The ANC is Zuma's shield

Wily: Jacob Zuma’s political acumen was once again displayed in his comments. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

Wily: Jacob Zuma’s political acumen was once again displayed in his comments. (Delwyn Verasamy, M&G)

ANC president Jacob Zuma cast himself in a familiar role at the party’s fourth annual policy conference at Gallagher Estate in Midrand this week: that of the ANC’s guardian.

He was Zuma, the party’s high priest, interpreter of the ANC’s 100-year-old history as a liberation movement and custodian of its institutional memory and ethos – at the expense of others like the ANC Youth League, bent on replacing him.

This was most apparent when Zuma, during a press conference on Tuesday, responded to a question about a ban on songs derogating leaders. Earlier in the day, Zuma supporters had sung in isiXhosa: “If you mess with Zuma, we will shoot with a revolver.” The singing was apparently aimed at the likes of Human Settlements Minister Tokyo Sexwale and ANC Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe – considered two of those around whom the “anyone but Zuma” factions in the party appear to have formed.

During the press conference, Zuma resurrected ANC icons while drawing on his own 53 years in the liberation movement – from when he joined the party led by Albert Luthuli in 1959 through to his time as an underground Umkhonto ­weSizwe operative when Oliver Tambo was president – and he remembered singing songs about them and the likes of Chris Hani and Nelson Mandela before he became party president.

“[The tradition of singing about ANC leaders] has always been there. It is not just songs about our leaders; we sing about ANC members and their track records too,” he said, obliquely referencing Sexwale and his problem-ridden national housing portfolio.

He also reminded journalists that the ANC president was the “face” of the ANC.
This conflation of individual and party is something that Zuma, a wily political operator, has done consistently and exceptionally  well over the years.

Party platforms
It was particularly evident when he was sacked as deputy president of South Africa in 2005 by former president Thabo Mbeki. ANC supporters ensured that Zuma did not lose his job as deputy president of the party and between his sacking and successful ascension to the ANC presidency at the Polokwane elective conference in 2007, Zuma used party platforms like rallies cannily.

Rather than attack Mbeki directly, Zuma engagingly wove the ANC’s historical mythology, constructing himself as one of its main custodians. This also tapped into public disenchantment with the Mbeki government and macroeconomic policies such as Gear, which appeared, in this context, almost anti-ANC.

The resurrection of the memory of Moses Mabhida – a tripartite alliance icon whom Zuma considered a mentor – for example, served him well at a time when Cosatu and the South African Communist Party were increasingly at odds with Mbeki’s ANC.

Attempting, in the build-up to the ANC’s elective conference in Mangaung at the end of the year, to contain the “anyone but Zuma” faction and an unruly youth league intent on replacing him as ANC president, Zuma raised history once again when addressing party discipline and when encouraging the ANC to have a greater presence in public debates that involved it.  

Zuma reverted to form this week – one that entrenched his historical role in the present, but also legitimised his supporters’ manoeuvring at the conference. There were several “JZ” classics. The conflation of Zuma and the ANC was not just evident in the president’s public messaging, he also deferred to the party when he appeared to be stuck on policy specifics. He said the “delegates must decide” on the “radical change” he encouraged during his opening address, after being asked by the Mail & Guardian what his “radical” vision was in light of criticism that discussion documents on economic transformation and the “second transition” did not go far enough.

Second transition
Despite having punted the notion of a “second transition” as essential to societal transformation in recent provincial conferences, Zuma denied that he – and perceived support for his second term – was wedded to whether the “second transition” flew or sunk at Gallagher Estate.

He admitted to merely “sharpening” the discussion around a second transition, saying it was a national executive committee document, an ANC document and not his solely.

There was urgency for the ANC to discuss the second transition vigorously, said Zuma, because of poverty, inequality and unemployment. The plight of the poor in places such as Diepsloot gave him sleepless nights, he said, reviving his man-of-the-people persona.

But Zuma could not ignore the populist chord struck by former youth league president Julius Malema’s talk of “economic freedom” and nationalisation, among others. With Malema’s ousting, the former issue in particular has become Zuma’s terrain, only recoded as a “second transition” that addresses the challenges of poverty, inequality and unemployment.

This week, Zuma delivered another masterclass by portraying himself as the guardian of the ANC. Yet events like the Democratic Alliance’s legal challenge to review the 2009 decision to drop corruption charges against him or the manner in which the party mobilised to defend him against The Spear painting begs another question: Is the ANC now also Zuma’s guardian?

From spin doctor to roadie
Is it a bird, is it a plane … no, it is a lighting technician.

When President Jacob Zuma addressed the first press briefing of the ANC’s policy conference at Gallagher Estate on Tuesday, he arrived with his normal retinue, including political and security minders – and what appeared to be a technician to ensure the lighting flattered the first citizen.

The roadie fiddling with the lights before Zuma addressed the media turned out to be none other than former presidential “communications adviser” Zizi Kodwa.

After he had been promoted to Zuma’s office in 2010, the sky had appeared the limit for Kodwa, who was considered one of the rising stars of the ANC Youth League class of 2007 that ensured Zuma’s ascension to the party presidency at its elective conference in Polokwane.

But with the commander in chief apparently concerned about the youth league’s attempts to remove him as head of the ANC, Kodwa became a casualty of the ensuing consolidation in the presidential office: the young lion apparently was too close to other cubs from the ANC’s preschool, including Sports Minister Fikile Mbalula.

With the presidency recently announcing that Kodwa had taken up a job as communications manager of the Gauteng Film Commission, the Mail & Guardian was left wondering: Was Kodwa sharpening his skills for his new job, or merely showing JZ that he could still handle the job of casting him in the best possible light? – Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi

Niren Tolsi is a freelance journalist.His areas of interest include social justice; citizen mobilisation and state violence; protest; the constitution and the constitutional court and football. Read more from Niren Tolsi

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