World News- South Africa
A round 5,000 delegates from South Africa’s African National Congress (ANC) gathered in Johannesburg on Sunday for a key conference to choose the ruling party’s next leader.
The five-day convention, which started on Saturday, comes amid divisions between the party’s faithful over who will replace President Jacob Zuma as head of the ANC, Al Jazeera reported.
There are seven candidates for the post, but the frontrunners are Cyril Ramaphosa, the party’s current deputy president; and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former chairperson of the African Union High Commission and Zuma’s ex-wife.
With public support for the ANC falling sharply, the party which has ruled since 1994 when Nelson Mandela won the first multi-racial vote, could struggle to retain its grip on power in the 2019 general elections.
“We hope to start voting at some point on Sunday afternoon and the results will be out possibly tomorrow morning,” ANC deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte told reporters.
Ramaphosa received a significant boost late Saturday when he was publicly endorsed by influential ANC chairwoman Baleka Mbete.
There are more than 4,700 delegates attending the conference just outside Johannesburg which got off to a late start due to disputes over which delegates are qualified to vote, and further challenges may be lodged.
Zuma, whose tenure has been tainted by allegations of corruption, is set to vacate the country’s presidency in 2019, and whoever ends up leading the ANC will likely replace him in that role, too.
Speaking at the conference, Zuma acknowledged that this was a crucial moment for the ANC.
“[This] conference is taking place at a time when our movement is at a crossroads,” he said. “While we identify corporate greed as posing a serious threat to the ANC, we also need to look at internal dynamics within our organizations.”
Tania Page, political analyst, said many South Africans see the contest as “a battle for the heart of the ANC”.
While Dlamini-Zuma has run a campaign promising to improve the lives of poor, black South Africans, Ramaphosa has placed emphasis on fixing the country’s economy.
Gwede Mantashe, the ANC secretary-general, said the convention should not create lasting divisions within the party.
“We are hoping to come out of this conference unified,” he said.
“It is not the magic of the individual, but a function of engagement in the conference itself, to try to unify the body of the ANC,” he added.
“The unity is not the unity of leaders. It’s the unity of the body of the ANC.”
In addition to the position of leader, delegates will also be deciding for other senior positions within the ANC.
Echoing that view, in an address on Saturday, Zuma appealed for unity in a party riven by bitter factions, and blamed the decline in the ANC’s popularity on “perceptions in society that we are soft on corruption, self-serving and arrogant”, AFP reported.
“Petty squabbling… needs to take a back seat,” he said.
“Our people are frustrated when we spend more time fighting among ourselves instead of solving the daily challenges they experience.”
But his speech drew only weak applause in sharp contrast with the raucous dancing and singing in support of those seeking to replace him.
Zuma is seen as supporting Dlamini-Zuma, who may protect him from prosecution over graft charges.
Some analysts say the contentious leadership battle could end up splitting the party.
The ANC is still South Africa’s biggest party by far, but the 54% it won in local elections last year was its worst poll result since 1994.
In opposition, the Democratic Alliance and the Economic Freedom Fighters are hoping to exploit the ANC’s woes in the 2019 election, with one possible outcome being a coalition government.
Opportunity for Change
Soaring unemployment and state corruption have fuelled frustration at the ANC among millions of poor black South Africans who face dire housing, inadequate education and continuing racial inequality.
Dlamini-Zuma, 68, headed the African Union commission until earlier this year and is a former interior, foreign affairs and health minister.
Her critics have warned she will pursue Zuma’s failing economic and political policies.
The couple had four children together before divorcing in 1998.
Ramaphosa, 65, a former trade union leader, led the historic negotiations in the 1990s to end apartheid before launching a business career that made him one of the country’s wealthiest men.
He is often accused of failing to confront Zuma while serving as his deputy since 2014.
Mbete said she endorsed Ramaphosa to boost “unity in the organization” before the 2019 election.
Ben Payton, an analyst at the global risk consultancy Verisk Maplecroft, said Ramaphosa was well-positioned for victory but Dlamini-Zuma “remains within touching distance of an upset win”.
“The conference provides an opportunity for the party to change direction after eight years in which the economy has flatlined, increasingly extreme rhetoric has scared off investors, and corruption has overwhelmed public finances,” he said.