The ANC’s succession race is wide open after the party’s national general council (NGC) meeting in Midrand this weekend.
President Jacob Zuma on Saturday declared he would not stand for an extra term, throwing the race for the party’s presidency in two years’ time open to the handful of candidates still standing.
“I will never; no I won’t. Even if they beg me, I won’t stand,” Zuma told journalists on the sidelines of the council meeting.
By emphatically turning down a third term in the top job, Zuma has thrown a spanner in the plans of the so-called “premier league”, a faction lobbying for the president to retain his party post beyond 2017.
The group – apparently made up of Free State Premier Ace Magashule, North West Premier Supra Mahumapelo, Mpumalanga Premier David Mabuza and backed by the Youth League – wants Zuma to stay on beyond the expiry of his term in December 2017, ostensibly as a way to harmonise the ANC’s presidential term with that of the national government.
Under the scheme, Zuma would hang on to his ANC post until the NGC election in 2019.
A second leg of this faction’s plan is the push for a woman to succeed Zuma, for which they have secured the backing of the Women’s League.
Indications from some delegates involved in the closed-door discussions were that lobbying for a female successor had gained little traction at this weekend’s meeting and the issue of succession would have to be discussed at a later occasion.
This means candidates will have to go back to campaigning in ANC branches and regional structures in the lead-up to the elective national conference in two years’ time. None of the candidates can rely on an NGC policy position indirectly supporting their presidential bid.
Zuma’s stance on the succession is in contrast to his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, who allowed speculation and lobbying over a third term to continue for years, alienating sections of the party and tripartite alliance, which wanted to see a change, leading them to coalesce around Mbeki’s then-deputy, Zuma.
The race eventually went to a vote at the party’s 2007 conference, where Zuma defeated Mbeki in a vote that split the party and eventually led to Mbeki’s supporters breaking away.
Zuma’s move to end the speculation early could be an attempt to avoid a repeat of this bloodletting, particularly at a time when the ruling party’s electoral position looks less impregnable than it did under Mbeki.
The ANC faces opposition parties at next year’s municipal polls from a weakened position, its traditionally large majorities having been reduced in Joburg, Tshwane and the Nelson Mandela metro, among others.
What Zuma appears to share with Mbeki is antipathy to his deputy ascending to the top job.
There is open opposition to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in KwaZulu-Natal and among the ANC’s left allies in Cosatu and the SACP, both hotbeds of Zuma support.
These blocs are pushing for NEC member and AU Commission chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, although the pro-woman president lobby also has ANC national chair and Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete as a strong option.
Although the ANC appears to have avoided a damaging blow-up over the leadership battle at this weekend’s talks, this is no guarantee of a bloodless succession this time.
However, Zuma said the party would not be afraid to grasp the nettle when the time comes.
“I don’t know why people are scared... People can all make choices, but this is not the issue here,” he said.