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ANC’s 2022 presidential race: The frontrunners

The intense rivalry for leadership positions in ANC regions across the country points to a high possibility that the ANC national elective conference, which is likely to be held at the end of next year, will also be vigorously contested.

In fact, the national leadership race always builds up from developments on the ground, and aspirant leaders keep a close eye on them to gauge their chances of success.

Undoubtedly, President Cyril Ramaphosa would prefer a scenario where his re-election for a second term – already termed #CR22 – was uncontested. His lobbyists would preach “unity and continuity” to advance his cause. However, the division – or, rather, animosity – within the party is deeply entrenched and his opponents are unlikely to give him a free ride.

The #CR17 lobby that delivered Ramaphosa in 2017 is also fractured in some provinces – such as North West – which means that a potential challenger could even come from the president’s own camp. It is therefore likely that all top six positions will be contested come the national conference, including Ramaphosa’s seat.

The coming year will require Ramaphosa’s lieutenants to regroup to secure his re-election amid murmurs that it might have been unwise to collapse #CR17 while their opponents in the ANC the radical economic transformation (RET) lobby who had backed Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma under the #NDZ17 banner, remained consolidated.

Ramaphosa will have to rely on Public Enterprises Minister Pravin Gordhan, whom key players in the #CR17 lobby described as resourceful in terms of “media and intelligence infrastructure” – whatever that may have meant.


For a long time, the ANC branches have looked to the deputy president of the party as the potential successor to the incumbent. The ANC voting delegates ensured that former president Thabo Mbeki took over from Nelson Mandela. In 2007, they voted for former president Jacob Zuma to succeed Mbeki. In 2017, they replaced Zuma with Ramaphosa and preferred Mabuza as his second in command.

Mabuza is keenly aware of this tradition and will likely be ready to take the baton if given a chance to do so. He has quietly remained in Ramaphosa’s shadow as deputy president of the country and has avoided showing any signs of ambition.However, his humility should not be mistaken for weakness.

Mabuza is shrewd and knows that some in the #CR17 camp who despise him would welcome any opportunity to boot him out.

On the downside, he appears to have lost his full grip on ANC dynamics in his home province of Mpumalanga. Various factions have emerged since he left for national office, indicating that the centre is not holding.

In the coming months, Mabuza will probably double his efforts to regain control of Mpumalanga because any candidate who does not enjoy the support of his home province is unlikely to attract significant support elsewhere.

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At the ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting last weekend, Mabuza – who acted as chairperson while Ramaphosa was on sick leave – proposed that the party hold a special introspective meeting to assess its own health. The special meeting he had in mind would resemble the national general council, a midterm performance review gathering of branches that Ramaphosa has thus far avoided due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

It is widely known that Ramaphosa’s opponents had hoped to use the national general council as a launching pad for their campaign to remove him from office on the grounds that he had failed to implement the 2017 conference economic transformation resolutions, including land expropriation without compensation and nationalisation of the SA Reserve Bank. In the event of Mabuza’s suggested special introspective meeting taking place, the #CR17 lobby would be left wondering whether the deputy president was indirectly giving life to that agenda and therefore challenging Ramaphosa.

Mabuza has watched closely as Ramaphosa’s fierce opponents, such as Zuma and suspended ANC secretary-general Ace Magashule, were sidetracked by legal problems. He would likely be keen to take over their support base and lead the onslaught against Ramaphosa.


During one of his court appearances on charges of fraud, corruption and money laundering relating to a tender during his stint as premier of the Free State, Magashule’s supporters punted him as a potential challenger for the ANC presidency.

On the day in question, February 19, Magashule could not directly endorse the lobby, having received a last-minute tip-off that police were waiting to arrest him for breaking national lockdown regulations if he took to the stage and addressed his followers, who had gathered at Hertzog Square in Bloemfontein. Instead, he drove past the venue – seated atop a vehicle – and merely waved at his supporters.

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Soon after Zuma was arrested for contempt of court in July, many questioned whether the anti-Ramaphosa RET group was collapsing, as it no longer had a strong, legitimate leader to champion its agenda. Zuma is seen as the face of the RET group and anyone taking over from him needs to display the same bravado and boisterousness.slide 1 of 1Suspended ANC secretary-general and former Free StSuspended ANC secretary-general and former Free State premier Ace Magashule. Photo: Mduduzi Ndzingi/Sowetan/Gallo Images

Zuma’s son, Duduzane, has tried to raise his hand, but critics believe he lacks the mettle to fulfil the task and cannot even speak isiZulu properly – a jingoistic political tool to which his father was known to resort when cornered. Zuma Jr may be eye candy for RET followers, but he simply does not have his father’s chutzpah.

Some in the RET faction have therefore looked to Magashule instead. He has, however, been hampered by his court battles, which lost him significant influence in the ANC after the party placed him on suspension from the powerful position of secretary-general on the grounds that he had been formally charged with a crime.

Soon after the Nasrec conference in 2017, Magashule declared that he was ready to take the fight to Ramaphosa next year, telling his audience that five years was not a long time. His priority in 2022 could be to swiftly bury the criminal allegations against him and start regaining lost ground, if he is to mount any serious challenge to Ramaphosa. However, the longer his criminal case drags on, the dimmer his chances of causing an upset get – and his opponents will be hoping for precisely that.


KwaZulu-Natal ANC strongman Zweli Mkhize is wounded, but is not ready to leave the ring. Just recently, he – together with Magashule and Zuma – stole the show when they jointly secured a deal that saw the ANC snatch its status as the governing party in the City of eThekwini from the jaws of defeat. It was a compelling indication that Mkhize is still very much in the game.slide 1 of 1Former health minister Zweli Mkhize. Photo: ElizabFormer health minister Zweli Mkhize. Photo: Elizabeth Sejake

The former health minister is bitter that he was forced out of government after being linked to the looting of public funds in the controversial Digital Vibes media tender. He has protested his innocence and feels betrayed by Ramaphosa. In the ANC, this is always a sufficient motive to fight back, especially if one can garner substantial sympathy from the ground troops.

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Mkhize’s lobbyists would probably stir up dissent against Ramaphosa in KwaZulu-Natal – the province is the ANC’s biggest in terms of membership numbers and therefore brings the greatest number of delegates to the national conference. Branch delegates constitute 90% of the voting delegates at the national conference and any serious candidate would want to have KwaZulu-Natal’s support in the bag.

Unless Ramaphosa does something spectacular in the coming months, KwaZulu-Natal could be fertile ground for a campaign against him – and Mkhize could be among those galloping along it.


The Gauteng ANC, although not the biggest in terms of membership numbers, prides itself on being very influential in the party and able to provide “thought leadership”. It is this soft power that Gauteng-based ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile’s lobby would be counting on to propel him to power.

Strategically, Mashatile is unlikely to challenge Ramaphosa directly, so he may bide his time and opt to serve as his deputy. However, if Ramaphosa appears weak against his opponents, the Gauteng lobbyists may – as in the past – punt Mashatile as “the third way”: a middle ground candidate to prevent the deep animosity between the #CR22 and RET groups in the party.ANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile. Photo: ThapeANC treasurer-general Paul Mashatile. Photo: Thapelo Maphakela

Mashatile’s name will be up there when provincial lobby groups trade positions in exchange for support. The ANC in Gauteng is led by Premier David Makhura, but the provincial executive committee is firmly under the control of Mashatile’s bloc. It was for this reason that Gauteng Human Settlements, Urban Planning, Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs MEC Lebogang Maile fancied himself as premier and even challenged Makhura.

The bloc suffered a setback recently when one of its key allies, Mzwandile Masina, lost out on the mayoral position in the City of Ekurhuleni after the recent municipal elections. However, Masina was still able to get the party to endorse him as the mayoral candidate, affirming his and Mashatile’s influence.

In Johannesburg, Mpho Moerane – another ANC activist from Mashatile’s home turf of Alexandra – was also endorsed as the party’s mayoral candidate. Mashatile has been associated with the so-called Alex mafia, a reference to political activists from that area.


The ANC’s heiress apparent, Lindiwe Sisulu has not been shy about revealing her aspirations to lead the party to which her parents and family dedicated their lives. She was among the presidential hopefuls in 2017 when Ramaphosa clinched the position and cannot be ruled out as someone who will make a second attempt.slide 1 of 1Tourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Photo: Edrea du TTourism Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. Photo: Edrea du Toit

At the start of Ramaphosa’s term in 2019, Sisulu took care of the human settlements, water and sanitation portfolio. Her allies say it was a poisoned chalice, since the department was bankrupt, and that Ramaphosa was therefore setting her up for failure. She quickly got her moorings and launched an ambitious bid for a R900 million water master plan, which was to be funded by implementing budget cuts in other departments.

She then transferred her ANC election campaign infrastructure to her office, setting up several advisory groups. Her critics viewed the move as the launch of an #LS22 initiative, forcing Ramaphosa to reshuffle her to a smaller tourism department – with an even smaller budget – in August.

Sisulu’s backers have built up a decent media lobby behind her in the form of Africa News24-7, which is run by Kenny Kunene. Her spokesperson is former journalist Steven Motale.


The name of former ANC treasurer-general Phosa is in the mix whenever there is a leadership race in the party. In October, we featured an article – titled Is the RET courting Phosa for president? (City Press, October 10 2021) – in which Phosa was touted as a possible contender to the top ANC leadership position.

At that time, Phosa had neither accepted nor rejected the faction’s overtures since his name had begun being bandied about in a secret RET WhatsApp group called VukaDarkie. City Press reported then that Sisulu and Magashule had also been mentioned alongside those identified for top six positions, including former North West premier Supra Mahumapelo, ANC NEC member Tony Yengeni and former Nelson Mandela Bay councillor Andile Lungisa.

Earlier this year, the ANC catapulted Phosa to prominence when he was given the task – together with former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe – of drafting guidelines for the party’s step-aside rule, which was used to elbow out Magashule. He was also in charge of crafting the party’s position on the proposed constitutional amendments in the debate about land expropriation without compensation – which failed to pass muster in Parliament recently, due to lack of threshold support.


Mbeki’s sudden activities in the public space have been attributed to a lobby to resuscitate third-term presidential ambitions after Zuma clobbered him at the national conference in Polokwane in 2007. It was speculated at that time that the Mbeki lobby was planning to install former deputy president Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka as head of state while he ran things from Luthuli House.

Mlambo-Ngcuka recently returned to active ANC politics, sparking questions about her role in the formation of the Congress of the People after Mbeki’s ousting by Zuma. She was not alone, as other Mbeki allies were given positions in government, suggesting that Ramaphosa may be working on a plan to inherit Mbeki’s old support base. In the Eastern Cape, particularly, similar movements have been observed.

Public Service and Administration Minister Ayanda Dlodlo, who is due for a global position, has also been touted as a possible presidential contender. Like Dlamini-Zuma – who served as the chirperson of the African Union Commission before her failed attempt to contest Ramaphosa in 2017 – Dlodlo’s move overseas is seen as a stepping stone towards a global profile that would give her presidential clout.



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