The other election

by The Editor

SERIES: The instantaneous and dramatic nature of current affairs lends itself to a kind of historical amnesia, one where the captivating nature of those things unfolding today, causes one to forget the bigger picture. From the Archives aims to put forward the odd reminder that, more often than not, history is merely repeating itself. In all likelihood, somewhere, someone has already experienced and commented on those all-consuming issues that appear to have materialised only yesterday. This time, a retrospective on the other important election involving Jacob Zuma: at the ANC’s 1997 general conference Zuma was elected Deputy President and his formal relationship with Thabo Mbeki was first established. How he got elected, and what he had to say about Mbeki, makes for interesting reading.

The other election
By Gareth van Onselen

6 December 2006


One could well be forgiven for thinking that the ANC’s 2007 general conference was only weeks away, as opposed to just over a year, such is the intensity of the ongoing battle between Jacob Zuma and Thabo Mbeki for control of the ruling party.

But it is worth remembering that both Mbeki and Zuma have played this game before. Admittedly, the stakes were remarkably different for each player, but if one looks back at the run-up to the ANC’s 1997 general conference, it becomes clear that there are a number of familiar themes that seem to be playing themselves out again today, some nine years later.

The contested position that time was the deputy presidency of the ANC. Thabo Mbeki met almost no resistance on his way to being elected unopposed as President. As it turns out, on the day – 17 December 1997 – and along with Mbeki, Jacob Zuma was also elected unopposed to the position of ANC deputy president; but the process leading up to his election was a far messier – and more interesting – affair.

With the media spotlight firmly on Mbeki’s candidacy and the position of ANC president – and by default, the future president of the country – Zuma’s campaign was left to run its course in Mbeki’s slip stream.

A three horse race

With some three months to go to December, and so far as the media was concerned, the race for deputy president was down to three candidates – Mpumalanga Premier Mathews Phosa – the favourite; President of the ANC Woman’s League Winnie Madikizela-Mandela – the people’s choice, and KwaZulu-Natal chairman Jacob Zuma – the unknown quantity.

Mathews Phosa was by some distance the favourite candidate, both inside and outside the media. City Press described him as “urbane” and as an “astute lawyer” who had taken “strong action” to root out corruption in his province. He enjoyed the support of both Mpumalanga and North West provinces.

Madikizela-Mandela was the candidate seen as the ‘people’s choice’, but frowned upon by the press who, quite rightly, were at pains to point out that she had been convicted of kidnapping and had a slew of nasty evidence given against her during the TRC hearings, all of which was still fresh in the public mind. Her support was a little more difficult to quantify, but she certainly had the backing of the Woman’s League, which represented a substantial block at the conference.

And then there was Zuma: relatively new on the national stage, but with a well-established reputation in KwaZulu-Natal as a peace maker. He had the support of his home province, Gauteng and the Western Cape. The ANC Youth League, after flirting for a while with the idea of supporting other candidates, including Phosa, also threw its weight behind Zuma .

There was nothing controversial about Zuma at the time. He represented something of an unknown quantity and there was speculation that his peace-brokering in KwaZulu-Natal and his ‘closeness’ to Thabo Mbeki would count heavily in his favour.

The media was playing the race for the deputy presidency out as a hard choice for the ANC: Would the ruling party endorse a convicted felon with a dubious history and succumb to Madikizela-Mandela’s popularity on the ground? Or would it make the ‘right’ choice – Phosa or, at the very least, Zuma.

And then there were two

Then, the proverbial bombshell: Mathews Phosa unexpectedly withdrew his candidacy.

He announced his decision, reportedly at the request of Nelson Mandela, in a rather unclear manner while overseas in the Netherlands, and it was immediately met with denials back home, with Mpumalanga ANC officials denying it was the case. But later, on 9 November, and after a meeting with Mandela in Mpumalanga, he confirmed that he had withdrawn from the race for the deputy presidency.

Phosa described the meeting with Mandela as “tense” and said that he had to “manage the situation before it got out of hand”. Sources in the province later said that Phosa had urged ANC members to “understand that any signs of internal power struggles within the ANC would be detrimental to both the organisation and the country’s political and economic atmosphere”.

In an editorial titled “Sacrificing Phosa to Head off Winnie” and with reference to the ANC’s decision to drop Phosa from the race, the Cape Argus argued, “… it may well have been the decision of the stridently controversial Mrs Madikizela-Mandela to contest the election, with the attendant prospect of her and her radical supporters greatly increasing their influence in the ANC, that encouraged moves to limit the number of candidates standing against her”.

A man of the people, with the President’s ear

Whatever the reasons, Phosa’s decision left the race down to two players – the fallen hero, Madikizela-Mandela and the relatively unknown man from KwaZulu-Natal, Jacob Zuma. The press wasted no time in transferring their goodwill to Zuma.

During the rest of November, Zuma gave a number of interviews in an attempt to present himself to the South African public. They make for interesting reading.

Repeated reference was made to Zuma’s closeness to Mbeki. In an interview with the Sunday Times, Zuma went so far as to defend Mbeki against the criticism that he led a cabal which “takes all the decisions and sidelines or destroys the political careers of those outside the circle”.

“Nobody is anybody’s person in the ANC” argued Zuma. “People at times miss the fact that there are comprehensive internal debates in the ANC, and when the media picks up aspects of the debates it says there is a problem. It is those debates that make the ANC strong… Nobody cannot express a view, but the correct argument wins the day. I have not seen any cabals”.

In an interview with the City Press, Zuma is described as being “irritated” by comments that he is too close to the future ANC president Thabo Mbeki: “I’ve worked with Thabo just as I’ve worked with others in the ANC. Why don’t they say I am close to Steve Tshwete with whom I shared a cell and was together in exile? It so happens that I have worked with Thabo and that his approach to issues is very close to mine. We have a similar political understanding”

Not once did Zuma portray his own ego as the driving force behind his candidacy. He would describe himself as nothing more than a “disciplined cadre of the movement” who was subject to its decisions.

He was portrayed as “self-taught”, “self-reliant” and “an old-school ANC cadre”. “He likes doing things himself” one paper wrote, “because it keeps him in touch with the common people, from whose ranks he is proud to have come”.

The press had quickly built up another ‘people’s choice’, seemingly more in touch and in tune with the masses than Madikizela-Mandela, who was still being widely described as fundamentally tainted. (The Cape Times and the Star, in particular, wrote editorials effectively writing her off.)


By the beginning of December, Zuma was the firm favourite.

On the day, Madikizela-Mandela’s campaign fell apart in the most spectacular way. Technically she did not even stand for election. The Star describes the events as follows:

“When nominations were called for the post of deputy president, Yvonne Makume, the provincial secretary of the ANC Woman’s League in the North West Province stood up to nominate her. According to the rules she then needed a seconder and a quarter of the delegates to back her bid, but the 125 people who indicated they would second her showed her obvious lack of support [there were 2 979 voting delegates] and, after failing to get Mbeki’s agreement to an adjournment, she pulled out”.

It is reported that, earlier, Madikizela-Mandela had made a last desperate attempt to win support by making what was “effectively a campaign speech during the closed plenary session of the conference”.

Her defeat was both a humiliation and an embarrassment.

Zuma emerged triumphant. Along the way to the Deputy Presidency he had received the support of both Mandela and Mbeki, and the ANC Youth League was now firmly behind him. Least of all, he had a popular profile in the press – a man of the people with a solid track record.


At a press briefing after the conference, Zuma dismissed any suggestion of a bitter rivalry between himself and Madikizela-Mandela, but was again forced to confront the question of his relationship with Thabo Mbeki.

“I don’t know why it becomes an issue,” he pleaded with journalists, “people should say it’s a healthy situation that we work together.”

An abbreviated version of this article was published in the Cape Argus on 15 December 2006.