The ANC’s most important office-bearers: deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, chairwoman Baleka Mbete, president Jacob Zuma, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and treasurer Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA
The ANC’s most important office-bearers: deputy secretary-general Jesse Duarte, secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, chairwoman Baleka Mbete, president Jacob Zuma, deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa and treasurer Zweli Mkhize. Picture: FREDDY MAVUNDA

UNITY isn’t strength if what you unite behind is what holds you back. ANC politicians might need to remember this in the months ahead.

The ANC’s reaction to its election setback shows some signs that its warring factions may be interested in papering over the cracks to avoid a fight to the finish next year. For some time, the ANC has been riven by a battle between two factions — patronage politicians and their opponents. Much of what happens in politics here, including attempts to bully the finance minister by threatening him with trumped-up charges, stems from this war, which revolves around choosing the next president. This reality is often missed: what seems like ANC confusion and mixed messages is the product of a factional battle in which the patronage group controls a majority on its national executive but is opposed by half of its top six leaders.

Until recently, it seemed likely that the immediate future of the ANC would depend on which faction won, relegating the other to the margins. But since the election, some subtle signs suggest that both sides may be shying away from a winner-takes-all fight. One sign may be talk of an early elective conference. The idea was floated by the patronage faction; at first glance, this suggests that it thinks it can win power by calling a conference now. Its plan would be to replace President Jacob Zuma with another member of the faction, who would be less unpopular but would continue patronage politics. The SA Communist Party, which is in the opposing faction, thinks this is what is afoot: it denounced an early elective conference as a factional ploy and suggested a "consultative conference" at which no`one will be elected but the ANC can discuss how to win back voters. It says an elective conference would tear the ANC apart, leaving only an empty shell.

But something else might be happening. ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe has said an early elective conference may be a good idea if it is not marred by factionalism. Like the SACP’s statement, this may be a way of continuing the war by painting the other side as factionalists. But, by not rejecting the conference, he may be signalling interest in a deal.

The patronage group may also now be using that standard tactic, the media leak, to float a compromise. Before the election, its leadership slate consisted purely of members of the faction: now it is leaking slates that combine both factions. It is also suggesting an uncontested slate, which would only be possible if the two sides do a deal to share positions.

Why would the warring factions want a deal? The patronage group may realise that the local election results show it cannot win the 2019 general election on its own — its opponents may be open to a compromise because they are not sure they can elect the next ANC leadership. Some in the ANC also believe disunity is why it lost support, and that speaking with one voice is the way to win back voters. It may not be possible to hold a conference unless the factions find common ground. Challenging the credentials of the other side’s delegates is common in ANC battles: the higher the stakes, the more likely is it that both sides will contest the others’ delegates. This is why the SACP suggested that each province be given the same number of delegates to a consultative conference to avoid endless disputes about who can vote.

But, while a fudge that shares the ANC leadership between the factions might help it deal with its internal conflicts, it is unlikely to restore voter support. Voters were not turned off by disunity in the ANC — they were repelled by patronage politics, so the only way the ANC can regain lost ground is by persuading voters who left it that it is fighting corruption and patronage. It is hard to see how this would be possible if patronage politicians are given leadership posts. Their opponents might hope to win back ANC voters despite this by sidelining them, but there is no reason why they should be better able to do this over the next five years than they were over the past decade.

A compromise would surely mean more of the same — an ANC in which the factions continue to jockey for power and in which decisions reflect this reality.

Patronage’s reach would be constrained, as it is now, which is why firing finance ministers or imposing a public protector who looks after politicians rather than the people is more difficult than patronage barons hope. But it would not be eliminated, and so the head of the SABC may still tell Parliament that what he does is none of its business, and South African Airways might still ignore attempts to hold it to account.

It is precisely this that millions of voters rejected. This must surely mean that the ANC will continue to lose support until patronage politics is forced onto the back foot, not granted at least half the seats at the leadership table.

Prof Friedman is director of the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for the Study of Democracy