Leadership elections that will require supplementation by strategy

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South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) stands on the verge of electing not just an organisational president, but potentially also the future president of the country. Yet, many questions about capacity and prospects will linger in the aftermath.

The immediate, existential question for the ANC is: Will Cyril Ramaphosa at the steering wheel bring better prospects to the ANC than the alternative candidates? Or, could Zweli Mkhize, Paul Mashatile, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma or Lindiwe Sisulu bring better fortunes to the party?

At this uncertain pre-election moment of writing, the ANC presidential playing field seems close to pre-determined. Ramaphosa holds the bulk of pre-election nominations, while Mkhize is hitherto the only formally nominated alternative candidate.

By the end of Friday, the ANC conference programme promises clarity on the line-up of contestants, and whether the two main candidates will survive conference floor scrutiny of the respective Phala Phala and Digital Vibes reports; whether the two associated blocks will be united or divided.

The delegates might be so factionally divided and pre-aligned that little rational and systematic consideration of pros and cons will carry weight. Mashatile’s chance of slipping into a presidential candidacy will depend on both the main personalities being discredited in the course of Friday when the ANC organisational report is considered and when there will be a slot for additional nominations from the floor.

If the total number of delegates gets to 4 500 it will require 1 125 endorsements (25% of delegates) to confirm additional nominations.

Some of the considerations that will determine the direction of the day’s deliberations will be whether Ramaphosa is believed still to carry sufficient ANC clean-up (and ‘renewal’) credibility to win general citizen and voter endorsements.

A critical question will be the extent to which delegates continue to project Phala Phala as a political plot, whether the veracity of the allegations will be minimised, and Parliament’s role in dismissing the impeachment possibility maximised alongside Ramaphosa’s quest for judicial review. (The review has possibly become superfluous, now that Parliament has voted against the report.)

While these considerations might win the day for Ramaphosa, it is possible that his electoral dividend might still stumble in the months to come. There is little doubt that pro-Ramaphosa delegates will dish up polling evidence of continuous trust in their candidate.

For example, recent polling data suggested that close to two-thirds of ANC voters believe that Ramaphosa will eventually succeed in making the country a better place to live in. This could be lifeline material for an ANC whose electoral survival is tied disproportionately to Ramaphosa.

It will remain uncertain whether Ramaphosa carries sufficient weight with voters to leverage for example a 2024 national election victory, but there are no comparable sets of information that suggest that his opponents can match these returns.

The ANC presidential election programmed for tomorrow (Saturday) speaks to the character of the organisation at the time of its 55th conference: even the best of its available candidates may not be sufficient to deliver future national election survival as the majority party.

The most suspect or implicated of its leadership candidates will certainly not bring such dividends. And the least implicated are so politically inconsequential that they stand little chance of carrying electoral weight.

It will be left to the multiple sessions on strategy and tactics, specific organisational strategy, sustainability, elections renewal and a range of others to try and fill in the gaps that will prevail in the aftermath of the leadership elections.