Picture: ANC MEDIA PIX
Picture: ANC MEDIA PIX

THE African National Congress (ANC) prides itself in being a "big-tent" organisation that represents the key characteristics and aspirations of the broadest possible section of society. Consequently, its gauge for the selection of leaders is that they should represent a balanced slate — something akin to a full spectrum of interest groups.

The result of elections yesterday moves the organisation forward in an important way — but it comes at a cost. Most significantly, but also unsurprisingly, President Jacob Zuma maintains his position as head of the party. The only real consequence of this vote is its emphatic nature; the president won with 75% of delegates supporting his candidature. This compares to the roughly two-thirds of the delegate body who voted for him at the ANC’s previous conference, at Polokwane.

Clearly, although many in society are critical of Mr Zuma’s leadership and his ethics, his deference to the wishes of the party has resonated with party delegates.

Society will have its own judgment of the president, but in terms of the party’s criteria, it has become obvious Mr Zuma has a notable blind spot: the urban middle class. He simply does not appeal to this grouping. His traditionalism runs counter to increasing aspirations of the urban middle class, and the Democratic Alliance has made startling inroads into this group.

The ANC is clearly hoping the election of trade unionist-turned-businessman Cyril Ramaphosa will help fill this gap. He brings with him the hopes of another constituency — business. The appeals of business leaders before the conference underlined a sense that business has had since the start of the Zuma administration: that their concerns were not only ignored but also fundamentally misunderstood.

Mr Ramaphosa is certainly not a representative of business in general; he has recently become a businessman, but he spent most of his life as a union organiser. But business will certainly feel less of a pariah grouping with Mr Ramaphosa, technically one of their own, formally present on the highest rungs of the organisation. Whether he ends up being an effective member of the executive, or ends up simply a placeholder, remains to be seen, but he undoubtedly brings a huge reputation and status to the executive.

Perhaps more pertinent, Mr Ramaphosa’s presence underlines the importance of the National Development Plan, particularly since he is Planning Minister Trevor Manuel’s deputy on the National Planning Commission. The plan constitutes the most detailed attempt to grapple with the problems in SA’s society. Mr Manuel’s decision to stand aside from election to the national executive committee means the baton has been handed to Mr Ramaphosa, and that may well be formalised in the near future. The plan received a ringing endorsement from Mr Zuma at the conference, which suggests Mr Ramaphosa intends to build it into policy more directly.

The election does, however, come with costs. Since it was fought on a slate basis, and since Mr Zuma’s slate has won so comprehensively, his control over the party is now emphasised. This is particularly noticeable since his old friend from KwaZulu-Natal, Zweli Mkhize, will now take over the party’s finances, and his former chief operating officer, Jessie Duarte, becomes deputy secretary-general. Whether that concentration of power is a good thing remains to be seen.

Perhaps one of the larger problems for the party, illustrated by at least the election of the top six posts, is the lack of a generational mix. As Business Day columnist and Eyewitness News reporter Stephen Grootes points out, none of the top six is younger than 55, despite the rallying call of Zuma opponents. For the ANC Youth League, the result is a setback, and for its charismatic former leader, Julius Malema, the result is particularly dire.

Overall, however, the party will feel its apex is stronger and more united. That strengthened position now needs to be translated into action or else it will mean little.