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The Battle For The Soul Of SA

It seems that President Cyril Ramaphosa’s repeated calls for unity in the ANC are falling on deaf ears. The clique around former president Jacob Zuma is brazen and not afraid of supporting him publicly. The question arises: what real power does this group exercise within the ANC and the state broadly? This issue becomes increasingly important since critical decisions are going to have to be taken as divergent pressures build up.

To answer this question, we have to go back to the original source of power within the ANC and government. The constitution of the ANC gives local branches the basic power, which is then conveyed upwards through elected delegates. The larger the branch, the more delegates. These delegates are then mandated for national conference. The branch will also make nominations for Parliament and the provincial legislatures in what is called the “list process”.

Taking national conference first, it elects the top six officials and the national executive (which will subsequently elect the smaller national working committee). The Top Six meet weekly and are the engine room of everything. At present the Top Six are: Cyril Ramaphosa, president; David Mabuza, deputy president; Ace Magashule, secretary-general; Jesse Duarte, deputy secretary-general; Gwede Mantashe, ANC chairperson; and Paul Mashathile, treasurer. Ramaphosa can rely on support from Mantashe and Mashathile with Mabuza wavering.

Ramaphosa has enormous power as president of South Africa. But Magashule has a great deal of power as de facto head of Luthuli House, ANC headquarters. We shall examine each in turn.

As president, Ramaphosa appoints his Cabinet and through his ministers is in control of the public service, army and police. He appoints the premiers of the provinces and through his ministers, he controls the state-owned enterprises.

As secretary-general, Magashule acts on behalf of the Top Six, but with considerable personal discretion, he oversees the provinces, the ANC in Parliament, and all ANC branches. He is in charge of all arrangements for national conference and for national policy conference in between the national conferences.

He is in charge of the list process for Parliament and the provincial legislatures, acting with a list committee appointed by himself.

He also works in tandem with the deputy president, who is the head of the deployment committee which places selected individuals in key positions throughout the state system. This includes heads of state-owned enterprises, the chief whip of Parliament as well as chairs and whips of committees. This gives the SG enormous power, especially over Parliament since the chief whip reports regularly to him. It also sets the scene for potential conflict between a Zuma-aligned chair of a committee and the relevant minister appointed by Ramaphosa.

Reference must be made to caucus. This consists of all MPs in the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. Caucus meets every Thursday morning in the Old Assembly. It is chaired by a member appointed by the chief whip and is administered from the latter’s office. Caucus is normally briefed by ministers on forthcoming legislation, which is open for discussion. It is also addressed periodically by the SG and the president, who use the occasion to align MPs with the thinking in the national executive and Luthuli House generally. Members are free to give their views, but inevitably there is a strong sense of not stepping out of line.

One other committee is important but never appears to be discussed, and this is the Political Committee headed by the deputy president and consisting of several ministers, the chief whip and a few selected MPs. This committee meets informally, has no secretary and no minutes, and is only convened when there is a serious political issue in Parliament. Its function is to give political guidance but also to assert leadership where needed. It obviously reports to the SG.

As it happens, there are conflicting views and loyalties, as we see playing out in the reports of the Public Protector for instance. Parliament is meant to rule on her conduct, so what mandate will come from Luthuli House? Then there is the evidence at the Zondo Commission and the possibility of adverse findings against Zuma. This will also ultimately find its way to Parliament.

Clearly, Ramaphosa will have to stay within the rigours of the Constitution to sort out our state system, but this means he cannot be held back by the requirements of unity.

It is often argued that MPs swear allegiance to the Constitution and should therefore at all times defend the rights of ordinary citizens. But MPs also swear allegiance to party constitutions and there may well be a choice to be made. The ANC structure we set out above shows clearly that party discipline is very strong and may well override other considerations. This becomes even more sensitive when the person leading the state is in disagreement with the person running the governing party, as the current situation appears to be.

Members of the ANC but also the people of South Africa are going to have to choose between them.

  • Ben Turok is the director of the Institute for African Alternatives (IFAA) and a former ANC MP.

OPINION: Ben Turok