Zuma’s got the upper hand – and he knows it

President Jacob Zuma on Tuesday warned league members to watch their step, answered those critical of the performance of his government, and generally said the right things to the right groups – all without campaigning directly.

And despite a largely lacklustre reception from the several thousand delegates, it was a performance that will do him no harm in the run-up to the party's crucial elective conference in Mangaung in December.

Zuma walked a fine line on several issues. He sung the praises of his government for its achievements, but stressed the continuing deprivation of the majority of citizens. He said police would be tough on violent service-delivery protesters, but that their concerns would be addressed politically. He revelled in the growth of the black middle class and the success of black economic empowerment, but decried fronting and corruption.

But on some issues his approach was far less nuanced. Later in the day, during a press conference, Zuma dismissed the widely-held theory that a discussion around South Africa's second transition will this week be a proxy for a leadership battle between himself and Kgalema Motlanthe. He nonetheless took credit for "sharpening the debate" around the issue. 

In different settings and at different times he alternated between focussing on the domination of the economy by white males, the wide-spread occurrence of service delivery protests, and the large number of social grant recipients as the most important motivator, but his underlying message remained clear: this conference must mandate radical changes to the economy.

That will allow him to claim responsibility for what he seems to believe will be an ANC mandate for the government to abandon the willing-buyer, willing-seller approach to land reform, and for less radical changes to the relationship between mining companies and the state.

The ANC Youth League, Zuma said in his opening address, needs guidance, and the ANC Veterans League needs to stop being controversial, a clear reference to calls from that body for a change in ANC leadership. The women's league, which he has not found similarly troublesome, got no such mention. The party should be harsher in disciplining those who stray, he later added, and anyone who "crosses the line" will face the consequences.

With the ghost of Julius Malema haunting the halls of the conference, that too was clear enough. If not, the point was driven home by a none-too-subtle prayer from the ANC chaplain, calling down multi-deity curses on any who seek to divide the party.

Zuma also took a position on what could be an overlooked but crucial discussion at the conference on the size of ANC branches. Branches of three thousand or four thousand members must surely struggle to have meetings rather than rallies, he said. It is best to have "compact" branches, capable of relating to the areas they represent, and of sensing and dealing with community unhappiness on local government performance before tyres are burning in the streets.

In a conference where even the largest branch has been limited to a maximum of eight delegates, that is a fairly safe position to adopt. But then, Zuma did not on Monday give the impression of a man who was taking many risks – or felt any need to do so.

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