Johannesburg, South Africa – It is being called a battle that will determine the future of South Africa.
This weekend, about 5,000 delegates will descend on Johannesburg to vote for the future leader of the African National Congress (ANC).
The two leading candidates, Cyril Ramaphosa, the party’s current deputy president, and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former chairperson of the African Union High Commission and President Jacob Zuma’s ex-wife, are facing off in one of the most contested elections in ANC history.
The winner of the vote will most likely become president when the country takes to the polls in 2019.
A great deal is at stake, as the South African government under Jacob Zuma has been dogged by countless allegations of corruption, leaving the ruling ANC in the midst of its biggest crisis since it was formed in 1912.
Al Jazeera spoke to independent political analyst Ebrahim Fakir about what the conference means for the ANC and for South Africa.
Al Jazeera: Is this election a referendum on Zuma or is it about implementing new policies?
Ebrahim Fakir: No one knows what ANC branch delegates vote for. They vote for any number of things and are [moved] by good policy ideas.
Don’t discard [the fact] that ANC delegates who go to vote [may be] subject to bribery or that they are not immune to fear and thuggery; they can be intimidated to vote a particular way.
Though ballots are meant to be secret, there are delegates of their branches [who] have made decisions on how they would like their delegates to vote. But the secrecy means the delegates can vote any way they want.
Al Jazeera: The two leading candidates are Cyril Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. What are their visions for the future?
Fakir: Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma’s is presenting a programme of radical economic transformation and Cyril Ramaphosa’s is proposing a “New Deal”.
Dlamini-Zuma wants a retributive approach to the path forward, which means land expropriation without compensation and other populist policies.
crisis in the ANC. I can’t see a way out.”]
Ramaphosa talks about the Black Industrialist Programme and strategic inclusion in the economy hinged on all the empowerment policies being [enacted].
The argument is that those policies have not worked together because of a weak state [and] because of [the] manipulation of institutions and processes, inappropriate meddling of treasury and the treasury’s inability to stem the tide of corruption.
With the Ramaphosa government, you might have more people prepared to invest, which is what will help in the short-term. In the long-term, how you turn that around and … maintain that confidence is a different question.
Anything that can happen will happen in the short-term and we [will] see what happens from there. What we have is five or six years of instability.
Al Jazeera: The language being used to describe Ramaphosa suggests he is the more credible candidate. Why is this the case? He was Zuma’s deputy since 2012, after all.
Fakir: In part, it is about the [candidates’] personalities, but the media has made it that; it shouldn’t be.
The personalities have become a proxy for policy. One set is deemed too populist and institutionally unstable [Dlamini-Zuma] and the other [Ramaphosa] are viewed as more prudent.
I haven’t seen much media attention to their policies. Ramaphosa is simply seen as anti-Zuma and Dlamini-Zuma is seen as his protector.
If it was [really] all about personalities, Ramaphosa would be found as wanting as Dlamini-Zuma, but the contradiction is that she has not been involved with the nefarious deals made recently.
In the deep questions of [state corruption], Ramaphosa was part of [the] cabinet, as well as [former finance minister] Pravin Gordhan and everyone who now says they want to rehabilitate the ANC.
They are all deeply compromised. One way or the other, the ANC has walked itself into a conundrum.
Al Jazeera: So claims that the ANC is in disrepair are not exaggerations?
Fakir: No, they are not exaggerations.
There is a deep crisis in the ANC and it goes to every single level, whether it is [the] policy or ideological outlook of the party or personalities or institutional and organisational [issues], or the policy making machine, [or] whether it’s about the relationship between the policymakers and the parliamentary caucus and the members of the executive.
The crisis cuts in every way you could think of.
Remember, the ANC has used its majority [in parliament] in crude ways. Even those who have set themselves up as wanting to support and rehabilitate the ANC, are complicit in the way the institutional edifice has broken down.
I think this might be the ANC’s last hurrah. They might actually have the right bunch of people win and try to rehabilitate the organisation, but there may [be] such a [pushback] from losers that anyone who wants to govern in any environment would find it hard to do so.
In fact, I think we aren’t making enough of [the] crisis in the ANC. I can’t see a way out.
Al Jazeera: So much has been made of President Zuma’s role in this crisis, but the rot didn’t set in with him alone. Can this conference resuscitate the ANC’s founding values?
Fakir: I think it’s gone too far … and that’s an organisational question. And resolving an organisational question is contingent on resolving a policy and identity question.
That’s [why] there’s no accord. Policy and identity [have] given rise to the biggest fractures right now, which filter down to the lower-level with character assassinations and [in-fighting].
Again, take policy: you have two fundamentally divergent views.
One talks about radical economic transformation and repudiates the 1994 consensus about the transition. [The 1994 consensus is considered as the beginning of democratic government in South Africa, the inception of a rights-based dispensation with positive discrimination to address historical injustices.]
On the other side, we say that we can accept the 1994 consensus, we just need to accelerate the current policies we have.
But that requires a change in the way in which the ANC functions. We have to rehabilitate the ANC and rehabilitate the state through things like enquiring into [state corruption].
So there are two fundamentally opposing ideological visions. How you reconcile this within the same organisation?
Al Jazeera: What are the possible scenarios going forward?
Fakir: If Dlamini-Zuma wins, you have to consider if those on the losing side will accept that and stay in the ANC considering that they have fundamentally opposing visions. If they do, will they work against the government and undermine the ANC?
And if she wins, can the ANC carry the 2019 elections? Some indications are that they won’t. they will fall short of a majority and they’ll have to form a minority government or cobble a coalition [together] with small parties. If they can’t accommodate the losers, the risk of a split is high.
If Ramaphosa wins, and he cannot accommodate the others, there’s an equal risk of [a] split. If he does reach out, he’ll have to compromise with them, which will erode his own legitimacy, and he won’t govern with any stability.
In 2019, he might win the election, but he will erode his credibility through compromise and not run through decisions for rehabilitating the ANC or reversing [state corruption] … There [will be] instability.
Even if a candidate like Zweli Mkhize wins, there will be rankle from both sides.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.
Follow Azad Essa on Twitter: @AzadEssa