South African politics have been on a collision course toward Mangaung all year. The African National Congress is holding its National Conference in Mangaung, (the metropolitan region that includes Bloemfontein) this week and all of the political intrigue of the last few years will come to a head. Indeed, one can draw a straight line from the similar ANC conference in Polokwane in 2007 and the meeting this week.
The main purpose of this conference is to establish the ANC’s candidates for elections at virtually all significant levels. And of course in most parts of the country, being the ANC’s chosen candidate automatically makes one likely to take the seat at stake. And while many candidates will be jockeying for position in the Free State, the crown jewel is the position that Jacob Zuma holds, ANC party president. For the party president inevitably becomes (or continues to be) the country’s president. In 2007 Thabo Mbeki saw years of discontentment with his aloofness, with his political and personal failings both real and perceived, culminate in his losing the his position as titular head of the ANC, and while he continued on as president until he was pressured to resign for putatively unrelated reasons, his political fate was sealed in the proceedings in Polokwane.
And of course his fate was sealed at the hands of Jacob Zuma, Mbeki’s one-time friend and ally who had fallen out of the president’s favor for many of the reasons that Zuma has fallen out of favor with so many within the ANC hierarchy. If Mbeki was too diffident, too impossible to get too close to, too reserved, too seemingly indifferent, Zuma is his opposite. Zuma is a man of the people, but he can be crass and unrefined. Zuma has faced a gamut of unseemly and ugly accusations, ranging from rape to corruption, not all of those accusations have come from those with political motives, and many of them are ongoing with new ones seeming to emerge every week.
And so there is considerable irony attached to the fact that Zuma may well hold on to his position at least in part because of the fate that befell his predecessor. For there are many savvy men and women in the highest ranks of the ANC. And while getting rid of Mbeki was easily justifiable, and getting rid of Zuma is just as easily justifiable, getting rid of both in successive national elective conferences would begin to reflect badly upon the party. Getting rid of one unsatisfying politician can be a necessary corrective. Two in a row? That might be perceived as bespeaking to systemic failings within the governing party. Zuma may well benefit from this defensiveness.
Mbeki’s shadow looms over Mangaung, then. So too does Nelson Mandela’s. And not only because Mandela will always loom large over his country’s politics. Mandela has been in the hospital for more than a week, dealing with a lung infection and recovering from gallstone surgery, and so the nation’s thoughts naturally are with the 94-year-old patriarch. Indeed Zuma opened the conference by singing a tribute to Madiba. Political opportunism in the form of Zuma draping himself in Mandela’s legacy? In part. But to assert that as the only dynamic at play, would be to misunderstand the importance of the great man in not only South African iconography, but in its ongoing political life.
And while Zuma is confident about his odds of emerging from this week’s affray with his title intact, and thus with the near-certainty (barring a hardly unimaginable misstep on his part in the future) of winning reelection in 2014, there are those who have the controversial President in their sights. Kgalema Motlanthe, who took over the presidency and was a quite able caretaker after Mbeki stepped down, has a good deal of support to supplant Zuma, and while the Deputy President has been playing his cards close to his vest, Motlanthe quite clearly has designs on the Presidency, if not in 2014 then in 2019 (and yes, the road to 2019 leads straight from Mangaung.)
Motlanthe provides the ballast of Zuma’s opposition, but Julius Malema, the deposed former leader of the ANC Youth League (which, incidentally, is backing Motlanthe this week) and the phoenix of South African politics, provides what is certain to be the week’s entertainment. JuJu is playing nice, but anyone who expects that to last is either an optimist or a satirist.
As if the political drama is not enough, police and intelligence officials foiled a right-wing terrorist bomb plot before the conference commenced. If anyone needed a reminder, Apartheid was not that long ago, and while the country’s democracy is in many ways small, there are those verkrampte elements looking to scuttle the country’s ongoing transformation.
So grab a snack and find your comfiest seat on the sofa. Mangaung will certainly provide the mise en scene for some of the best entertainment in South Africa. And then everyone will start writing the script for the 2018 conference.