It was a bruising off-script meander, but one taken with astute political acumen. By criticising the veterans for going outside ANC structures, and sharing information that apparently many did no actually agree with what had been put out publicly, Zuma took charge. Describing the veterans as “they call themselves stalwarts”, he effectively used his political overview to hit back, including at former president Thabo Mbeki – of course, not named – for his open letter.
“They think branches are just riff raff… They think they have power over everything,” said Zuma, following up on his earlier tribute to branches as the heart and soul of the ANC when he also traversed into leadership elections. ANC branches must use their power to elect their leaders, said Zuma, because no-one but the “conference of branches” could do so: “ You are the only ones who can hire and fire”. In the scripted speech, Zuma simply reminded all that leaders must be assessed and democratically elected in line with ANC policies.
While veterans wanting to determine the platform to discuss the troubled state of the ANC was “funny”, according to Zuma, so were opposition parties which failed to understand democracy is determined by the majority.
There were many things the ANC government wanted to do, but can’t because of court challenges. “That undermines the simple logic of majority,” said Zuma. “The opposition can’t argue with us because our policies are good. That’s why they remain with slogans. They collect more money to fight democratic issues in court…”
He called on delegates at policy conference to discuss this: “Let us limit the elements that will make us go to court”.
And it was also “critical for us to discuss the impact on the organisation being in government and our cadres having access to state power and resources. The access to state power and resources has led to perceptions and allegations that the ANC is a corrupt organisation, given allegations of wrong doing with regards to state tenders”.
On state capture, or “talk about the capture of the state, in the main, by business interests” by Zuma’s take, it was important to debate South Africa’s political economy “so we can understand what it meant by the state capture”.
“We need to know which business interests have sought to influence… and what must be done to end said capture,” said Zuma reiterating “the ANC as leader of society must be at the forefront of fighting corruption”.
It was a painstakingly delivered speech to some 5,000 delegates to the ANC policy conference. There were times in the one-hour-forty-minutes speech, when Zuma was switching hats: that of ANC president, talking party matters, and that country president, listing successes of the ANC government like extending social grants and social services and the like.
The difficulties the ANC faced and difficulties of government are linked – and successes at times bring its own challenges. Again going of script, Zuma explained it was easy when one was fighting to “put explosives” on a bridge. “You see an oil refinery you burn it. Once you are in government you have to construct more of the bridges, more oil refineries,” Zuma said.
And in this context emerged the leitmotif of unity. The ANC needed to be more united, “if (we are) not united, the difficulties will be more difficult”.
And the outcome of the 2016 local government was an example of the challenges the ANC needs to tackle going forward from this policy conference, and December national elective conference.
The 2016 municipal poll was a “serious set back” with the ANC losing key metros like Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay Metro and as “opposition parties formed coalitions to wrest control from us”.
The loss of support related to “perceptions in society that we are soft on corruption and that we are self-serving and the ANC is arrogant”, said Zuma citing pre-2016 election research: “They proved to be correct.”
As part of the ANC diagnostics, discussions should also take seriously the increasing numbers of community protests. “Why do people now communicate with us through protests?”
And in the call on delegates to discuss “a decline in electoral support”, again Zuma urged that discussions must touch on South Africa’s political economy: “We must be prepared to discuss the South African political economy under which our electoral support has declined”.
There were no big statements on radical economic transformation during Zuma’s political overview, nothing new emerged in that section of the speech that has not been canvassed by the ANC National Executive Committee (NEC) or in various government platforms.
But then making a blunt statement on this hot topic in the public discourse would have been just too obvious. And that is out of line with Zuma’s style. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma addresses delegates at the ANC’s 5th National Policy Conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg on June 30 2017. Photo: Ihsaan Haffejee