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President Jacob Zuma addresses  supporters at a rally to commemorate the 105th birthday of the ANC, in Soweto on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS/JAMES OATWAY
President Jacob Zuma addresses supporters at a rally to commemorate the 105th birthday of the ANC, in Soweto on Sunday. Picture: REUTERS/JAMES OATWAY

President Jacob Zuma delivered an ill-timed injunction to ANC members on Sunday to refrain from mentioning names in the leadership battle, just as other party leaders squared up at the weekend, affirming that the race for the top will be between AU chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

The injunction formed part of the ANC’s traditional January 8 statement, which is intended to set the line of march for the movement for the year.

However, while the ANC aspires to control its fiercely contested leadership battles and shuns open campaigning, it is yet to put the lid on bruising battles successfully.

In a precursor to the year — the ANC elects new leadership at the end of 2017 — the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) came out in support of Dlamini-Zuma late on Saturday, after it was party to drawing up the statement at a national executive committee (NEC) meeting held before Sunday’s rally in Soweto.

The statement declared that for now, pronouncing on
names was off-limits and that ANC members must first conclude discussions on principles and policies.

Ramaphosa, who tradition dictates should take over the running of the party, has previously received the endorsement of labour ally Cosatu. He also used the lead-up to the event to speak out against the use of money to buy votes in
the ANC, making one of his strongest statements yet
about the abuse of power for personal gain.

The statement outlined the party’s priorities for the year ahead, focusing mostly on the organisational difficulties that have plagued the ANC.

Zuma said the power of ANC branches must not be allowed to be undermined by slate politics and lobby groups.

However, it is already clear that a powerful lobby group that includes the chairmen of the Mpumalanga, Free State, North West and KwaZulu-Natal provinces and the ANCWL and its youth league, are pushing ahead to secure support for their preferred candidate.

Mpumalanga, the Free State and the North West were also praised at the anniversary event after branches in  these provinces were the recipients of all the achievement awards handed out by the  party annually.

The statement, prepared by the party’s NEC, said the new leader of the party should demonstrate his or her commitment to serve; should have a proven track record in the party; and the ability to unite it.

Divisions in the ANC were laid bare late last year when Cabinet ministers and members of its NEC called on Zuma to step down as president of SA.

Party veterans have also stepped in to reverse the malaise that has set in under Zuma’s watch and to find a way to unite the 105-year-old movement after its poorest election performance since taking power in 1994 in the 2016 local government election.

Zuma was forced to retreat from his stance of underplaying the ANC’s drop in support. On Friday he told Soweto residents that the party had simply lost “small metros” but still controlled the country.

But in his address on Sunday, he admitted that the 2016 elections illustrated that South Africans were now “more adept” at using their right to vote and that the ANC had “heard the message that the people delivered in August 2016”.

“We accept that we have made mistakes and we shall correct these mistakes,” he said to loud applause from the near-capacity crowd.

“The ANC must be a listening and humble organisation.”

He further emphasised that party members should strengthen internal democracy in the party and “stamp out gate-keeping, factionalism, the buying of members and the manipulation of internal processes”.

The ANC is set to elect a successor for Zuma at its national conference in December 2017 – its pick is likely to be the next president of the country. However, the party’s falling electoral support since 2009 indicates that it is set to face a tough national election in 2019.

The party expects its representatives to focus on economic transformation, returning the land to the majority and boosting resources to higher education in particular in 2017.