Melanie Verwoerd: The third way: a Zuma win in camouflage?

KRUGERSDORP, SOUTH AFRICA – OCTOBER 13: ANC treasury-general Dr Zweli Mkhize delivers his OR Tambo memorial lecture at the Chief Mogale Hall on October 13, 2017 in Krugersdorp, South Africa. Responding to questions on the sidelines, Mkhize said the ANC constitution stipulates that anyone can be nominated or nominate for the Presidency. (Photo by Gallo Images / City Press / Leon Sadiki)

Recently there has been much talk about a possible third way as a compromise position before the ANC elective conference.

The so-called third way is pushed by David Mabuza (from Mpumalanga) under the banner of unity and in an attempt to prevent another bruising electoral battle at the conference.

The idea would be to reach an agreement before the conference on some of the top positions and thus they would be elected uncontested. In order to secure that Mabuza and co. are proposing Zweli Mkhize as the presidential candidate.

Of course Mkhize has a long history in politics, is liked by the business community and most importantly has significant support in KwaZulu-Natal.

It also seems that Mkhize was deeply hurt by the fact that he was dropped from Ramaphosa’s slate, which is why he announced that he was running for the presidency just three days after Ramaphosa’s preliminary slate was released.

Rumour has it that senior members of the premier league have been unhappy with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s unwillingness to assure them of key positions on her slate, so undoubtedly such a third way will also feature some of the premier league leaders on the slate.

However, it might also include Paul Mashatile from Gauteng and Gwede Mantashe – both of whom are more aligned to Ramaphosa.

Of course for the Ramaphosa camp this alternative becomes acceptable if they realise that they are going to lose. For the Zuma camp the advantage would be the prevention of a split in the party – which is very likely if Dlamini-Zuma wins.

Although this looks like a good compromise, I am convinced that the third way as proposed at the moment is a win for the Zuma faction in camouflage. With Mabuza and other premier league leaders involved it cannot be anything else – and is probably Zuma’s plan B.

It was always obvious that a strategist like Zuma would never put all his (political) eggs in his ex-wife’s basket. The question was just what his back-up plan would be. This could be it.

The third way possibility will diminish Ramaphosa’s chance of winning. If kingmaker Mabuza can secure the support of the Free State, North West, Mpumalanga, and Gauteng as well as the Mkhize and Zuma support of KZN, it is game over for all the other candidates. If presented with such an alliance Ramaphosa would be wise to withdraw.

It is also worthwhile considering that Dlamini-Zuma might be willing to work with Mkhize and that he could become her deputy or she his. So President Zuma gets the dynamic leader in Mkhize and the figurehead and safety net of Dlamini-Zuma.

It is interesting that those supporting Ramaphosa are now pushing the narrative of tradition (that the deputy president always becomes president) in order to oppose the Zuma camp’s narrative of unity, but it seems that the unity argument – albeit a rather dishonest one in this case – might win the day.

If this camouflaged Zuma-win actually materialises the ANC will without a doubt form a more united front and assuming President Zuma retires shortly after the conference, it will most likely ensure a comfortable majority for the ANC in 2019.

However, even though Mkhize is a different calibre of leader than most in the Zuma camp, the question remains how compromised he will be by those who secured his victory?

My guess is that he will not be able to bring much reform or a different way of governing, because he will be beholden to those who put him there.

And so, over the long run the ANC might win, but the country will lose.

Some have argued that the proposed third way might be a cunning plan between Ramaphosa and Mkhize. They argue that Mkhize would drop out at the end to support Ramaphosa with the promise of a senior Cabinet position – such as Finance Minister.

That would be a very high risk strategy.

It is important to remember that Mkhize (like all the other candidates) can stand for only one position in the top 6 (which might now become the top 9 or 10). So if he was to withdraw at the last minute he would be out of the office bearers’ race and could at most be an additional NEC member.

So if Mkhize were to drop out at the end he would have to be pretty sure that Ramaphosa would win and also honour his word for a senior position in government.

The question remains that if Mkhize can secure a win for Ramaphosa by bringing in for example enough additional votes from KZN, why would Ramaphosa not put him on his slate from the start? Why risk this elaborate move?

In order to secure a Ramaphosa win Mkhize would most probably have to “deliver” Mabuza and it is very doubtful that Mabuza would agree to this – not without his premier league brothers-in-arms, such as Ace and Supra, also joining the slate.

It is also doubtful that Mkhize (who is clearly ambitious) would help Ramaphosa to be president if he could secure the top job for himself.

So as much as we might want to believe otherwise, this is far more likely Zuma the ultimate strategist at work.

– Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland.

* This column was first publish on 4 October 2017 on News24.