President Cyril Ramaphosa was re-elected as the president of the African National Congress (ANC) on 19 December. Ramaphosa’s re-election follows a bruising and chaotic three days as factional tensions within the party played out during the ANC’s 55th national elective conference still underway at the Johannesburg Expo Centre.
Ramaphosa narrowly defeated his rival, former health minister Zweli Mkhize, by 2 476 votes to 1 897. This 579-vote victory was the largest of all the contests for the ANC’S seven top positions (Top Seven). Although this margin was larger than the 179 votes by which he beat current Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in 2017, the close nature of these election results underscores the clear divide within the ruling party and Ramaphosa’s failure to unite the ANC behind him in the past five years.
However, Ramaphosa will take solace in the fact that his allies now dominate the Top Seven, unlike the outcome of the 2017 national elective conference which produced a deeply split Top Six (the party has introduced a second deputy secretary-general position this year).
The ANC’s new senior leadership is as follows:
- President: Cyril Ramaphosa
- Deputy President: Paul Mashatile
- Chairperson: Gwede Mantashe
- Treasurer-General: Gwen Ramokgopa
- Secretary-General: Fikile Mbalula
- 1st Deputy Secretary-General: Nomvula Mokonyane
- 2nd Deputy Secretary-General: Maropene Ramokgopa
Importantly, the only person in the Top Seven openly opposed to Ramaphosa is the 1st Deputy Secretary-General Mokonyane who narrowly defeated former energy minister Tina Joemat-Pettersson by only 50 votes. This is despite the fact that Joemat-Pettersson was nominated from the conference floor at the last minute after ANC General Manager Febe Potgieter declined her nomination.
The rest of the new Top Seven are considered to be solid supporters of Ramaphosa, with the exception of Mashatile who has an uneasy relationship with the President and was on Mkhize’s slate. However, it should be stressed that Mashatile does not overtly belong to the anti-Ramaphosa Radical Economic Transformation (RET) faction, but is rather a deeply ambitious individual who is an ascendant force within the ANC. Mashatile notably did not endorse Mkhize ahead of the conference but was backed by Mkhize’s faction in the hope that this would attract Mashatile’s supporters to back Mkhize. Mashatile is expected to back Ramaphosa in the foreseeable future as this is the wisest and most expedient political course of action for him at present. He is now well-positioned to succeed Ramaphosa when the President steps down as party leader in 2027. Mashatile will spend the next five years deepening his support and constituency within the ANC, while presenting himself to the wider electorate as a future national president.
The results of the Top Seven election also illustrated the lack of political nous of Ramaphosa’s political and strategic advisors. The President’s team only settled on its preferred leadership slate on the eve of the election. This did not leave enough time to mend broken fences with influential figures who were in the process excluded from the final slate, nor did it allow much room for his supporters to rally around these candidates and effectively campaign. This was clear in the contest between Mokonyane and Joemat-Pettersson as there were less than 24 hours to mobilise support for Joemat-Pettersson, assisting in Mokonyane’s victory. In addition, this belated consolidation also resulted in the unintentional splitting of the vote leading to uncomfortably close elections for key positions.
For example, Mantashe was elected with a margin of only 44 votes due partly to deputy finance minister David Masondo remaining on the ballot and attracting 230 votes. Similarly, Gwen Ramokgopa only won by 157 votes, largely because Ramaphosa’s personal advisor Benjani Chauke remained on the ballot and pulled 590 votes away from her.
Yet, regardless of the vote differences, Ramaphosa is in a stronger position after this conference than he was five years ago. This is mainly because he now has close allies in the secretary-general and treasurer-general positions, which will effectively give him greater organisational control over the ANC. Mbalula occupying the secretary-general’s office will also grant Ramaphosa greater influence over the ANC’s parliamentary lists in 2024, strengthening his control over the legislative caucus and the pool from which he can draw his cabinet. Assuming, of course, that the ANC wins the 2024 general election.
In the short-term Ramaphosa will again need to try and unify a deeply divided party. This is unlikely as these divisions will likely be replicated on the ANC’s 80-member National Executive Committee (NEC) which will be elected in the next two days. However, the President has been granted a key opportunity to seize greater control of his cabinet and, as he no longer needs to worry about being re-elected as party leader, he can now focus on improving his performance as President in an effort to minimise electoral damage in 2024. Key to this will be removing cabinet ministers who are openly opposed to him such as Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and Cooperative Governance Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. In fact, implementing a cabinet reshuffle which increases his control over the government and removes his opponents will be the first test of whether Ramaphosa has the appetite to take advantage of the momentum created by his re-election and convert it into tangible political and governance gains.