Not the policy president

The president’s opening speech was not followed by any enlightening comments at a press conference later. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

The president’s opening speech was not followed by any enlightening comments at a press conference later. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

After spending a combined three hours listening to ANC president Jacob Zuma’s opening address and his press conference later on Tuesday, I have concluded that if you want a sense of where the ANC is going in terms of policy, Zuma is not the person to listen to.

This does not mean he is not in charge of the party or that he is stumbling around in the dark. After all, he did remind us recently that he knows what he is doing and, as the song goes, “kudala azabalaza” (“he has long been in liberation politics”).

But on Tuesday morning he gave a speech that warned of radical change, proposing measures that could deal with the youth unemployment crisis and urging a new turn in ANC direction to deal with certain imperatives. So it was with a sense of great anticipation that we looked forward to the press conference he addressed later in the afternoon during which he would provide clarity on his speech.

I must say that he gave some clarity when he addressed issues related to ANC matters and structures.
He did well when he waved off suggestions that he was allowing delegates to sing songs in his favour by pointing out that, traditionally, ANC members sing in support of their president and  it would be incorrect to interpret the songs in a factional sense.

But when he was asked about the job-seeker’s grant he had mentioned in his speech, he instead outlined the dire problem of youth unemployment, which is common cause. The question was how the job-seeker’s grant related to the youth wage subsidy; whether they were the same thing or not. There was no answer. On radical economic restructuring or solutions that would have to be adopted as we deal with the historical legacy about which he spoke so eloquently, Zuma could only confirm that, in terms of where we are, poverty and unemployment are rife and we therefore need radical change. What was to be done? “Delegates will discuss and find solutions.”

Not such a bad thing
It reminded one of the pre-2009 period when international business and local media were desperate to get a sense of the policies he would implement if he became president. He would invariably respond by saying: “We must debate these issues.”

Looking back, the truth is that it bought him time – and look where he is now. And maybe that is not such a bad thing. Zuma spent most of his time this week talking about what was wrong and how we arrived where we are, the Native Land Act of 1913, the pre-1994 Codesa negotiations and their limitations, and the sunset clause. On Tuesday he even distanced himself from the “second transition” document he had spent so much time defending at ANC and alliance conferences before the policy gathering, saying it was just an ANC document and rejection of it by the delegates would not be a reflection on him.

Perhaps it is a good thing to have a leader who allows his subjects to find answers. It reflects humility and a willingness to learn and be persuaded. But it is exasperating when you are looking for a leader to articulate party policy because he is the face of the party. Indecisiveness can be such a pain sometimes in the ANC. Take ANC deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe. Once in a while he will make sensible comments about the abuse of state powers and the ANC’s inclination willy-nilly to resort to the expulsion of members, ride roughshod over minorities, its betrayal of principles of nonracialism and so on. But, simultaneously, he painstakingly refuses to be seen as personally saying anything different from other leaders.

So, with Zuma unable to project any vision and Motlanthe too coy lest he should offend, we are left with the amorphous “voice” of delegates to shape up their party. It is the reason why many will see in the likes of Mamphela Ramphele, who criticises everything the ANC does or says, the real voices of reason. And this is not necessarily true.

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane

Rapule Tabane is the Mail & Guardian's politics editor. He sometimes worries that he is a sports fanatic, but is in fact just crazy about Orlando Pirates. While he used to love reading only fiction, he is now gradually starting to enjoy political biographies. He was a big fan of Barack Obama, but now accepts that even he is only mortal. Read more from Rapule Tabane