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Reflections on the KwaZulu-Natal ANC Provincial Conference

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Picture: Siphiwe Sibeko/Reuters – ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa gives closing remarks as South Africa’s governing ANC party concludes a national policy conference at the Nasrec Expo Centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, July 31, 2022.

By Bheki Mngomezulu

As the ANC prepares for its national elective conference in December 2022, a number of processes have ensued. Among them are provincial conferences. These are meant not only to elect the new provincial leadership but also to deliberate on the party’s policy documents.

The aim is to ensure that the organisation saves time in December because they will have ventilated these documents. After a brief discussion, the policies will be adopted in preparation for the 2024 general election.

A number of issues impressed me with the KZN provincial conference that convened at the Olive Convention Centre in eThekwini from Friday to Sunday July 22 to 24. The provincial leadership should be commended for its sterling job. I will highlight a few important issues.

Firstly, the conference was well-organised. All the behind-the scene preparations paid off when the conference began. Unlike in other provincial conferences, the registration of delegates went smoothly. Importantly, the conference credentials were agreed to in record time of less than thirty minutes. This was unprecedented in the entire organisation!

What made this issue stand out was that other provincial conferences had several glitches that almost collapsed those conferences. These included litigations submitted on an urgent basis. This was the case, for example, with the Eastern Cape and Gauteng provincial conferences.

The Eastern Cape conference spent hours debating credentials. This saw the conference delaying discussing real issues. The situation was worse in Gauteng where the conference could not complete its agenda and had to be reconvened to conclude its business.

With regards to the election of the provincial leadership, the province did very well. The process went smoothly and there were no reports of candidates who were aggrieved. Those who emerged victorious did not boast about their victory but humbled themselves to the delegates. This was indeed commendable.

But what was even more impressive was the gesture demonstrated by the other contenders for the different positions who did not win. They did not feel aggrieved. Instead, led by the out-going chairperson, provincial Premier Sihle Zikalala, they ascended to the stage and congratulated their comrades in the podium. This showed good leadership character.

The issue of the ANC President Cyril Ramaphosa was a test to the new leadership and it passed it with flying colours!

Before the conference, it was announced that Ramaphosa was going to officially close the conference in his capacity as the incumbent leader. There was nothing sinister about this since it is the general practice.

However, there were some who expressed a view that they would not appreciate his presence due to the fact that they still have unresolved issues. Top on the agenda of those who were opposed to his presence was the “Step Aside” resolution taken at the ANC national elective conference in December 2017, as well as the issue of former President Jacob Zuma.

This was evident in the song that dominated the entire conference: “Wenzeni uZuma?” [What has Zuma done?]. Implicit in this song was the feeling that the former president of the ANC and the country has been mistreated by the justice system and that the ANC has failed to defend him without breaking the law.

There was confusion when it was announced that Ramaphosa was no longer coming to close the conference. Coincidentally, those who were perceived to be supporting Ramaphosa to run for the ANC leadership position in December did not emerge victorious.

The media was abuzz with speculation that Ramaphosa might have cancelled his trip to eThekwini due to the fact that the group dubbed “The Taliban” had won. Whether this view was correct or not did not seem to matter. The reality was that Ramaphosa’s sudden withdrawal raised a number of questions and triggered more speculation.

The official response was not convincing. The best response would have been to say that something urgent had come up and disrupted the president’s diary. This would have been understandable because Ramaphosa is not only the president of the ANC but is also the president of the country. Ordinarily, urgent matters will arise every now and then.

The confusion was compounded by the statement that the reason for Ramaphosa to abort the trip to eThekwini was due to prior commitments. If that was the case, the announcement would have been made earlier that someone else would be delegated to close the conference on behalf of the party leader. The reason provided was neither plausible nor convincing.

This view is buttressed by Ramaphosa’s decision at the eleventh hour to conclude the conference. He presented a well-prepared speech that addressed various issues, talked to different audiences and tacitly responded to the statements made by former President Thabo Mbeki at the memorial service of the late Deputy Secretary General of the ANC, Jessie Duarte. It was questionable that such a detailed speech would have been put together in the space of just a few hours before Ramaphosa flew to eThekwini.

What impressed me the most was the manner in which Duma, the newly-elected provincial chairperson, handled the situation. When Ramaphosa arrived at the venue, he was welcomed with the song: “Wenzeni uZuma” as had been the case with Paul Mashatile, the ANC’s treasurer.

Seeing that the conference was going to descend into chaos thus making it impossible for the party leader to deliver his address, Duma demonstrated astute leadership. He took the mic and did all in his power to reason with the delegates.

What made him succeed in his endeavour was his honesty. Duma did not hide that as a province, they were disgruntled by a number of issues. Among these was the “Step Aside” resolution and the inconsistency with its application.

However, he said that the provincial conference was not the right place to raise such concerns and reminded delegates that the ANC policy conference was around the corner where such issues would be raised. He then advised his comrades that the concerns did not warrant that they bar the president from executing his mandate. This was profound! Through his intervention, Ramaphosa was able to address the conference uninterrupted.

It is irrefutable that Duma saved the day! By so doing, he demonstrated leadership dexterity. Firstly, he protected the image of the president of the ANC. Secondly, he protected the image of the ANC as an organisation. Thirdly, he protected the image of the province, which would have been accused of preventing a sitting president of the ANC from addressing the conference.

Another commendable development at this conference was the election of Nomagugu Simelane-Zulu as the provincial deputy chairperson of the ANC. This is unprecedented. It added to another impressive development in Gauteng where three of the top five members were women. This is a move in the right direction.

On the KZN outcome, while the election of Simelane-Zulu is a welcome development, it is concerning that only one woman made it to the top five. It is true that delegates vote for the candidates based on their requisite skills and knowledge. However, gender equity is worth considering – especially because the ANC constantly emphasises this point in different contexts. This point is given impetus by the many capable women in the ANC who can serve the organisation well but they are not elected into leadership positions – except for a few.

This is an indictment on the delegate collective first and foremost. Secondly, it is an indictment on the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL). It is either the ANCWL is not vocal enough to make delegates see the need to afford women an opportunity to lead, or women themselves to do not support one another.

This point was also made in different quarters in 2017 when Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma lost to Ramaphosa by 179 votes. This is something that the ANC needs to look into urgently – together with the issue of the youth that is not well-presented in leadership structures.

While the concerns raised above are genuine and relevant to this discussion, they should not overshadow the great job done by both the outgoing and incoming ANC leadership in KZN. The collegiality demonstrated at the conference is something that the ANC in KZN in particular and at the national level generally should use as the springboard to resuscitate the organisation.

Lastly, all the positive observations made in the case of the KZN provincial conference (and some from the Gauteng provincial conference) should be used by the ANC as reference points at its December national elective conference.

No conference can be perfect. Similarly, no organisation can be perfect. However, all organisations should aspire to become better. The best way to do that is to learn from previous experiences and build on the positives made.

Organisations identify areas for improvement and try to avoid making the same mistakes. They do so to become better. The KZN conference has given the ANC a lot to ruminate about!

Mngomezulu is professor of political science and deputy dean of research at the University of the Western Cape.

This article is original to the The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.