There were no dance steps after the speeches at the ANC’s Progressive Business Forum dinner in the Nasrec Expo Centre the night before the start on Friday of the party’s national policy conference.
Zuma might have been preserving his energy, knowing that the next six days of the gathering will require some fancy footwork if he wants to prevail, or perhaps he knew this wasn’t really his crowd.
After all, he hasn’t done much to endear himself to business in the past three months or so, what with some self-inflicted ratings downgrades, a technical recession, and rising unemployment.
In a speech that sounded as if it was written by ANC treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, who was all charm and wit and worry-laced smiles as he mingled with the business and diplomatic crowd with more ease than a block of ice in two fingers of Hennesy, Zuma made the rare admission that the country’s current economic situation “may sound scary, and it should be”.
With much smooth talk, Zuma presented some simple ways to overcome the technical recession and downgrades to sub-investment status. “When we unite and face such challenges as a people, we tend to overcome,” he said. “That is why we shall work together to face the challenge of slow or no growth, the challenge of jobless growth, high unemployment and frustrated young people, crime and corruption and various other problems.”
Zuma set the scene, saying, to initially hesitant applause, that “South Africa is a much better place to live in today than ever, precisely because we have ANC policies”.
He stated that “with all humility, that despite the challenges within the organisation, the ANC remains the only formation in society capable of mobilising all South Africans to realise the vision of a united non-racial, non-sexist, democratic and prosperous South Africa”. And so forth. Feelgood stuff straight from a democratic fairy tale.
He also let slip that the aim was now to “achieve the final stage of our freedom and prosperity” – possibly the bit that comes through radical economic transformation. He didn’t as much as whisper these words though – it tends to make the deep-pockets jumpy.
The purpose of the six-day conference, the longest in the ANC’s recent history, is to find “mechanisms to accelerate” the “effective implementation” of the ANC’s “sound policies”, and to attend to “the internal organisational challenges facing our movement, as we have always done so in the history of the ANC”, he said.
But he left out the “how” part, only saying the party will devote two entire days during the conference talking to itself about itself – that’s how important this thing is.
Zuma even went off-script for a bit, with the 75-year-old throwing in some Zulu wisdom he heard from an “old man”– and this is usually the bit that reveals something about his thoughts. These seemed to have been about dissent lately.
“In the world people at times disagree. There is nothing strange when people disagree. As long as you have (more than) one person, the possibility of disagreeing is always there, even in the family. You can’t say this family is now a lost cause because they argue. At times argument helps to clarify the issues. It is in the culture of the ANC to debate matters. Others will tell you contradictions are important – without (them), there won’t be life.”
“When I was a young man a clever old man said to me: ‘The contradictions of the feet are an important thing for human beings.’ He said ‘if your feet are not contradicting, you’ll never move from where you’re standing’. He says ‘as they contradict themselves, you move from point A to point B, so that contradiction is a healthy contradiction’.”
Zuma, however, did not say anything about the health of the body these feet are attached to, such as whether it has been corrupted by illness or captured by greed, or in what direction the feet would be taking it.
This speech is about as rosy as things will get in the next few days, and, although only a minority of those at the dinner were Zuma fans, and although there was a cold draft, the mood was warm. Rupert Rothschild’s Classique 2014 vintage red made the atmosphere even more cosy, despite the fact that some in the party have hit out at the Rupert family of business people as bogeyman “white monopoly capitalists”.
Executive chairman of African Rainbow Minerals, Patrice Motsepe, as usual sat at the number one table with Zuma, who had Cosatu president S’dumo Dlamini in a white suit at his right hand side – a surprising choice for that very spot, since the labour federation has resolved not to invite Zuma to its meetings. Dlamini, however, in April, also attended Zuma’s birthday party with a number of his allies, to frowns from Cosatu, so the two are familiar.
In 2012, at the close of the party’s conference in Mangaung where he was re-elected, Zuma introduced a forgotten struggle song: “Washo Mandela kubalandeli bakhe wathi yinde lendlela esiyihambayo siyodibana nge — Freedom Day” (“This road we’ve embarked on is long; we’ll meet on freedom day – so said Mandela to his followers”).
Experience has taught that Zuma’s nonchalance about the extent of the debate set to take place in the party usually happens before dissent dissolves into compromise and a faux unity.
The next few days are likely to be a mixture of fireworks, victories for some and disappointment for others – and lots of putting one foot in front of the other on the long journey to who knows what kind of freedom day. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma and Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the Freedom Day celebrations held on 27 April 2017 in Manguzi, uMhlabuyalingana in KwaZulu-Natal under the theme “The year of OR Tambo: Together deepening democracy and building safer and crime free communities. (Photo: GCIS)