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Victory strengthens Cyril Ramaphosa but Phala Phala matter puts Paul Mashatile in pole position to become next president

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Picture: ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa, party national chairperson Gwede Mantashe and deputy president Paul Mashatile. Picture: Oupa Mokoena/African News Agency (ANA).

By Sipho Seepe

To say that this was a nail-biting contest would be an understatement. Tension was palpable the moment the ANC delegates descended on Nasrec for the quintennial pilgrimage of the ANC.

The stomach-churning tension was to be expected since it had replayed itself at several provincial leadership contests. Blood pressures were high on both sides of the factional divide.

Delegates turned to songs as a way of masking their worst fears. Those supporting Dr Zweli Mkhize could not bear the thought of another five-year term for Ramaphosa. If truth be told, it is doubtable that Ramaphosa will finish the term, not with the Phala Phala scandal hanging over his head.

Globally Ramaphosa is finished goods. He is in no position to lecture anyone about political morality. Under his rule, it will likely be more of the same. He is a man who brought load shedding back into the socio-political life of South Africans. The image of Ramaphosa being helped to walk out at the conference is indicative of the level of strain that dominated the atmosphere.

Those opposed to Mkhize are largely driven by fear that the largesse enjoyed under Ramaphosa would disappear as soon as the results are announced. They face the prospect of losing benefits that come with their proximity to power. They cannot countenance the prospect of a loss.

As the nail-biting wait takes a toll on the delegates, policy debates were far from their mind. Indeed, the 55th national elective conference of the ANC was marked less by policy consideration than by spirited contestation for leadership positions.

The very fact that the party finds itself in this scenario says a lot about the outgoing leadership.

Ramaphosa has had five years to consolidate his leadership. And he has failed. After five years of being in power, the party of liberation has been reduced to a ragtag now known for being led by power-mongering individuals.

A few minutes before the final announcement, the Twitter space was filled with posts by both sides – each claiming victory. In the end, Ramaphosa won handsomely by almost 600 votes (579 to be exact). In a sense, the outcome is not surprising. Provincial nominations gave Ramaphosa a thumbs up when eight out of nine provinces backed him early in the race.

The same can be said of Paul Mashatile who had the advantage of being backed by almost all the provinces bar the Eastern Cape. KwaZulu-Natal entered the conference a bit hesitant about Mashatile after he failed to throw his weight behind the provincial position in support of Mkhize.

Of those contesting for the position of deputy president Ronald Lamola came out very badly. He could only scrape a mere 315 votes which is less than 1500 (1 543 to be exact), to Oscar Mabuyane the premier of Eastern Cape.

Gwede Mantashe retained his position as chair. Indications were that this position would go to the premier of Limpopo Stan Mathabatha.

Mantashe’s victory gives him a weighty voice in his portfolio as the Minister of Energy and Mineral Affairs. Mantashe has been very vocal in calling for the dismissal of Eskom’s group chief executive arguing that he was the wrong person for the job. In addition, Mantashe has been critical of those who have positioned themselves as agents of renewable energy.

Unlike Ramaphosa who is sold on the idea of renewables, Mantashe has argued that transitioning from coal should be done in such a manner that it does not undermine both the country’s energy and job security. This seems to have pitted him against the renewable lobby.

Nomvula Mokonyane and Fikile Mbalula’s election would bring a lot of vibrancy and energy to the office of the secretary-general of the ANC. The two had worked together in most of the ANC’s electoral campaigns.

Mbalula has been a great supporter of Ramaphosa even before the electoral contest started. Both Ramakgopas, Maropene in the position of the second deputy secretary-general and Gwen as treasurer-general) are also known to be very close to Ramaphosa. It could be argued that with the new team Ramaphosa’s hand has been strengthened.

Ramaphosa’s victory provides him with an opportunity to relook at his Cabinet. With his hand strengthened he is now able to reorganise his Cabinet in a manner that he sees fit. In 2017 he won by a mere whisker. Right now, he has no excuse.

Ramaphosa is however not off the hook. He would still have to contend with the Phala Phala matter. Opposition parties have every intention of ensuring that they gain political mileage out of it. With the 2024 elections around a corner, most of 2023 is going to be wasted in litigation as parties seek to hold (him) accountable following the report by the Section 89 Independent Panel.

Depending on how the Phala Phala matter pans out, Mashatile may end up occupying the highest office as president of the republic.

*Seepe is an independent political analyst.