The 52nd African National Congress (ANC) National Conference took place from 16 – 20 December 2007 at the University of Limpopo in Polokwane. This conference was remarkable as it signalled the fall from grace of the then President of the Republic of South Africa (RSA), Thabo Mbeki. Mbeki had been running for the position of President of the ANC despite having served his two terms as President of South Africa. Attaining the position of President of the ANC, however, would have allowed Mbeki to have huge influence over the next President of RSA. [1] Mbeki’s main rival during the conference was his former Deputy President of South Africa, Jacob Zuma.

Zuma was appointed as Deputy President in 1999 by President Mbeki, indicating an alliance of sorts between the two politicians. This alliance was publicly dissolved, however, when President Mbeki removed Zuma from the Deputy President position due to Zuma’s links with Schabir Shaik in 2005. Shaik had been convicted of two corruption charges. This split between President and former Deputy President led to a split in the ANC itself, as Zuma maintained his position as Deputy President of the ANC. Susan Booysen refers to this split as a ‘war’, stating that it was a “... no-holds barred, a brutal and all-consuming disagreement between two major ANC groupings.” [2]  One of the reasons for this split, as outlined by Jan-Jan Joubert on Polititcsweb, was that “Mbeki had used his power to appoint his supporters as provincial premiers – often against the will of the ANC rank and file.” [3] This had the effect of fostering bad feeling among many delegates in the ANC. After the dust settled in Polokwane, it was clear that Zuma’s faction had won.

Jacob Zuma was elected President of the ANC with 2 329 votes from the 4000 voting delegates. Kgalema Motlanthe was promoted from his former position of Secretary General to Deputy President with 2 346 votes, defeating his opponent Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. The other notable positions were Baleka Mbete as National Chairperson, Gwede Mantashe as Secretary General and Treasurer General to Mathews Phosa with 2 326, 2378 and 2 320 votes respectively.

It is important to note, however, that there had been internal struggles in the ANC previously. Yet, as Booysen points out: “The Polokwane conflict was exceptional in that it divided the whole organisation and was deepened through its implications for deployment and power of the state. In government it distracted from government work and caused paralysis in state institutions.” [4] This means that the Polokwane conference can be seen as a moment in history whereupon conflict within the ANC political party came to influence the government of South Africa.

The Polokwane conference further heralded a change in the type of leadership of the ANC.

Jacob Zuma’s more populist style, evidenced by the singing of apartheid era struggle songs, stood in stark contrast to Thabo Mbeki’s more staid and aloof leadership style. This shift was further indicated when Mbeki resigned from his position as President of RSA as a result of a decision by the ANC National Executive Committee to ‘recall’ him.

The conference was further seen to indicate a return to the ideals of the National Democratic Revolution (NDR), focussing on the betterment of the lives of the disadvantaged in South Africa. This was evidenced by certain resolutions made during the conference: “The key resolutions - some of them not so new - that were taken at the National Conference included amongst other things, the provision of free education to the poor up to undergraduate level; expanding "no-fee" schools to 60 percent (of all schools) by 2009; extending child support grants from 14 to 18 years; and the provision of antiretroviral Aids treatment at all health facilities.” [5] The full list of resolutions can be found here.

The Polokwane conference was a contributory factor for the first breakaway from the ANC in its history. Mosiua Lekota spearheaded the formation of the Congress of the People (COPE). This party largely constituted former ANC members and would go on to win 8% of the votes in the 2009 election, leading to the party having 30 MPs in Parliament. As a result of this, the ANC nominally lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. [6]


[1] Jan-Jan Joubert, ‘The fall of Thabo Mbeki’, Politicsweb, 05 February 2008:

[2] Susan Booysen, ‘Aluta continua, from Polokwane to Manguang’ in The African National Congress and the Regeneration of Political Power, Wits University Press, 2011, 41.

[3] Jan-Jan Joubert, ‘The fall of Thabo Mbeki’

[4] Susan Booysen, ‘Aluta continua, from Polokwane to Manguang’, 41

[5] Jan Hofmeyr, ‘Post-Polokwane Challenges for the New ANC Leadership - Publications’, Heinrich Boll Siftung Southern Africa, 3 February 2014:

[6] Real Politik, ‘The ANC Canot Afford Another Polokwane’, 19 May 2017:

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