IT HAS become routine for African National Congress (ANC) elections to be marred by controversy, and the conference held by the party’s OR Tambo region of the Eastern Cape at the weekend was no exception. The main business of the conference — the election of leaders — took place yesterday instead of Saturday after disputes about who were and were not legitimate branch delegates.
There were also claims by competing factions about the presence of "ghost" delegates, allegedly brought in to vote as part of a strategy to rig the voting and inflate the numbers of eligible voters. Complaints of such gerrymandering are common in ANC contests, which is unlikely to change for as long as the party resists allowing an open contest for leadership.
The OR Tambo conference was postponed at least five times before it was finally held at the weekend. Reasons ranged from the need for the branches to be verified — if they indeed existed — to a general unpreparedness to stage the event. Provincial leaders whose duty it is to convene and oversee the conference were accused of delaying it because it was apparent the likely outcome would not favour their political interests. The stakes were high, given that the Eastern Cape is a key hunting ground for those campaigning for the ANC’s elections in Mangaung in December. So far, regional elections in the province have hardly helped President Jacob Zuma’s second-term chances. Three regions — Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth and surrounds), Cacadu in the western border area, and the East London-based Buffalo City — have been won by candidates opposed to Mr Zuma’s re-election.
OR Tambo, which is in the former Transkei, is the ANC’s second-biggest region after eThekwini. It has more than 80,000 members, making it more influential than smaller provinces such as North West and the Western Cape.
This region can turn the tables in Mangaung. It was a decisive factor in Polokwane five years ago, when it supported Mr Zuma against former president Thabo Mbeki. With less than two months before the ANC allows leadership candidates to be officially nominated in October, OR Tambo has become the region to have in the bag for those campaigning for Mr Zuma, or for the "Anyone But Zuma" campaign meant to galvanise anti-Zuma sentiments.
Given its centrality to the ANC’s future, it is elections such as OR Tambo’s that could decide Mr Zuma’s, the ANC’s and indeed SA’s future in years ahead. So it is vital that they be conducted in a spirit of openness and fairness and that their outcomes are seen to be valid and lasting. Anything less would make for sham democracy, in the ANC, and ultimately in SA itself.