/ 17 December 2007

Rebellion at Polokwane

It was open rebellion as the ANC began its 52nd national conference. Traditions of the movement, almost 100 years old, were thrown out as the majority of the more than 4 000 delegates made clear their support for the candidacy of deputy president Jacob Zuma to the top job.

Gerrymandering on the method of vote counting, singing for Zuma and the booing of senior leaders held up proceedings and promise to make Polokwane one of the organisation’s most challenging national conferences yet.

President Thabo Mbeki cut a lonely figure as he delivered a speech almost two hours long, which sought to bolster his record. His pleas for unity and integrity and his attempts to counter accusations that he is a centraliser who did not listen were met with shouts of ”too late; too late” from delegates.

Delegates started the day on a high note, singing revolutionary songs and the trademark ditty of supporters of Jacob Zuma. Umshini Wam resonated through the massive tent erected for the plenary sessions several times throughout the opening session.

Even after what will probably be his last address as party president, the delegates afforded Mbeki only polite applause before immediately starting up Umshini Wam and another song which meant ”We love Zuma; Zuma is going to be our president”, as one delegate explained.

Delegates gathered in the hall where the conference got started almost two hours late. In an open act of defiance, delegates booed loudly when the faces of Mbeki supporters such as Home Affairs Minister Nosiviwe Mapisa-Nqakula and Minister in the Presidency Essop Pahad were displayed on the television screens in the hall.

On the other hand, they cheered loudly as pictures of secretary general Kgalema Motlanthe; communist leader Blade Nzimande and Speaker of Parliament Baleka Mbete flashed.

A morning of terror

A threat by Zuma supporters to insist that the conference be chaired by someone more ”neutral” than chairman Mosiuoa ”Terror” Lekota did not materialise. But most delegates did nothing to hide their contempt for him because of his public disdain for Zuma in the past month.

Despite numerous attempts by Lekota to calm the singing crowds and get back to the conference programme, Zuma supporters pushed on, drowning out his appeals to settle down. He was constantly heckled with delegates using the sign of a soccer change-of-player to show that they wanted him out. When he finally did manage to get a word in, he warned them that ”comrades should go steady” because the temporary floor of the tent might collapse under their jumping and stomping.

The usually standard procedure of adoption of the programme sparked a near-riot when the ANC Youth League secretary general Sihle Zikalala took the podium. To Lekota’s annoyance, he said that they would not adopt the programme if votes were counted electronically.

Zikalala explained to the conference that in the interest of ”transparency” and the historical tradition where votes have always been counted by hand, only manual counting should be allowed.

Compromise options failed to win support and the decision was delayed while the electoral commission said cellphones and cameras would be banned in voting booths — a sign of the tension in the air.

Lobbyists, it was alleged, plan to furnish delegates with cellphones that they should use to take a photograph of the ballot paper once they vote. If they show evidence of their vote, they will receive R10 000.

Lekota’s inability to maintain control over the conference sharpened tensions which had started in June 2005 when Motlanthe had to step in to call delegates to order after a near-rebellion following Zuma’s axing as deputy president.

In an uncharacteristic step, Mbeki on Sunday put himself in the firing line, asking delegates to ”clarify any and all issues that have troubled them during the last five years … [Delegates may] contest any and all the assertions I have made, as I sought to identify some of the problems that have confronted our movement in the last five years.”

He apologised for the failure of leadership by the national executive committee to deal with issues arising around Zuma. The excuse he offered was that there had been ”no body of experience that would help our leadership and movement to deal with this situation adequately”.

He addressed, for the first time, the divisions in the ANC, something the party has only denied before. ”If we are divided, what divides us? If we are divided, what should we do to address this challenge?” He entreated delegates: ”Tell no lies; claim no easy victories.”

”We cannot afford to make merely rhetorical statements about the issue of our principled unity, with the purpose only to comfort our troubled hearts and minds. Conference must therefore confront this issue frontally.” Mbeki used his political report to campaign at the 11th hour, warning delegates about the ”practise of using untruths, of resorting to dishonest means and deceit to achieve particular goals”.

Mbeki’s frankness and his call to action did not convince delegates, who started up with a defiant Umshini Wam straight after Mbeki concluded his speech. ”We are showing the president he is not bigger than us,” said Jabulani Dube, a delegate from Mpumalanga.

After Mbeki had presented his political report, Lekota failed again to call the delegates to order and Motlanthe had to step in to give delegates a ”friendly” reminder that the code of conduct expressly outlawed divisive behaviour.

Motlanthe, clearly a frontrunner at the conference, was able to close the session with some dignity. Lekota did not go back to the podium. Despite rules banning the faces of individual leaders, some delegates waved a half-page picture of Zuma printed in City Press.

Accredited members of the media who were in attendance were initially refused entry to the plenary, with officials citing space constraints. Eventually former presidential spokesperson turned businessman Bheki Khumalo stepped in and arranged for journalists and photo­graphers to squat on the floor in front of the stage.