Nwabisa Makunga: Will Jonas join the race?

Mcebisi Jonas 
Picture: Brian Witbooi

Depending on who you speak to, there is a general sense in some ANC circles (and beyond) that although it was once an influential bloc, the Eastern Cape has long lost it political clout in the ruling party.

This view often dominates social conversations, in particular of those who are frustrated by the slow pace of development in these shores.

The popular assessment of the situation is that at the heart of our economic stagnation is – among other things – a weakness in political leadership.

Critics believe that under provincial chairman and premier Phumulo Masualle, the Eastern Cape’s ANC leadership has increasingly lost its flare and lobbying muscle.

As a result, despite its size – the second largest membership after KwaZulu-Natal – in the corridors of Luthuli House, our province’s agenda has slipped a few notches down the political pecking order.

To be fair, we must consider that such a situation could also be an indication of the shift in the national dynamics in the ANC, rather than solely a reflection of Masualle’s leadership.

Nonetheless this critical narrative underpins the ongoing campaign for a new leadership come the provincial elective conference next month.

So far we know that Masualle is likely to be challenged by current secretary Oscar Mabuyane for the provincial chairman position.

Again, depending on who you speak to, the popular sentiment is that Mabuyane’s numbers look good and that unless something dramatic happens he is in pole position to emerge victorious from the conference. Enter Mcebisi Jonas. Some lobbyists want the former deputy finance minister to stand for election as provincial chairman.

They include prominent Mandela Bay politician Nceba Faku, who eventually abandoned his own campaign for the chairmanship to stand behind Jonas.

Faku’s group believes Jonas’s axing from cabinet and his subsequent resignation from parliament in April presents the province with an opportunity to gain from his experience and leadership.

They believe he brings a different character to this race, a political legitimacy that goes beyond ANC structures.

The basic idea here is that you and I may just believe that the ANC can reinvent itself if it is led by a guy who (allegedly) turned down a R600-million bribe from you-know-who.

Of course you are welcome to debate this, depending on where you stand on these things.

Let me just say that I have no qualms about Jonas’s leadership ability.

His credentials speak for themselves.

Still, those campaigning for him face three major challenges in my view.

The most obvious one is that time is not on their side.

They have less than two months to convince branches to shift initial allegiances and to back Jonas.

To do this, Jonas’s backers need a well coordinated programme of action and, most importantly, deep pockets. Second, the numbers game may prove difficult to crack.

You see, it is unlikely that Jonas’s nomination would hurt Masualle’s bid.

Regardless of which side of the Jacob Zuma divide they stand on nationally, in the provincial context, Masualle’s backers are clear about their desire for leadership continuity.

Whatever their motives are, they will not be easily swayed from this position. This leaves Mabuyane’s group. This is where things get interesting.

There are two kinds of Mabuyane supporters – the staunch enthusiasts who are committed to the man himself and the ANC branch members who just want change.

It is the group who just want change that may find Jonas an appealing option.

Still, the result could simply be a split vote which would ultimately hurt the campaign for change and divide the ANC even further.

The third and perhaps most important challenge for Jonas lobbyists is Jonas himself.

The jury is out on whether he has any interest at all in standing for election.

Jonas has been here before and he lost twice, to Stone Sizani back in 2006 and to Masualle three years later.

Admittedly times have changed and, presumably, Jonas’s support has strengthened since then.

Fair enough.

Yet when asked by a reporter this week whether he had any intention to contest, Jonas was non-committal.

“I can’t say much at the moment because I have not thought about it,” he said.

I am mindful that according to ANC culture, leaders are expected to modestly pretend they have no interest in positions until they are formally nominated.

However, I am not convinced that this is what Jonas was doing.

If anything he may not be ready to come out and reject the proposal just yet, lest he be frowned upon by those who have hedged their bets in his favour.

However, the reality is that a lot has happened since the infamous reshuffle in March.

Instead of withering away into the political wilderness Jonas has become emboldened in efforts to fight state capture, the phenomenon against which he and former finance minister Pravin Gordhan became a symbol of resistance.

The question therefore becomes whether he believes an active role in provincial politics features at all in this picture. I suspect not. In fact, Jonas’s increased activism beyond traditional ANC structures tells a different story in my view.

At the very least, it raises questions about whether he – and others like him – believe the ANC in its current form is a legitimate vehicle through which they can bring change.

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