Death Threats, Court Case Mark Battle for South Africa's ANC

Updated on
  • Rural barons at the core of Zuma’s power base face challenge
  • ANC must change or face election losses: provincial official

Death threats and court challenges mark an intensifying battle for control of South Africa’s ruling African National Congress as factions fight it out in the nation’s provinces before the party elects a new leader to replace Jacob Zuma.

In the region with the most ANC members, KwaZulu-Natal, the high court is expected to rule next month on an application by party officials to overturn an 2015 election of provincial leaders allied with Zuma following what they say was a flawed process. In Free State, deputy party chairman Thabo Manyoni is seeking to replace his boss, Ace Magashule, another supporter of the president who’s led the ANC in the province for 23 years.

Jacob Zuma

Photographer: Nadine Hutton/Bloomberg News

Whoever wins the battles will go to the December ANC leadership conference as the favorites to determine South Africa’s political future. Supporters of Zuma, who steps down as the nation’s president in 2019, are campaigning for former African Union Commission Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the president’s ex-wife, to take over the party. Manyoni and officials behind the court challenge in KwaZulu-Natal are backing the other main contender, Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“If the outcome of the 2015 election is overturned, it would be a major, major fight and could turn things around, away from Zuma’s ANC, and therefore away from Dlamini-Zuma’s campaign,” said Susan Booysen, a political science professor at the University of the Witwatersrand’s School of Governance in Johannesburg. “The court case is a major decider, not just for the ANC but for South Africa’s future elections.”

Bitter Campaign

Manyoni, 57, says the bitterness surrounding his campaign for Free State’s most powerful political position shows what is at stake.

“There are death threats,” Manyoni, a former ANC guerrilla fighter who wears a Che Guevara cap, said in an interview. “I‘m not going to back off; the ANC is the only home I know. When I fought the apartheid forces during that time, I knew I might not see tomorrow.”

Victory by Manyoni in elections set for next month would be seen as evidence of the disintegration of a group known as the Premier League that consists of the leaders of Free State and two other rural provinces and has helped keep Zuma in power and backed Dlamini-Zuma’s leadership campaign.

Manyoni said his election would be the beginning of a campaign to cleanse the ANC of politicians who abuse state resources and damage the party’s reputation.

“It is here in the Free State that we are going to make sure that the ANC corrects itself,” he said.

Yet, whether he can defeat a skillful political operator like Magashule is doubtful, according to some political analysts.

‘Unlikely’ Victor

“If Manyoni wins, which is highly unlikely to happen, that would be a blow for Dlamini-Zuma,” according to Ralph Mathekga, a political analyst at the Mapungubwe Institute for Strategic Reflection, a Johannesburg-based research group. “The Free State is very interesting in the sense that the current chair appears to be the strongest leader of the Premier League.”

The group is made up of Magashule, David Mabuza, premier of Mpumalanga and their North West province counterpart, Supra Mahumapelo. The three provinces, with about 29 percent of the ANC’s membership, according to the party’s latest figures, are closely allied to the leadership of Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal, which represents 20 percent and should send the most delegates to the leadership conference.

“The whole process is about gradually putting together membership building blocks,” Booysen said. “That is how conferences are won and that is where the Free State fits in.”

The party is in turmoil because of the scandals that have shadowed Zuma, 75, during his eight-year presidency. The Constitutional Court found that he violated his oath of office by failing to repay taxpayer funds spent on his private home in Nkandla in KwaZulu-Natal.

The nation’s graft ombudsman accused him of allowing members of the Gupta family, who are in business with his son, to influence cabinet appointments and the award of state contracts. Zuma and the Guptas deny wrongdoing.

Stalling Economy

The economy has also suffered, with the nation falling into a recession this year, unemployment at a 14-year high and business confidence close to a three-decade low.

“The ANC was formed by people who were caring for those who were less fortunate and not this thing of today of this ‘bling bling’ you see all over,” Manyoni said. “We need to change from the grassroots upward.”

While Zuma has escaped censure because he’s retained the backing of most of the ANC’s top officials who rely on him for their jobs in the government and cabinet, his leadership has opened up deep divisions within the 105-year-old party and eroded its support. The ANC lost control of Pretoria, the capital, and Johannesburg, the economic hub, in municipal elections in August last year.

“Already the message is clear,” Manyoni said. “We have seen it through our local government elections that we really must change. There’s no other way; we have to change.”

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