Instead of only publicly embracing the ANC faction in KZN that supported his rise to power, he began as early as January last year to embrace the entire PEC and alliance partners, says the writer. Picture: Leon Lestrade/African News Agency (ANA)
One of the oldest and most useful arts in politics is subduing your opponents without a fight, and that is what ANC president Cyril Ramaphosa is doing when it comes to the ANC’s provincial executive committee (PEC) of KwaZulu-Natal and the province as a whole. It is an approach that has been seen in other ANC-led provinces.

Instead of only publicly embracing the faction that supported his rise to power, he began as early as January last year to embrace the entire PEC and alliance partners by kicking off the party’s January 8 statement activities in Durban.

His first move to win over the PEC after he won power on May 8 was to allow Sihle Zikalala to take over the premiership of the province even though the latter did not support him at Nasrec, and Ramaphosa could have sidelined him by appointing a female premier.

In that way, he presented himself as someone who bears no political grudges. Sidelining Zikalala would have created a headache similar to the one former ANC president, Jacob Zuma created for himself when he sidelined Paul Mashatile as Gauteng premier in 2009 even though Mashatile was the provincial chair and had kept the seat warm from September 2008 when the then premier, Mbazima Shilowa, resigned to join Cope.

Mashatile and his Gauteng comrades never forgave Zuma for that, and when he started scoring own goals in the latter days of his presidency, the first internal castigation of him came from Mashatile and his team.

For Ramaphosa, by embracing the PEC of KZN he is politically massaging it to stand with him at the much anticipated next year June national general council of the party where he may face an internal revolt. The same PEC is also expected to back him for another term as party leader in 2022.

This is a provincial executive committee that is made up of people who did not initially support his ascendancy to power at the Nasrec conference of the party.

A Ramaphosa backer told Independent Media last month that as his confidants in the province and PEC, told him to give Zikalala the position in order to please him and move him away from the political orbit of Zuma who is accused of trying to divide the province by insisting on campaigning with Zikalala.

“We felt that for the sake of unity as well, he must allow Zikalala to be the premier so that we have unity in the province and he is going to do it after we reached an agreement,” the Ramaphosa confidant serving as a PEC member said.

Ramaphosa is also acutely aware of the strength of KZN within the governing party and the country and he has kept the province next to him by appointing nine ministers and three deputy ministers in his recently unveiled Cabinet from there.

The ministers are Thoko Didiza, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Dr Zweli Mkhize, Dr Blade Nzimande, General Bheki Cele, Pravin Gordhan, Senzo Mchunu, Nathi Mthethwa and Dr Naledi Pandor. The deputy ministers are Sdumo Dlamini, Njabulo Nzuza and Professor Hlengiwe Mkhize.

The large presence of KZN men and women in the Cabinet could be viewed as a way of compensating the province for failing, for the first time since 1991, to secure a spot in the top six table of the party at Nasrec.

It could be seen as a way of showing KZN people that he is a leader for all, thus moving them away from the resurgent Inkatha Freedom Party and playing a long political game with the aim of bringing the province into his political corner.

Political analyst Xolani Dube described the Cabinet move, in part, as building a future power base and war chest during tough ANC internal battles and conferences.

“Politics is about patronage and political loyalty is bought by patronage. So by appointing people like Njabulo Nzuza of the youth league and Bavelile Hlongwa, he wants to please the youth league so that he can have people to support him where there is a conference,” Dube said.

Prior to the Cabinet appointment, Ramaphosa spent most of his time between January and April this year campaigning in the province and even visiting protests hotspots like eKuvukeni in Ladysmith to resolve service delivery issues.

He also visited one of the largest traditional leaning churches in the province, the Shembe Baptist church and took part in the church’s service. While in Ladysmith, he also visited Dr Joseph Shabalala, the ailing founder of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and that won him accolades as someone who recognises Zulu traditional music.

Before that, on March 30, he had shown that he understands what is dear to people of KZN by stopping his campaign in the province to take part in a successful maskandi music event where he showed up in a Zulu traditional attire and briefly addressed the crowd with Zikalala at his side. That won him praise in a province where culture is everything.

Ramaphosa and his top six have strategically stayed away from provincial party issues like arrests of mayors and their suspensions.

When in March this year the province faced an upheaval after the arrest of former Harry Gwala district mayor, Mluleki Ndobe (charges have been withdrawn) and later Dr Ntuthuko Mahlaba, the party’s top leadership which Ramaphosa is part of, only asked for reports and did not get involved in resolving the matters.

The leadership also did the same when eThekwini, one of the regions that did not back him, ran into difficulties when its regional chairperson and mayor, Zandile Gumede, was arrested. The national office did not intervene but instead gave the province space to deal with it.

In that way, Ramaphosa and his top six did not want to dirty themselves with provincial politics but left it to the province to deal with the matter. In extension, Ramaphosa did not want to be seen as rebuking some while ignoring others.

For Ramaphosa, provincial politics and how it is managed is a long game.

* Mavuso is a senior journalist at Independent Media.