President Jacob Zuma, seen here delivering a lecture to Princeton University students in New Jersey, US, is said to have treated members of the integrity commission 'like children'. Picture: Elmond Jiyane / GCIS
At the end of this week the ANC will go into a defining conference in its 105-year history. There is no question that the outcome of this conference will determine the continued life of the ANC as a ruling party of South Africa, or open a new chapter of the party as an official opposition to a coalition government. Anyone who believes the outcome will not determine the ANC’s new reality is either in total dreamland or lacks any tools of analysis.

There is every clue that the outcome of the conference will be a big determinant of our politics in years to come. It is not possible to summarise the implications in one column, and I will not attempt to do that, but I need to summarise the implications through the eyes of the three contending forces of good, evil and the ugly.

The good: The ANC has an opportunity to clean up its act by drawing a line in the sand on the question of corruption. The question of integrity of ANC leaders loomed large at Mangaung, triggering a conference resolution establishing the integrity commission.

Read: ANC policy papers point to a party in a panic

That commission has failed to function effectively over the past five years and has not caused a single ANC leader to be fired for bringing the ANC into disrepute. Its biggest failure was a failure to guide the ANC on how to deal with its scandal-prone president, more especially in the wake of the Nkandla scandal. Apparently it only managed to have one miserable meeting with Zuma in its five years of existence, where it is understood that he dismissed them and treated them like children.

This failure has made society lose faith in the ANC; and the amount of cynicism can only be reversed by the firing of Zuma after the conference, and the removal of anything that will remind the electorate of his dismal legacy. The ANC can do this by electing those as remotely associated with the continuation of Zuma’s reign as possible.

There are a lot of people who believe that the election of CR17 is the only thing that will restore whatever little integrity and credibility that is left in the ANC. This is not a perfect analysis, as it may not fully analyse the weaknesses of a possible CR presidency on other scores, eg the economy, but it is seen as a better devil given the electoral decline that the ANC experienced under Zuma.

Also read: PICS: All roads lead to Nasrec for ANC's elective conference

The bad: The worst crisis that the ANC has suffered is the state capture narrative. The recent exposés in Gupta e-mails, the Public Protector report, as well as the Eskom inquiry, have laid open theft that has exceeded all fears of society. State capture gives an impression of a country on total auto-pilot and a ruling party that has ceased to be the centre of power. Unfortunately, the NDZ slate is associated with rogue elements that do not want the state capture and its serious implications to be probed. Under Zuma, we have had the worst economic indicators of all time.

With all her fantastic credentials, NDZ has not called loudly enough for state capture to be halted; and she is hardly articulate, or even believable, when she speaks on economic policy.

Her election will trigger a frenzy from the opposition parties, who will frame it as a continuation of a legacy of corruption. This is quite apart from the ill-considered endorsement of NDZ by JZ, as well as the numerous discredited voices that promote her campaign.

Her election is seen by many reasonable analysts as virtually handing the reins of power to the opposition in 2019 and plunging the economy into an abyss, given the expected adverse reaction of the markets. Arguments about "time for woman president" and the so-called "independent existence of NDZ from JZ" will be drowned out by the more obvious association of this slate with unsavoury characters who are not particularly known for integrity.

The Ugly: in a bid to save the ANC there is a scramble for a "mythical unity". This may elude them and end up in a conference that has collapsed; or, even worse, a conference that will see a combined slate between CR 17 and NDZ. This will present a schizophrenic front to the markets and may be worse than a winner-takes-it-all approach by either slate.

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This is because a combined slate will only result in policy paralysis, as both sides can't agree on what economic policy needs to be pursued, neither can they agree on a common attitude towards state capture among other defining national questions.

This ugly scenario is tempting to the proponents of unity, but in fact it's the worst thing that can happen to the ANC’s chances of holding on to power. Many pundits believe that the split scenario will only kick in if CR17 loses. This is because there will be a strong call from outside the ANC that the ANC has lost the plot, hence the trigger for a new split will be irresistible.

Such a split will likely coalesce around the SACP, Cosatu and one or more opposition parties that would use CR17 to salvage power. It will all be about survival. There will be no time to sit on the fence after December, as the elections will be less than 18 months away.

The branches of the ANC have the future of the ANC in their hands. I have the feeling that the rest of the country is determined to take it from there, should these branches be so brazen as to choose the wrong path to salvage the credibility of the ANC.

In other words, should this clear analysis be lost to the branches - and result in an outcome that seeks to ignore the sentiments of the country that is pleading for a break from the shenanigans of the past 10 years - it is not far-fetched to expect a bloodbath that will see the ANC in the opposition benches come the 2019 general election.

The opposition is waiting with bated breath to write the ANC’s obituary; plans to break away are cooking, and are likely to go into full swing even before the January 8 statement is read. Either way, the ANC is at a crossroads like never before in its history. No one sensible should underplay how high the stakes are. That would be foolhardy. Now for the long walk to December 21, 2017!

The Star