They decide ANC leadership
Jacob Zuma's campaign to become the next leader of the ANC, and of the country, is now in full swing. And from where I sit, it doesn't look like anybody can stop Zuma from continuing his campaign to ascend the throne.
The incumbent, Thabo Mbeki, on the other hand, is yet to officially start his campaign. So far he seems to be relying on the current unofficial manoeuvres from his supporters.
Getting into the ANC national executive committee (NEC), especially the so-called "top five", has been easy over the years, but not this time round. It was easy because the office-bearers were pre-determined and candidates were prepared to compromise and withdraw in favour of a particular "comrade" when approached to do so.
Considering the situation at the ANC's 51st national conference at Stellenbosch University in 2002, the real king-makers in the party, in my view, are the branches. It is the behind-the-scenes canvassing and lobbying by delegates before and during national conference, the party's highest decision-making gathering, that determines who gets voted into the NEC.
The multi-class nature of the ANC, where one group tries to out-manoeuvre another, is what makes the lobbying such a lively and interesting process.
Before the conference, branches hold annual general meetings where they select conference delegates and NEC nominees. Here the left and right try to outdo one another about who the delegates should be and attempt to influence the names of their preferred nominees, a process that is usually accompanied by tensions and heated debate.
Most of the time, you will find some so-called "observers" from other branches participating in the debate to influence matters in their favour.
A stronger group, or the one that has the majority of delegates at the AGM, usually wins and all the national conference delegates will come from that side. The same goes for the nominees. However, some branches would compromise and allow a few candidates from their "opponents" into the final branch list in the interest of unity or gender consideration.
But this is not always the case because the more branch representatives there are from one side and their preferred NEC nominees, the greater the chances are that their national candidates will make it onto the nomination form.
The process does not end there. There is a criss-crossing and exchange of nominated names among branches in a particular region, which in turn exchanges names with other regions. Buses carrying delegates from Eastern Cape, which I will use as a case study to illustrate my point, stop in Queenstown, where the regions again lobby one another.
There is even an hour-long caucus in which regional executive committee members meet and merge their respective lists so that the province speaks as one. This is not an easy task because the left and the right continue to want to dominate the debate and it is here that even some NEC aspirants complain about not being included on the list.
In the last conference, for the first time the province's ANC had two lists of nominees as is very likely to be the case again in Limpopo in December.
Long before the Zuma-Mbeki leadership tussle came into play, Eastern Cape was divided into two camps - those supporting then provincial leader Makhenkesi Stofile, or the leftists, and the followers of Amathole regional chairman Mluleki George, the rightists. But the focus has since shifted from Stofile and George to Zuma and Mbeki, thanks to the ANC's move to redeploy both men to the national government to minimise their influence in the province.
During the Stellenbosch conference, I visited "friends" among Eastern Cape delegates. I witnessed the lobbying that took place among delegates from various provinces and the informal one-on-one canvassing.
Each province would deploy emissaries to canvass other provinces to support their nominees. The emissary offers his province's nomination list or specific names and negotiates a deal that, "if you vote for our candidate, we will vote for yours". They try to harmonise the lists particulars and the names of office-bearers.
During breaks, meetings were held under trees, on street corners and even in the university hostels at night to try and win the support of other delegates.
At the time, although Eastern Cape agreed on Mbeki as president and Kgalema Motlanthe as secretary-general, delegates differed on the deputy secretary-general. The communists had then incumbent Thenjiwe Mtintso for the position, while the other side nominated Sankie Mthembi-Mahanyele. Mthembi-Mahanyele, like most of those nominated by Eastern Cape's rightists, won.
In the ANC the influence of who becomes a leader comes from the branch level. If you lose it during the branch level nominations of national leaders and selection of delegates, you better give up.
The notion that the ANC Youth League is the king-maker is not necessarily true, considering that even they have to participate at grassroots level as ANC members.
It is tough, though, and the mood in Limpopo is not going to be the same as in Stellenbosch, where there was a semblance of unity among the tripartite alliance partners. In Limpopo, there will be two distinct camps - those supporting Zuma and those who want Mbeki.
After this conference, the ANC will never be the same. In future the party leadership, especially the president of the party, will be elected on whether he supports a certain ideology, at best, or on ethnic grounds at worst. Mark my word.