In one corner, former trade unionist Cyril Ramaphosa. In the other, Mr Zuma’s former wife Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
When the African National Congress meets in December, it will face the choice between life and death. Not my words, but those of the ANC’s veteran secretary general, Gwede Mantashe.
“I’m giving you the choice between life and death,” Mr Mantashe told party members this weekend. “That is the choice for the ANC in December, it’s a choice between life and death, it’s a choice between prosperity and disaster.”
In December the ANC will meet to choose the party’s next leader – the position currently held by president Jacob Zuma. Whoever is elected, Mr Zuma will retain the presidency of the country, but his powers will be substantially reduced. Although there are a number of candidates, the election is looking like a fight to the finish between Mr Zuma’s deputy, the former trade unionist and multi-millionaire, Cyril Ramaphosa, and Mr Zuma’s former wife, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, a former government minister who until recently ran the African Union Commission.
Every effort is being made to strengthen Dr Dlamini-Zuma’s position. She is being brought into Parliament, but the campaign does not end there. There is speculation she will be brought into the Cabinet, in a reshuffle, with a senior member of the Communist Party being removed to make way for her.
It’s not difficult to see why this is such a bitter contest. Everyone knows that President Zuma faces over 700 charges of corruption. He’s hoping that if these are not to come to court, his former wife is his best chance of keeping the judges at bay.
Every resource available to the presidency is being thrown into the fight. It should not be forgotten that in exile Mr Zuma was head of the dreaded security department of the ANC. Popularly known as the “Mbokodo” “the stone that crushes” it ruthlessly disposed of its enemies. Since taking over the leadership of the ANC and the country, Zuma has populated the security services and police with men and women who are beholden to him.
The ANC’s internal election has become a very dirty affair indeed. A member of the ANC National Executive, Bheki Cele, recently speculated that Cyril Ramaphosa would be removed from his position as deputy president.
There have already been a series of leaks about Ramaphosa’s affairs (one of which he has admitted). Who knows what will be next?
While these steps are taking place under cover, at least as bitter a battle is being played out inside the ANC’s own structures. Branches that might support Ramaphosa are being closed down, so that they are unable to send delegates to the December conference. There are also reports that voting inside the ANC is being rigged. It is alleged that as many as 200 000 membership forms were forged in KwaZulu-Natal alone.
“While Ramaphosa and the six or so other contenders battle the smears against them, something more sinister and insidious is unfolding,” wrote Justice Malala, a political columnist. “The December election is being rigged right in front of them.”
The battle could also turn bloody. There is – tragically – a long history of murders and assassinations inside the ANC, as members fight to take positions of power so as to control government contracts and win backhanders. There is no agreed death toll for these killings, but one South African TV channel broadcast a report that in the province of KwaZulu-Natal alone there were 450 political murders between 1994 and 2013. Most have never been solved.
In June 2016 Police Minister Nkosinathi Nhleko announced that a special police task team had been established to investigate and try to prevent political killings, but it has not made its findings public.
It is against this background of rumour, smears, dirty tricks and assassinations that the next president of the ANC will be chosen. The party of Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu and Albert Luthuli is almost unrecognisable today. Few any longer regard the ANC with the reverence and affection that it once took for granted.