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Nyar, Annsilla  () ANC presidential race should be run in public. The Mercury : -.

First Published in the Mercury

Voters need to know more about the people who are tipped to lead the ruling party and, by definition, the country, writes Annsilla Nyar

Just who is going to succeed President Thabo Mbeki? It's a question that should, ideally, be exciting and invigorating. New leadership for South Africa is ripe with potential for change, and even transformation.

A new vision for the country may be just what we need to kickstart ourselves out of our rut of stale, uninspiring politics and the tedium of failed hopes and expectations around what was intended to be "a better life for all".

The ANC is central to the political landscape in South Africa. Its dominance in all three tiers of the government (national, regional and local) has remained, for the most part, largely unchallenged since 1994. Therefore, the choice of party leader is of crucial importance for the country's future.

Historically, the ANC presidential election has been decided at the party conference. Presidential speculation is growing in intensity as the party conference nears its December 2007 date. But it is a dismaying fact that, while the ANC succession process is crucial to the future of the country, the leadership race islargely being conducted under wraps, coupled with a healthy dose of smear and allegation.

Political candidates publicly declare their lack of interest in the top job. But one would have to be blind not to know that the jockeying has already started in earnest. The contest is already public.

South Africa needs to know who the next ANC presidential candidate is, we need to make up our minds about their suitability to lead the country. It is for this reason that the choice of the next ANC leader must be conducted in full public view.

While we do not get to decide on the president of the ANC, our abilities to make informed choices about voting preferences are severely hindered by the climate of secrecy and shadows about the presidential race. As citizens and voters, our preferences should inform the outcome of the presidential race.

It is a reminder that while the formal structures of political democracy are firmly in place, widespread democratic participation by the citizenry has yet to be achieved.

What, at present, do we - as a concerned and politically conscious citizenry and as active voters - really know about the ANC presidential race?

In truth, all that the voting public has to go on right now are depressing prognostications about the dearth of presidential material and the avowed declarations of non-interest by several candidates who are, more likely than not, intending to run.

We know that Jacob Zuma has declared his intention to stand for the presidency.

The highly controversial ANC deputy president has recently made sensational claims about several alleged assassination plots against himself in the run-up to the presidential race. One such plot, under police investigation, involves the hiring of a sniper for R1 million to assassinate him during a public appearance in Durban. Zuma also claims that unsuccessful attempts have been made to poison him through his food and clothing items.

We also know that after the failure of the fraud and corruption case brought against him last year, fresh evidence is being compiled against Zuma that could very well see him brought to trial again by the year's end. Can Zuma avoid a corruption conviction? How would it look to have our president-elect go to prison?

Moreover, how do we feel about a presidential candidate who presents two such contradicting faces to the world?

One is that of an affable and politically astute creature whose pro-poor working-class sentiments portray him as a man of the people. The rape allegations against him may well be seen as regrettable sexual indiscretions and he has publicly declared his support for the fight against violence against women. But then the other face is as frightening as the other is promising.

His admission at his rape trial that he believed a shower after sex would protect him from HIV/Aids is a damning indictment of his understanding of one of the most dangerous threats to the country.

He has no problem reviving the anti-apartheid song Umshini Wami, (Bring Me My Machinegun) to buttress his support campaign during the rape trial.

Cyril Ramaphosa's name has joined the presidential fray, 14 years after he left politics for business, promising, "I'll be back". He is well-known to South Africans for the central role he played in the constitutional negotiations that dismantled the legal form of the apartheid system.

He was also a principal role-player in the construction of the South African constitution. The combination of his trade union background with Num (the National Union of Mineworkers) and his business expertise make him an interesting candidate with a lot to offer South Africans.

But he will also have to work hard to win the support of the working class, who see his black economic empowerment deals as promoting the enrichment of a small elite rather than broad-based black empowerment.

Tokyo Sexwale has entered the presidential hopeful list on a cloud of allegations of political manoeuvring. Media reports have accused Sexwale of lobbying hard to topple Ramaphosa as a presidential candidate. While maintaining his present stance of no interest in the presidential race, Sexwale has been accused of lobbying for Zuma to support his bid to lead the ANC.

The possibility of a third term of office for Mbeki has been floated, although constitutionally disallowed. Generally perceived as aloof and cool, the president has lost much support over his economic and social policy views as well as his much-ridiculed approach towards HIV/Aids.

He has publicly stated his wish for a woman president to succeed him and two names have been put forward: the present Foreign Affairs Minister, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and the Deputy President, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka. Both candidates have not distinguished themselves in their term of office. Dlamini-Zuma has earned the ire of South Africans through her HIV/Aids policy as well as her stringent anti-smoking campaign, while Mlambo-Ngcuka's name is tainted with serious gravy train and empowerment scandals.

This, then, must be the sum total of our knowledge about the people who are tipped to lead the ruling party and, by definition, the country. It is not enough and certainly not for a position of this magnitude.

The political possibilities unfolding before us have to be examined in public. An open contest among all the presidential hopefuls will allow South Africans to subject them to critical scrutiny and form accurate judgments about their ability to compete for the post of South Africa's first citizen. We need to assess their ability to lead the country with fairness, responsibility and grace.

The ANC presidential race simply cannot be conducted behind closed doors.

Annsilla Nyar is a researcher at the Centre for Civil Society based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

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