President Jacob Zuma’s final address as ANC president was more an exercise in deflection of blame than an honest assessment of the party’s performance under his leadership.
And yet, to nearly everyone else there has been no greater divider of the ANC than Zuma himself.
The conference was delayed on Saturday following a special national executive committee (NEC) meeting to deliberate on a trio of court rulings that barred regions from KwaZulu-Natal, Free State and the North West from voting at the conference. The court rulings ought to have been a ringing criticism of Zuma’s inability to effectively lead the party, or the state.
The president — who appeared relaxed and confident during his address — doesn’t quite see it that way.
Zuma used the political report to the ANC’s national elective conference in Nasrec to lash out at his enemies, and to call on the ANC’s membership to close ranks. There was plenty of blame going round: according to Zuma, the ANC’s alliance partners, the courts, the media and even some of the party’s own members must take responsibility for the malaise in which the organisation now finds itself. None of the blame was directed towards himself.
While acknowledging that the ANC was battling with “negative tendencies” that had developed since it took power in 1994, Zuma said these issues needed to be dealt with internally.
Likewise, ANC members who took the party to court, as has recently happened in the run-up to the elective conference, needed to be disciplined in line with the earlier decision that anyone who did so would be expelled.
Zuma also gave his former wife and NEC member Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma another backhand endorsement in her bid to become ANC president, saying it was “historic” and “progressive” that the ANC had three female candidates for president for the first time. This, he said, was a “milestone” for the ANC.
Zuma also praised the ANC Women’s League, which was the first structure to nominate Dlamini-Zuma, for its work in preparing the ground for a woman ANC president.
Addressing the veterans of the party, who have repeatedly called on him to stand down as president, Zuma said it was wrong that they had become “part of the problems of the movement”.
He argued they weren’t even exactly living up to their mandate, and promised to show them how exactly to be veterans when he retires and joins their ranks.
Describing factionalism as “the biggest threat to the organisation”, Zuma said this had caused the emergence of splinter groups which had then become an opposition within the party. This had affected the ANC qualitatively and quantitatively, and slate politics had “cost us many good and capable comrades in whom our movement has invested significantly”.
This could be seen as a jibe at his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, who is challenging Dlamini-Zuma for the ANC presidency.
Ahead of the conference, Ramaphosa announced a “slate” of those who were part of his bid for the presidency, including Science and Technology Minister Naledi Pandor as his deputy. The announcement of Ramaphosa’s slate drew criticism from party central, in the form of secretary general Gwede Mantashe, as well as from fellow candidate NEC member Lindiwe Sisulu.
Zuma said “ill-discipline” has caused ANC members to take the party to court or to side openly with the opposition. This has also happened in Parliament, and the party needed to look at how to clamp down on this.
He may have been referring to the vote of no confidence against him, taken in Parliament in August, in which about 30 ANC MPs must have voted against him. They had been urged by Zuma opponents to vote with their consciences and not their party loyalty.
“We need to affirm the authority of the organisation over its individual members. There should be consequences for any member who acts and speaks contrary to the values, principles and political programme of the ANC,” Zuma said.
Zuma was also critical of the judiciary, saying that the relationship between the three arms of state “needs scrutiny”. Zuma has suffered at the hands of the judiciary, especially recently, when cases he lost or withdrew left him likely to have to pay the costs of the cases personally.
Zuma has been involved in “lawfare”, mostly to defend himself against charges of corruption, since the very beginning of his presidency.
Zuma said recent judgments created the impression that the ANC had disregarded the Constitution for “political expediency”, and would make it difficult for the ANC to govern in future.
This is a twist on the idea that various judgments essentially accused him of political expediency, especially in the appointment of key figures in government agencies such as the public protector, and one of Zuma’s political tricks — turning accusations against him into claims against others.
“We also frown upon the subjection of our internal organisational matters to court processes. ANC members should use internal dispute resolution processes. Judges should not be asked to dictate organisational processes and the direction of the movement,” he said.
Various groups in the ANC, especially in the run-up to the conference, have challenged the legality of branch processes and other legal matters.
Zuma also highlighted other challenges the ANC had faced — from the Marikana massacre to the Life Esidimeni tragedy — saying they needed to be prevented from happening again.
Parliamentary oversight, by which Cabinet was held to account, he said, was now being abused by the opposition, aided in some cases by ANC members, who must guard against Parliament being used to entrench colonial and apartheid privilege.
Zuma also defended the performance of the ANC and government under his watch, outlining the party’s — and government’s — successes over the past 10 years.
The ANC remained in control of eight provinces and several metropolitan councils, he said, but the voting patterns in the 2016 local-government elections were a “stark reminder that our people are not happy with the state of the ANC”.
Many analysts have seen the ANC’s electoral decline as a direct result of Zuma’s hold on power. During his tenure as president the economy has stumbled badly, with downgrades given by ratings agencies and a vast fall in investment and the value of the currency.
His firing of the then finance minister Pravin Gordhan in March was seen to have given the struggling economy a further blow. Gordhan’s replacement as finance minister, Malusi Gigaba, is not regarded with much respect by business or potential international investors.
Zuma also attacked the media, saying it was an “active participant with vested interests rather than an impartial and fair observer”. The media was being mobilised against the ANC at home and internationally and this had intensified in recent months. ANC members were being used by this agenda, he said.
The ANC has taken considerable flak over the past few years for its support of Zuma’s presidency in the wake of various scandals, as well as a judgment that he had violated his constitutional duties.
The attack on the media, too, goes back to his taking of the ANC presidency at Polokwane in 2007, when his supporters argued for a media tribunal to discipline the national media. A “secrecy Bill” pushed by the Zuma administration would also have had a chilling effect on investigative journalism, but it is now in limbo, having been seen by civil society and the opposition as a subversion of constitutional freedoms.
Recently Zuma mocked Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane for waving Jacques Pauw’s book The President’s Keepers: Those Keeping Zuma in Power and out of Prison in Parliament. Maimane was making the point that Zuma had a well-documented series of cases of corruption to answer for.
The charges relating to the arms deal and Zuma’s relationship with Schabir Shaik — who was convicted of corruption — have recently been reinstated after a Constitutional Court judgment.
Zuma concluded with a resounding call for the conference to succeed. “We should emerge from the conference united, as unity is the rock upon which the ANC was founded and unity is what will make the ANC and South Africa succeed.”
But the ANC is not united, as the reception to Zuma’s speech made clear. His speech received applause from the sections of the hall where the provinces backing Dlamini-Zuma were seated. Those who back Ramaphosa remained silent, only joining in singing with him when he ended his speech with a rendition of his trademark Inde Lendlela — sung for the last time as president of the ANC.