714 Free State Premier Ace Magashule talks to Independent Newspapers about his future plans and his first 3 months in his position as head of this province. 030809. Picture: Bongiwe Mchunu

Senior national ANC leaders have gone all out to eradicate parallel branch structures in the Free State, resolve grassroots grievances and finalise branch audits before this week’s provincial conference, where the longest-serving provincial party chairman, Ace Magashule, is being challenged.

Postponed three times, the Free State ANC conference takes place amid claims that structures are being manipulated. Several incidents of violence, like beatings and shootings at branch meetings and organisational chaos, have meant not all five of its regions were able to hold their conferences.

While Xhariep appears to have gone smoothly, Fezile Dabi had to meet twice after branch audits proved faulty and Lejweleputswa was postponed to this weekend amid similar concerns.

However, ANC leaders told Independent Newspapers this would not affect the provincial conference as it was branches that sent delegates to the provincial meeting, not regions, and the 70 percent threshold for branches that qualified had now been met.

All branch audits, including those of Motheo (Bloemfontein) and Thabo Mofutsanyane (Phuthadijaba), would be completed by tomorrow.

Susan Shabangu, the Mineral Resources minister and ANC national executive committee (NEC) member heading the party’s Free State task team, said challenges had been addressed so branches could have confidence in the pre-conference processes.

“We’ve been doing the work on the ground where there were parallel structures. We have resolved this,” she said. “I’m confident we have done our work... We have brought confidence to the branches to ensure fairness.”

Shabangu dismissed concerns that it had taken the intervention of ANC NEC members and a task team appointed by Luthuli House to resolve tensions.

Magashule downplayed the postponements: “We did not want to rush processes and then we are blamed for that.” He added that those who fought in ANC meetings would be disciplined.

Scheduled from Thursday, the Free State ANC conference will see Magashule face off with former economic development MEC and party treasurer Mxolisi Dukwana, who was sacked in a provincial cabinet reshuffle in February.

The factional splits between pro-change and continuity have reportedly also affected relationships among the current provincial officials, with Magashule no longer seeing eye to eye with provincial secretary Sibongile Besani.

It is understood that Magashule, who is perceived as a strongman for President Jacob Zuma, can count on the support of the provincial women’s league, while the Free State ANC Youth League is in favour of leadership change.

In an interview with the Free State Times in April, Dukwana was confident of the support of branches. “The taking over of leadership of the party in this province will not depend on what I say, but on what we will do… They (the people) will decide whether to support us or not,” Dukwana said.

“Anyone who has joined our call for leadership change in the province but secretly hopes that by doing so this will help him/her get a position of power is definitely in the wrong room.”

The Free State had to request special permission from the ANC NEC to hold its conference this week – just ahead of the policy conference from June 26 – as it missed the end of the May deadline set earlier this year. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe said on Tuesday that the processes in the Free State would be assessed: “What we don’t want to do is to push regions to jump steps.”