By Molifi Tshabalala

Politics is a numbers game that cannot be watched or analysed with the naked eye for a contextual understanding. A good example in this regard is a power struggle between KwaZulu-Natal Premier Nomusa Dube-Ncube and her member of the Executive Council (MEC) for Economic Development, Tourism and Environmental Affairs, Sibusiso Duma.

The latest series of their power struggle played itself out when the Springboks, a senior national rugby team, paraded its fourth Webb Ellis trophy in the province. Duma, who is also a provincial chairperson of the African National Congress (ANC), a governing party in the country’s second most populous province behind Gauteng, grabbed and lifted the trophy before the premier, thereby drawing the ire of many South Africans who were watching the event with feminist eyes.

Along with the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) in a statement issued by its deputy secretary-general Dina Pule, they accused him of sexism in the main, an accusation that goes against the ANC’s long-held position of non-sexism. 

Analysing the series in its entirety with intra-party factional eyes within the context of neo-patrimonialism, which constitutes ‘factions of patronage’ in Alan Zucherman’s words, Duma is not sexist, not at all. He is doing what nearly everyone in his shoes would do. 

At its 50th National Conference, held in December 1997, the ANC centralised power in its president to unilaterally choose ministers and their deputies, premiers (under the ANC-governed provinces) and mayors. Seeking to debunk a long-peddled narrative to the effect that he had centralised power, one of three main neo-patrimonial facets, former ANC president Thabo Mbeki explained that he compiled a list and then discussed it with his fellow national office-bearers.

To inform party members of their proposed appointments, Mbeki said he sat alongside Kgalema Motlanthe, then ANC secretary-general, to send a message to them that they were ANC deployees in government. The same, he said, transpired with a cabinet reshuffle. 

Ten years later, the ANC resolved that its president should concurrently be that of the republic to prevent two centres of power. The resolution was and/or is applied in some provinces and regions, where provincial chairpersons and regional chairpersons are and/or were also premiers and mayors respectively. 

Currently, five premiers out of eight ANC-governed provinces are chairpersons, namely Oscar Mabuyane in Eastern Cape, Mxolisi Dukwana in Free State, Panyaza Lusufi in Gauteng, Stanley ‘Stan’ Mathabatha in Limpopo and Zamani Saul in Northern Cape.

One notable beneficiary of the 52nd National Conference resolution, which tends to blur a cleavage between a governing party and the state, especially when a party is in degenerative factionalism – such as the ANC – in which factions are self-serving, was Elias ‘Ace’ Magashule. Although he was a long-serving ANC Free State chairperson, Mbeki had overlooked him for a premiership.

In 2021, addressing an extended Eastern Cape ANC Provincial Executive Committee (PEC) meeting, the former ANC president insinuated that he had overlooked Magashule, who served as Free State premier between 2009 and 2018, to prevent a blurred cleavage. Nevertheless, even Senzo Mchunu was a beneficiary of the resolution in KwaZulu-Natal.

The same applies to his ANC successor on the one hand and Duma’s predecessor on the other hand, Sihle Zikalala. Therefore, Duma vied for the provincial chairpersonship with a reasonable expectation that he would concurrently become a premier, and so did his factional clients, of course.

To his disadvantage, the ANC has somewhat de-centralised power in its president. This transpired after its 54th National Conference, held in December 2017. 

The PECs and the regional executive committees (RECs) send lists of three names of their preferred persons for the premiership and mayorship respectively to the party’s top-seven national leadership, which interviews them and chooses its preferred candidates. 

Interviewed by the previous top-six leadership that initially comprised a 3:2:1 ratio, with President Cyril Ramaphosa, chairperson Gwede Mantashe and former treasurer-general Paul Mashatile as a majority faction and Magashule, a former secretary-general, and former deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte as a minority faction while former deputy president David Mabuza served as a sort of factional buffer (as he called himself ‘unity’), albeit he had aligned himself to the former, he lost out to Dube-Ncube.

Through Dube-Ncube, who had failed to meet the threshold (25%) for a nomination from the floor to contest both Duma and Zikalala for the chairpersonship, the Ramaphosa faction has, in essence, largely kept a dominant faction in KwaZulu-Natal out of a provincial layer of state power. As the premier, the former MEC for finance serves as a main conduit of state patronage.

As the numbers game, politics is primarily in pursuit of three benefits, namely office pay-offs, policy pay-offs and electoral pay-offs, be it at a party, or an individual level. In exchange for their electoral support, Duma’s factional clients expected him to pay them with office, policy and tender pay-offs, and dispersal of benefits of patronage to be precise.

Although the chairperson wields significant economic power through his incumbency, he is not a conduit of state patronage. As a result, his factional clientele is likely to shrink while that of Dube-Ncube is likely to expand towards the next provincial conference.

Molifi Tshabalala is a political writer.

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