Reflections on NASREC 2017

The outgoing ANC President Jacob Zuma addressing the delegates in the conference. Picture: Motshwari Mofokeng/African News Agency/ANA

Now that the dust is finally starting to settle after a very robust 54th national elective conference of the ANC, despite the naysayer’s predications of “conference collapsing” it is perhaps an opportune time to provide a soberer reflection of the campaigns and the outcome.

There is sufficient consensus that the build up from the beginning of 2017 right until the announcement of the results was extremely eventful, exciting and nail biting. All the traditional tactics and strategies as well as a number of newer and more modern tactics, tools and traditions were introduced by all the caucus campaigns and slates. 

For example, some of the presidential candidates established fully-fledged overt American style primary campaigns before the ANC process opened for lobbying and nominations. This defiance was indicative of an organization that was beginning to rebel against its own archaic electoral process and culture. Some would argue that it is this tried and tested methodology that has kept the ANC alive since 1912.

Some of these modern tactics were however, destructive and offended some of the more traditional campaigners, veterans and leadership. Some of these newer tactics also impacted on the outcome, the most prominent of which was law fare, a political instrument used by the DA with much fanfare, and a move considered by some in the ANC as judicial overreach. The impact of other tools still needs to be evaluated. This includes the launching of Facebook pages of the candidates as well as the establishment of a number of independent online publications and the use of traditional online media publications in the battle. A new phenomenon was that of research reports from universities and academics, coupled with a string of book releases. The same assessment would apply to the role of the traditional media, academics, publishing houses, government agencies, business, labour and civil society organisations who all vied for a piece of the pie in trying to influence the outcome. 

At the same time, there were some positive internal interventions to improve the process within the constitutional limitations by the former Secretary General. This included taking away some of the power of the PECs in the branch nomination of leadership and delegates. This intervention ensured that regions and provinces were only allowed to consolidate the leadership nominations, thus preventing the possible abuse of power and manipulation by regional and provincial structures.

Equally the technological advancement and the use of modern tools such as social media and smartphones which was not as prevalent during previous conferences also played a key role in assisting with the prevention of corrupt and irregular processes at the branch nomination level.  Delegates were able to photograph and film the entire process and provide real time information and evidence if officials attempted to manipulate the outcomes thus resulting in it being a key deterrent. 

The 2017 process in the run up to the conference and the various campaigns therefore deserve much more rigorous and deeper analysis by the party intellectuals and analysts alike.  This will assist the ANC to modernize its entire electoral processes from lobbying, nominations and campaigning right until its outcome. Whilst there were calls for the modernization of the ANCs electoral process in the run up to conference most branches and leaders were hesitant and suspicious of tinkering with the constitution in the run-up to the conference as they were worried that it may have favoured certain individuals and slates only. However, the breaking of numerous so-called traditions by most delegates and leaders alike indicates that the ANC is indeed still in need of modernising its electoral system. With the electoral conference now done and dusted the ANC now has an opportunity to investigate ways to modernize and overhaul its elective process through constitutional regulation in an environment that is more impartial manner and less toxic.  

The outcome of the conference itself also caught almost all analysts and delegates by surprise. Most delegates and analysts (other than the Mpumalanga Unity delegates) had resigned themselves to a winner takes all slate outcome. Instead the results indicate that the 223 Unity branches from Mpumalanga were able to miraculously prevent a winner takes all outcome and ensure a leadership that was inclusive of all the slates and caucuses laying the foundations for unity.  Yet, this outcome although presented as a unifying outcome is not however the end in itself for unity but a means to an end to build unity. Furthermore, we must not forget that there were unintended casualties of this outcome which if not managed sensitively could create new fault lines and divisions. 

They include amongst others, (1) the failure of Kwazulu Natal to be represented in the top 6 positions even though it had the largest delegation to the conference as well as being the province with the biggest voting population and the biggest ANC voter support since 2009, (2) the fact that only one female got elected into the top six, (3) insufficient generational mix and the lack of youth within the NEC, (4) insufficient numbers of Alliance members being   elected onto the NEC and (5) insufficient numbers of the ‘’so-called minorities’’ i.e. coloureds, indians and whites being elected onto the NEC.

Be that as it may, the outcome definitely reduces the risks that would have been inevitable if there had been a winner takes all outcome such as further law-fare, splits, triumphalism and mourning. However, the ANC cannot become complacent and it must guard against a false sense of security that it is already unified. Instead as alluded to earlier the so called mixed masala outcome only creates the conditions for maximum unity which ANC leaders and members need to work on daily. Each decision it takes and each act and omission will impact on the unity and cohesion of the ANC.   

OR Tambo in his address to the Pan African Youth Summit in 1961 held in Dar Es’ Salaam aptly reminded the delegates of this when he said, “… unity does not grow wild… all Africa is rich, there is plenty that grows wild, you don’t have to cultivate it, you don’t have to water it, to nurse it. But unity is not like that. It does not grow wild. It has to be nurtured, built up, it wears away. It must be doctored, treated. It also has many enemies like the enemies that enter any plant that you grow, and you have to keep vigilant against these…”

Furthermore, the implication of the outcome with all slates and caucuses being represented in the leadership also requires that every decision will now require the buy-in and consensus of all the pre-conference perspectives. It means that all leaders will need to relearn the tools of compromise and consensus when making these key decisions. 

Noting all the above the ANC was able to avoid what could have been a catastrophe and its leadership have been granted an opportunity. Its challenge now is to seize the moment, precisely at a time when the DA is at its weakest as it is undergoing a crisis of hegemony, serious allegations of corruption, racism and leadership divisions amongst others. To this end the NEC January 8 statement is a definite step in the right direction.  It was able to capture the three broad views, messages and clarion call of all the contesting perspectives of the 54th National Conference.  This included the call for unity and cohesion of the ANC and nation building of the country, the call for radical socio-economic transformation of the country as well as the call to eradicate capture, corruption and crime both within the ANC and the country.  

Hopefully the ANC will be able to maintain and build on this momentum of contestation and cooperation to preserve its unity (of all groups), as its single biggest asset. Equally, going forward if the ANC is able to marshal and direct just 50% of the energy, resources, creativity, innovation, tools and tactics that it used in the slate and caucus battles in 2017 against the DA and the EFF it will no doubt obliterate the opposition in the 2019 National and Provincial Elections.        


Zahir Amien is a social and political commentator