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Why KZN ANC elective conference is do or die for Ramaphosa

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Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng – After a fierce election battle, former ANC provincial secretary Sihle Zikalala is cheered on to the stage after winning the election to become ANC provincial chairperson in Pietermaritzburg in November, 2015. Zikalala faces tough competition to retain his position in the provincial conference under way in Durban.

By Sihle Mavuso

Durban – Rightly so, from this Friday, Durban and the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, have been topping social media trends and it has been on everybody’s lips.

The coastal city in KwaZulu-Natal is hosting about 2,000 delegates at the Olive Convention Centre for the elective conference of the governing party and the stakes are high as the outcome will determine who gets fired in the provincial cabinet in the coming months and who heads the provincial government.

It is given that even if the incumbent chair, Sihle Zikalala retains his position, he will still reshuffle his provincial cabinet, either before the December conference of the ANC or shortly after it. That is because some of his most senior MECs are challenging him for party power.

Nomusa Dube-Ncube, the MEC for finance and outgoing provincial treasurer, has been openly campaigning to unseat him. So is Peggy Nkonyeni, the MEC for transport, community safety and liaison. In the same breath, Zikalala’s MEC for health, Nomagugu Simelane, is on a different slate, which is opposed to Zikalala.

Within ANC circles it is known that Simelane is fighting for political survival as Zikalala is not happy with her after several allegations of financial mismanagement under her watch have been reported in the media.

Given that, should Zikalala emerge victorious, he will likely act against those who are challenging his grip on power. In November 2020, sensing that Dube-Ncube was a threat to his power, Zikalala moved her from the “super department” of economic development, tourism and environmental affairs to finance, which has a meagre budget that mainly goes to staff salaries.

The “super department” is in charge of about 11 state-owned companies including Ithala Group (the so-called cash cow for politically connected business people), Tourism KwaZulu-Natal, as well as Trade and Investment KwaZulu-Natal. Political analysts said the reshuffling, which only affected her, was meant to neutralise her ahead of the bruising battle billed for this weekend.

Equally, if Zikalala is ousted from power, a provincial cabinet reshuffle is inevitable. For instance, if the so-called Taliban faction led by Siboniso Duma, a member of the provincial legislature, wins, there must be means to pave way for him to get to the cabinet, and get experience before being roped in to lead the provincial government.

Now, ahead of the December conference, all factions wrestling for power, are keenly watching the conference. If the Taliban faction wins, that will be a major setback for President Cyril Ramaphosa. That faction has people like Dr Ntuthuko Mahlaba, the chairperson of the Mbuso Kubheka region (formerly eMalahleni) who is still bitter that Bheki Cele, the minister of the Police and a Ramaphosa ally, was allegedly behind his arrest for a political murder case in Newcastle.

During his many court appearances, before the charges were eventually withdrawn, Mahlaba publicly called Cele a “phara” (hobo) highlighting the fallout between the two. Those close to Mahlaba claimed that he felt Ramaphosa did not do enough to rein in Cele and shield him (Mahlaba) from prosecution.

Now, if the Taliban wins, it spells disaster for Ramaphosa since most of them have deserted him. It would have been even better if Jomo Sibiya, another Ramaphosa confidant was with the faction. Sibiya, after a fallout, dumped the faction and joined Zikalala.

It is not likely that the Taliban faction will back Ramaphosa in December. Without that support, Ramaphosa’s grip on power, which has been loosened by the deepening Phala Phala farm scandal, is under threat.

On the right end of it, the conference will be used by the likes of Dr Zweli Mkhize to test the strength of their provincial support ahead of the national policy conference billed for next week. If Mkhize and his supporters believe they have an upper hand, they will use their newly found power to mount a challenge to the step aside resolution at the policy conference.

With Mkhize facing a possible arrest for his alleged role in the digital vibes saga, his lobbyist once told IOL that the resolution will be challenged at the policy conference. If they get enough support, the current leadership of Ramaphosa will be voted out of power.

To them, Mkhize’s challenge for power will be thwarted by arresting him before the December elective conference. To stop that, only scrapping step aside will help him to be available for election.

For Ramaphosa and his supporters to avert that possibility and humiliation, they have to win the KwaZulu-Natal conference at any cost. The only slate that can save the day for him is the one led by Zikalala and outgoing provincial secretary, Mdumiseni Ntuli.

Although Zikalala was initially with the RET (Radical Economic Transformation) faction, he later fell out with it. During the eThekwini regional conference early this year, he lashed some of the leaders of the faction, alleging they did nothing to fulfil policy while in power. This was seen as an indirect swipe at former President Jacob Zuma, the Godfather of the RET faction (the faction calls him the father of RET).

In retaliation, the faction howled at him during a prayer service in honour of former President Jacob Zuma in May this year. They told him point blank that he won’t be re-elected (akabuyi). That humiliation pushed Zikalala to Ramaphosa’s corner, hence even Sibiya found it easy to join him.

If Ramaphosa supporters win this one, it will boast his campaign as he already has the Eastern Cape, Limpopo and Mpumalanga provinces in the bag. In fact, it will almost be game over for others.

In the same breath, if his supporters fail in KwaZulu-Natal, those who are angling to challenge him will be rejuvenated.

Besides Ramaphosa and his faction, alliance partners Cosatu and the SACP, too, have a vested interest in the conference. Notably, the two alliance partners, this time around, opted not to endorse any faction.

Ahead of the bruising November 2015 elective conference in Pietermaritzburg where Zikalala miraculously ousted then provincial chairperson and premier, Senzo Mchunu, the alliance partners openly backed the latter. That left them with burnt fingers and they learnt some lessons, hence they are not openly getting bogged down by the issue this time around.

Mavuso is a Current Affairs Journalist based in Durban.