Broadly speaking, two factions of ANC delegates were at loggerheads with each other. One was firmly behind the then incumbent party president, Thabo Mbeki; they believed that only he had what it took to lead the party for at least one additional term, and therefore deserved to be elected for a third term as party president.
They did not believe that his main opponent, Jacob Zuma, had the moral standing and requisite leadership qualities to lead the oldest liberation movement in Africa.
The other faction was convinced that Jacob Zuma – a more charismatic and, apparently, more accessible leader – was a victim of political machinations and a well-oiled Mbeki-led political smear campaign, and that he deserved a chance to follow in the footsteps of Albert Luthuli, John Langalibalele Dube, Sefako Makgatho, Albert Bitini Xuma, Oliver Tambo, Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki as ANC president.
Many also mentioned his much-touted collegial decision-making style as an attractive attribute and a greatly needed change. They would stop at nothing to make him their next leader and, by extension, the next president of the republic.
The key actors
Addressing delegates in his capacity as the ANC’s national chairperson, then defence minister Mosiuoa Lekota, the chief protagonist, tried to convince delegates that the party had commissioned a trusted vote counting system that could never be faulted.
Given the nature of the event and the relatively small size of the ballot – as compared to a national general election ballot – Lekota was tasked with convincing everyone else that the system was tested, reliable, would save time in terms of vote counting and deliver incontestable leadership election results.
Unknown to him and the faction he represented – I was reliably told by a deeply imbedded insider – someone had whispered into the ears of someone else, in the camp of the disgruntled ie those supporting Zuma, that the vote counting computer programme was rigged.
Had they agreed to go ahead with it, as urged by Lekota, Mbeki would have emerged winner by a few hundred votes, which would have been convincing given the odds and the climate within the ruling party at the time.
The camp of the antagonists was a crowded one; angry, noisy, and very hungry for change. They were determined not to return home empty-handed. Their brief was to deliver a certain Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma to the presidency. The loudest leader of this camp was one Julius Malema, at the time president of the ANC Youth League (ANCYL).
Their number also included Blade Nzimande, secretary general of the South African Communist Party (SACP), Buti Manamela, president of the SACP Youth League, and Zwelinzima Vavi, secretary general of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), as well as their generals and followers.
Few knew then that the noise and chaos in that congress would serve as a precursor to what we would come to experience in the post general-election National Assembly, although for entirely different reasons, following the arrival of the Economic Freedom Fighters.
Another of the key arguments advanced by the Zuma supporters at the time was that there was a sacrosanct tradition in the ANC requiring that the deputy president become president. They would accept nothing less, especially in the face of what they considered to be trumped-up criminal charges against Zuma.
Thabo Mbeki’s perceived arrogance and alienation of the leaders of Cosatu, the SACP and ANCYL during the latter years of his leadership did not buy him many friends. Zuma, on the other hand, would be their ticket to cushy executive and cabinet positions, as well as warm seats in the even cushier wagons of the gravy train.
In the end, it was the antagonist camp that prevailed. The votes were counted manually and Mbeki lost the ANC presidency to his nemesis.
Now, supposing it is true that the vote counting system used in Polokwane in 2007 was indeed manipulated – even though this has never been proven – what, given the current climate of political desperation, would stop those in power from doing anything, including rigging elections, to remain in power?
Isn’t the shocking disregard of a crystal-clear, unambiguous judgment by the highest court in the land a good enough indication that our democracy has entered seriously troubled, uncharted waters where the leadership will stop at nothing to stay on top?
What must happen to assure us – ordinary South Africans – that should the elections go ahead as expected, the Independent Electoral Commission, which we have all trusted blindly since the dawn of our democracy, will remain free from capture by the dark forces of our times?