The next president of South Africa will be chosen this December at the December ANC conference in Limpopo. This is a tiny subset of the electorate that make this important decision.

There have been three Presidential terms since the beginning of majority rule in South Africa. The Constitution of South Africa limits each president to two terms - the first term was Nelson Mandela, who stepped down after his first term to hand the reins over to Thabo Mbeki, his deputy during the first term.

The Tripartite Alliance governs South Africa - the parliamentary wing of a three part alliance between the African National Congress (ANC), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Communist Party.

As the largest member and most actively political, convention has the President of the ANC becomes the President of the country. However, there is no 2 term limit for the ANC presidency, in contrast to the South African president, so convention could change - with Thabo Mbeki remaining as President of the ANC for a third term, and appointing the country’s president.

The ANC has gone to great lengths to give the grass roots of the party - the branches, the Womens League, the Youth League, and the ANC Veterans a say in the choice of their leader, and by implication, the next president of South Africa. To this end, the ANC at its national policy conference report at gallagher estate, 27-30 june 2007 came out with an Organisational Renewal (PDF) document. There was another important report, called Through the Eye of the Needle

  • which was summarised by Smuts Ngonyama, the ANC General Secretary, as follows:-

The leader that gets in would have to go through the eye of the needle in terms of what the general behavior and the expectations by the public interms of public posture of the individual in the public image of the individual. He must be a trustworthy, responsible individual and whose character is impeccable, in terms of discipline, and an incorruptible individual. Those are some of the attributes, and the person that goes out to build unity of the ANC, unity of the alliance and unity of the South African nation. And the person who must have very, very strong passion and affinity for the continent.

(another commentary here).

The report’s name draws from a book written by Rick Turner - The Eye of the Needle - Towards Participatory Democracy In South Africa published in 1973. The book asked for a better, communal and non-racial South Africa. Such a society, Turner argued, would liberate whites as well as blacks. Turner was subsequently ‘banned’ (an apartheid-era punishment that meant he became a non-person - and could not be in a gathering of three or more people). On January 8, 1978, Turner was shot through a window of his home in Dalton Avenue, Bellair, Durban.

Fine words. However, the ANC succession cannot be discussed without its front runner, Jacob Zuma who is not the angel described in the Eye of the Needle document. He has been charged with rape (dismissed - the sexual act in question was consensual) and has pending charges of corruption against him.

ANC Branch meeting

I was invited to attend a branch meeting in Vrygrond - a very poor informal settlement in the Southern Suburbs of Cape Town by a card-carrying ANC member. We arrived a couple of hours early, and spent a little while finding the community leaders, establishing which church the meeting was to be held in (the Blue church was double-booked - we paid R100 and used the Green church). We then put together a loadhailer system, and travelled slowly around the ‘hood calling people to come.

The man with the microphone talked inXhosa, but some residents complained - why not Afrikaans as well ? A compromise was struck with English as well, and my escort gave the Afrikaans invitation. We laughed a bit when he kept mentioning Robert Mugabe, but it turned out later this was deliberate on the part of the announcer - his agenda was to paint Mbeki in the light of a despot to improve Zuma’s chances.

That evening, October 30th, came to nothing. Regional ANC coordinators were there, specifically to check whether there was a quorum (50%) of the paid-up members there. They were not close. Half the members of the Branch membership had let their membership lapse. Committee members, who had spent many hours the previous saturday summarising the Eye of the Needle document for local consumption, were disheartened.

However, I heard later they were given another chance a week later, and at that meeting they managed (just) to reach a quorum. However, the meeting threw out the Branch Executive Committee’s recommendations that they follow the Eye of the Needle document, and put forward Jacob Zuma as the branches preferred presidential candidate.

Branches are supposed to nominate a list of candidates for the top 6 positions within the ANC. Names bandied about include Cyril Ramaphosa (who has said he will not run if Thabo Mbeki is running) and Tokyo Sexwale who has not definitively announced his candidature. The only person all sides can agree on is Foreign Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife.


For me, as a non-voting resident of South Africa, it seems an arbitrary and error-prone system for choosing the leader of the politically and economically most important country in Africa. Democracy is a rocky road, and those just starting out on it have to re-learn the issues all over again, in their own particular context. The ANC is fortunate that they don’t also have to deal with any serious opposition - their problems (so far) are internal.