President Jacob Zuma opened the ANC’s 53rd national conference on Sunday with a moving dirge that married Nelson Mandela’s name, the struggle for freedom and a proclamation that we shall “meet on Freedom Day”.
It went down a treat. His supporters and detractors fell into song. The confluence of ANC struggle mythology, victimhood and Mandela iconography bound them together for those few minutes as Zuma led them. At that moment members of the two hugely divided camps in the marquee could have hugged each other.
In the afterglow of that song, Zuma went on to pronounce on all manner of subjects, raising applause from the packed, sweaty house. In the aftermath, acolytes, analysts and many others lauded the man’s political mastery and a “great speech”. A second reading, shorn of the song and the supporting chants of his supporters in the divided house, shows how wrong we were.
Zuma’s speech was once again a masterful display of how to speak to advance your cause, with little or no fidelity to fact. Zuma plagiarised ideas developed by his predecessor Thabo Mbeki, repeated analysis stolen from his outgoing deputy Kgalema Motlanthe, and made wild promises that will not even remotely get implemented.
He started by crowing about the fact that the ANC’s membership stood at just over 1.2-million today. The reality is that this new, bloated ANC is one which Zuma himself rightly characterised as being riven by divisions and “alien tendencies”. Bigger, in this case, has not been better.
This artful dodger also failed to point out a growing belief that membership of the party means access to tenders, hence the ANC’s support in general and local elections both in 2009 and 2011 decreased while party membership rose. More membership has not translated to greater support at the ballot box.
He then said: “The road to Polokwane was full of divisions.
“It was necessary therefore that we begin healing the organization and working for unity immediately after the conference.”
The birth of Cope and the chaotic run-up to the Mangaung conference has proven that he has singularly failed to unite the ANC. Although Zuma acknowledged killings in the ANC across the country, he did not take responsibility for these.
He has failed to respond with firmness and openness to criticism about corruption from Cosatu. Instead, he asked for “direct engagement”. That is not leadership. That is begging Cosatu to sweep your failings under the carpet. Thankfully Cosatu’s Zwelinzima Vavi swiftly denounced such attempts on Twitter.
Then he declared that the next ten years should be the Decade of the Cadre, marking the beginning of the new, ethical, integrity-driven ANC member. I have heard this one before. It was Thabo Mbeki’s “New Person” unveiled ten years ago. Clearly Zuma is still looking for this person. In his tenure there have been very few such people in the ANC.
On Marikana he blamed the mining companies, a weak NUM and everyone else except himself. It was his police service that shot and killed 34 mineworkers in what he refuses to characterise correctly as a massacre. He fudged and obfuscated. He made sounds, not sense.
The trend continued apace. He proudly announced that he had restructured and renamed some government departments to make things more efficient. Well, the restructured education ministry cannot deliver textbooks; the ministry of “everyone except men” has no budget; land affairs still cannot distribute abundant state-owned land. He said ministers have signed performance agreements, but no one has been fired for failure to meet their targets.
He lauded the National Development Plan, but delegates are getting a mere presentation on it at Mangaung and not an endorsement from Zuma’s party. He crowed about joining the BRICS, but failed to say how these same BRICS are undermining our manufacturing capacity and how he intends to respond to the fact that their economies are flying while ours is in decline.
He then said he wants school inspectors to be re-introduced to the schooling system to catch napping teachers. This is the same man who said he wants the national youth wage subsidy introduced, and then caved in under pressure from Cosatu. This time his very loud backers, the SA Democratic Teachers’ Union, will send him back to class with his tail between his legs. The proposal is not going to fly.
He blamed the “willing buyer, willing seller” policy for failure to deliver land despite the fact that huge swathes of land, which is not being distributed, is in government hands. He lauded the merger of Umsobomvu Youth Fund with the National Youth Commission, but didn’t say that the new entity National Youth Development Agency is a hotbed of patronage, incompetence and corruption.
Zuma’s speech was full of petty deflections and omissions. It had little for the people in the marquee, and it had nothing for South Africa.
It was a bloody good song, though. And, these days, songs win the day in the ANC.