/ 3 July 2017

Body language betrays ANC angst

President Jacob Zuma during his opening address.
President Jacob Zuma during his opening address.

The Mail & Guardian’s series of first-hand accounts of the ANC’s national conferences through the eyes of insiders continues with another delegate update, this time from a celebrity-obsessed young lady from the Free State, Khanyi Lekota

Something is not right at this ANC national policy conference. The body language of the delegates and leaders smacks of something awry, and I don’t mean the way Human Settlements Minister Lindiwe Sisulu and former ANC chief whip Tony Yengeni appeared to be propping each other up on stage when the conference opened on Friday.

Looking deathly pale — as if they had been hitting Khanyi Mbau’s intravenous skin-lightening drips of glutathione and vitamin C a little too hard — Sisulu and Yengeni spent much of ANC President Jacob Zuma’s opening address sitting almost on top of each other.

Perhaps they were redefining the concept of lobbying for positions. Or maybe the blood had merely drained from their faces when secretary general Gwede Mantashe started his paranoid rants about “colour revolutions” across the world, and how this could potentially lead to regime change in South Africa if the ANC was not careful. Something, certainly, is going on with that colourful duo.

Many of the delegates have been ambling around with a distinct lack of vigour and relish, as if the very air has been punched out of them. Which is rather dispiriting, considering that this is a conference of the continent’s oldest liberation movement, where we should be discussing innovative solutions to our country’s problems, and pushing the boundaries of praxis.

While treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize has looked business-like and serious, adding depth to discussions on radical economic transformation, land reform and potential expropriation without compensation — and how the ANC hopes to deal with the current technical recession — other leaders have looked exhausted by the constant instability within the ruling party.

ANC presidential hopeful Cyril Ramaphosa has smiled wanly and danced stiffly, as if sleepwalking through the first few days. Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has looked like, well, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma — serious and grave, but with all the charisma of a plaque.

KwaZulu-Natal provincial chairperson Sihle Zikalala has tried to up his policy game but despite the bluster, often comes across like the floundering Orlando Pirates team of the last season.

By contrast, uBaba has been putting up an ebullient facade. Grinning at the media, thumbs-upping the handpicked ANC elders invited to the conference in a show of faux-consultation over the party’s internal decay, and generally assuming a spectacle of political virility for all to see.

But not all the delegates are buying it; his song-and-dance routine appearing rather tired considering all the problems the ANC and South Africa face.

Zuma may be able to sing for his supper at the Gupta compound, but what do the rest of us do?

Zuma is also the master of the grinning poker face. You can’t tell what is going on behind the toothsome grin and bulging, chameleon-like eyes.

His father was certainly prescient when naming him Jacob Gedleyihlekisa Zuma. Literally translated, Gedleyihlekisa means “the one who smiles or laughs in your face, while he is causing you physical harm”.

I was reminded of this by an old Mkhonto weSizwe (MK) veteran who uBaba had been gunning for. Over a quiet cup of tea, the MK operative — who had eventually lost his job at one of the country’s foremost government institutions after an alleged Gupta-induced purge — said: “I was ready to walk away quietly, but in several meetings with the president he told me he wanted me to stay in the job. Despite these assurances, he was manoeuvring for me behind-the-scenes anyway. He could have just been straight with me and saved himself the trouble, but that’s not his style.”

So when uBaba ascended to the stage at the conference’s opening and leered lasciviously at Derek Hanekom before catching him in a tight bearhug, half the
conference hall was looking for the knife in the former tourism minister’s back as they separated.

Perhaps uBaba was merely rubbing some salt into the wounds already inflicted on Hanekom after he was chucked out of Cabinet for having the impertinence to ask the National Executive Committee to vote on whether Zuma should stay on as president of the country. Revenge is a dish best served cold in the Nkandla household.

At the end of the day, despite all of Zuma’s grinning and giggling his way through the ANC’s policy conference, the big question not on the agenda is: will the party be able to recover from the serious wounds he is inflicting upon it?