SOUTH AFRICA : With the race to succeed Jacob Zuma as ANC leader appearing to go down to the wire, there is much speculation about what could happen over the next few days before delegates actually vote. By Stephen Grootes

Photo: Dlamini Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa. (Photo: GCIS)


One of the ways to try to determine who may be ahead is to analyse the public postures of the two and to examine their differences. It does appear that one candidate is talking more than the other, and more openly negotiating with various power brokers. The other candidate seems to be keeping his cards closer to chest, and publicly at least, negotiating with no one. It is not necessarily enough to give a definitive yardstick, but it could help with determining which side believes they are ahead.

It is often claimed that “politics is perception”, that the way someone is perceived in the political realm is actually what is happening. It is for this reason that so many politicians try to appear strong and resolute when in fact they are weak and quaking with fear. Appearing stronger than you really are makes you look stronger than you are and thus makes you stronger than you are.

In more open democracies this has the impact of allowing the way a candidate comes across on television or Twitter as one of the most important things about them.

Witness the political poetry of Barack Obama during the televisual age and the punchlines of Donald Trump during the age of Twitter.

Or, do you remember: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the next president of the US, Rick Santorum! Mike Huckabee! Carly Fiorina!...” You get the point, I guess...

But in the context of the ANC race, this practice of outward optimism, no matter the reality, is not necessarily the case. As an internal contest that is not really about the hearts and minds of delegates, it comes down to control of the party machine, the branches and the delegates they send. This means that we cannot presume that the way Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma or Cyril Ramaphosa allow themselves to be perceived is that important to them. If the way one appeared in English-medium media in this country was important, Zuma’s speeches would have to be way better than they often are.

That said, there is also a strong case to be made for the fact that public perception is important to both these candidates. They both have to appear to be a legitimate winner, that any of them can adorn a general election poster; they both need to ensure that they are acceptable to the majority of the voting public. And then there is the fact that what they say and do in public is important, because of the signals that are being sent, both to delegates and to the power brokers in the ANC who could determine the final outcome.

This means that fact that Dlamini Zuma is clearly in talks with Mpumalanga’s “kingmaker” David Mabuza is important. It sends a signal that she is open to a deal, and that she is willing to accommodate him on her slate. It could also suggest that she believes that, to ensure victory, she needs the numbers that “Comrade Unity” would bring. This can be seen as both a weakness and a strength. She is weak because she needs the numbers, she is strong because she is openly showing that she is likely to get his support.

It is an interesting contrast to Ramaphosa’s approach. He appears to be negotiating with no one, at least not out in the open. There may be several reasons for this. First, his core constituency in this fight, those who are backing him to get rid of Zuma and to “end State Capture”, may decide the strings that would inevitably come with Mabuza’s support would be a bridge too far. What’s the point, they may argue, of beating Zuma only to have to accommodate another man seen as corrupt as Deputy President?

Then it may be that Ramaphosa is actually holding out until the last minute. He may think that because he seems to have a numerical advantage in branch nominations (which is not necessarily the same as having the greater number of branch delegates) he may be showing that he can win this without Mabuza. While that might be first prize for him, it could also mean that Mabuza is in a weaker negotiating position later on in this game.

Then there is the appearance of Dlamini Zuma at the KwaZulu-Natal ANC’s provincial general council on Tuesday. It was unscheduled, and she appeared to speak only after being invited to by the KZN ANC’s possibly illegal leader, Sihle Zikalala. Her main theme appeared to resonate with her message of the last few weeks, that the ANC “must unite” and delegates must ensure that there is a successful conference. And then there is the message that everyone must accept the result of this conference.

It is an interesting message to unpack. It could go both ways, but seems to show a genuine fear that the ANC could split. This gives Ramaphosa an advantage, if he is the one who is seen as likely to leave the party should he lose.

Then there is the consistent refrain from the ANC in KZN, Zuma, and others behind Dlamini Zuma, that the loser in this contest should also be accommodated in the leadership of the ANC. Zuma made the call at the ANC’s Policy Conference in July, a sign that was taken at the time as an indication of weakness. That comment is still largely seen in the same way. The fact that Ramaphosa has made no such noises, and simply refused to respond by repeating the same message, could also suggest that he is coming from a position of strength. Bluntly, by showing he is refusing to compromise it suggests that his campaign stands for something greater than the simple achievement of high political office.

As the conference itself gets closer and closer, it is becoming more apparent that there may be no clear indication of a winner until delegates actually vote. Much has been said about how Zuma may have greater control of delegates, and that thus what happens in public does not matter that much. This could be true. But it should also not be forgotten that if Zuma is a master of the dark arts of controlling a conference, he is up against a current secretary-general and a former secretary-general. Gwede Mantashe is clearly backing Ramaphosa.

At the same time, before Polokwane 10 years ago, it was not widely known how a conference like this could be manipulated to ensure a political outcome. Surely the same cannot be said now. The scrutiny on this conference and the voting process is unprecedented, and there is huge public discussion on every aspect of the process. Coupled with the fact that the ANC has to face the voters just 18 months after the conference, both candidates have to ensure that their victory at least appears legitimate. This means that how they are perceived now, during the run-up to that vote, is still important. It also means that how they behave immediately after the vote will also be crucial.

The lobbying of delegates and power brokers in the ANC is only going to get more intense in the next few says. The way the two candidates speak and appear in public is likely to have an impact. Which means that both of them may simply go to ground for fear of having to answer a difficult question, or feel they have to break their silence and take questions. Both strategies have advantages and disadvantages.