is their business partner. It is alleged that the Gupta family could even tell Zuma who to appoint to his cabinet to advance their business interests.

North West province was governed by an interim committee from August 2018 to August 2022, an unusually long period of time for an ANC branch. Ramaphosa’s allies lost in the North West provincial conference, but the faction that won is not linked to Zuma, either. The newly elected chairperson, Nono Maloyi, served as the North West chairperson during the Mbeki era, before Zuma ended his tenure as punishment for his support for Mbeki in 2007. The newly elected leadership is linked to ANC Treasurer-General Paul Mashatile, who is also currently the party’s Secretary-General. Deputy Secretary-General Jessie Duarte recently died of cancer.

Succession Strife and Zuma’s Influence

For years now, the ANC has failed to deal adequately with the question of succession. Internal divisions have grown deeper and deeper since 2005, when Jacob Zuma was removed as Deputy President of South Africa. It was around this period that it became evident that Mbeki was interested in running for the leadership of the ANC for a third time, although it was clear that he would not be the President of South Africa beyond the 2009 elections. Many feared that this arrangement would lead to the emergence of two centres of power, and instead chose to support Zuma in his quest for the presidency since he was already Deputy President of the ANC.

Yet a well-planned succession is vital for the ANC’s survival, as it works against internal division and avoids potentially damaging rival candidacies. Building up to this conference, many former leaders of the Youth League have called for a healthier generational mix within the ANC leadership. Many from the Youth League feel that someone younger should be elected into the Top Six at the upcoming conference, a sentiment that seems to be shared across the organization.

That said, there is little agreement as to who from the younger generation should be nominated. A few names are being put forward for different positions in the Top Six. Two names have been floated for the position of Deputy President, namely the current Minister of Justice and former Youth League Deputy President Ronald Lamola, and Minister of Human Settlement Nkhesani Kubayi, who served as ANCYL Deputy Secretary in Gauteng Province. They are both currently members of the NEC.

No matter who emerges victorious at the next National Conference, the ANC appears to be a party in decline.

As it stands, most candidates are allies of Ramaphosa, while the different generations of the ANCYL appear unable to speak with one voice. Indeed, since 1991 the various generations in the ANC have not once been able to agree on a common candidate. The biggest problem seems to be a strong desire to lead on all sides, making a well-managed succession plan all the more important.

Since the end of his second term as President of the ANC in 2017 and being recalled as President of the Republic in 2018, Jacob Zuma has refused to accept the outcomes of the 2017 conference and continues to exercise influence and convene the Radical Economic Transformation faction. This time around he is supporting Dr. Nkoszana Dlamini-Zuma for party president. Dlamini-Zuma already ran against and lost to President Ramaphosa in 2017, and some members of the party feel that she is too old to run again.

Zuma himself is running for the position of National Chairperson of the ANC — a highly unusual move, since all former ANC Presidents already have a standing invitation to all party meetings and events. The decision appears to have alienated some of his former supporters. Indeed, Zuma currently does not have the support of his home province, as many support Dr. Zweli Mkhize for president.

Uncertain Outcomes

The ANC’s upcoming National Conference promises to be one of its most interesting, but also one of its most confusing. Ramaphosa’s second term is far from guaranteed, as Mkhize has received significantly more branch nominations than expected, suggesting strong grassroots support.

As the race tightens, frantic negotiations are underway to determine the two candidates’ respective teams. While Ramaphosa has received endorsements from a majority of Provincial Executive Committees (PECs), this does not necessarily secure him a second term. If Ramaphosa loses, he will be the first President of the ANC to lose out of a second term in the post-apartheid period. Hurting Ramaphosa’s prospects is the lack of unity in his faction, which is running competing candidates for the Top Six.

Paul Mashatile, currently ANC Treasurer-General, is likely to emerge as the next deputy president of the party. Some candidates to replace Mashatile as Treasurer-General are current ANC spokesperson Pule Mabe, the former Treasurer-General of the ANCYL, and the current Advisor to President Ramaphosa, Bejani Chauke who fundraised money for Ramaphosa in 2017. Both the Ramaphosa and Mkhize factions would prefer to have a woman as the next Treasurer-General of the ANC.

Someone whose time may be running out is Minister of Minerals and Energy Gwede Mantashe, another Ramaphosa ally, who hopes to retain his position as ANC National Chairperson. Having previously served as the party’s Secretary-General from 2007 to 2017, Mantashe is a very controversial figure, who has been heavily involved in factional battles for the last decade. As Minister of Minerals and Energy, he has called for the development of more coal and gas power stations while the country suffers major blackouts. Some see him as a relic of South Africa’s fossil capitalist past who has to be cast aside if the country is to build a more resilient economy. As his popularity wanes, his return to the Top Six seems unlikely.

Can the ANC’s Decline Be Reversed?

No matter who emerges victorious at the next National Conference, the ANC appears to be a party in decline. Its electoral support dipped below 50 percent for the first time in last year’s local elections, and is unlikely to rebound by 2024. It is also likely that internal divisions will persist beyond the conference, further weakening its position. The next leadership will thus have a monumental task ahead of it.

The ANC is likely to lose the highly strategic Gauteng province, which encompasses the capital city, the country’s economic hub, and the industrial sector. The ANC only won 50.19 percent of the vote there in 2019, and has watched its provincial support decline for over a decade. Increasingly, voters are turned off by the party’s deep factionalism and perceptions that its leaders are more interested in increasing their own wealth than the wellbeing of the country.

Indeed, the recurring fights over parliamentary positions and political office has escalated to such a point that in 2019, one member even took the party to court, alleging that certain leaders had illegally manipulated the electoral list. After winning the case, the plaintiff became a parliamentarian himself.

The reason behind these intense fights is in the nature of the South African economy, which is still controlled by a small elite. Because most South Africans live only a paycheck away from destitution, and the country’s welfare state remains woefully underdeveloped, many see political office as one of the few routes out of poverty, hoping to gain access to business and jobs. Until this deeper inequality is tackled, along with the ANC’s role in perpetuating it, further factionalism will continue to plague the party as competing groups divide up the spoils between each other.

Looking to the 2024 elections, the ANC is particularly threatened by a June 2020 Constitutional Court ruling that the country’s ban on independent electoral candidates was unconstitutional. With independent candidacies now permitted for the first time, ANC members dissatisfied with the results of the upcoming conference could also choose to run on their own, further fragmenting the party’s base and accelerating a downward spiral.