The Ankole Longhorn cattle that Cyril Ramphosa went to extraordinary lengths to introduce to South Africa have something of a reputation. They are mostly, well, cattle: placid and easily herded — until they are not. Then their size and strength and magnificent horns can be put to dangerous use, as unwary herders have learnt from time to time.
That may come to be a useful trait in future, from the perspective of political analysts in need of simplifying analogies to apply to Ramaphosa’s ANC.
This week ANC leaders showed us that they consider their ordinary members — the people who supposedly run South Africa — to be cattle.
They carted thousands of delegates to Nasrec, fed them stories about their important place in history and then did deals behind their backs that had little to nothing to do with what members need or want.
And at least some of the delegates noticed. Take, for instance, the case of Mpumalanga.
David Mabuza’s little let’s-vote-for-Unity gambit was widely seen as coded support for Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma (NDZ). Her camp certainly thought so, considering those votes to be in the bag and putting Mabuza on their slate as deputy in return. Many branch members who sent their delegates off with a nudge and a wink certainly thought so.
When push came to shove, though, Mabuza was suddenly vague — and many Mpumalanga votes went to Ramaphosa and DD became deputy president.
We don’t yet know how the Mpumalanga branches feel about that, but if it is anything approaching the sentiment in the NDZ camp, then “angry” is a safe bet.
But Mabuza, we daresay, thinks cattle are easily cowed.
Or consider the supposedly powerful ANC Women’s League. It campaigned as hard as anyone, and harder than most, for Dlamini-Zuma, because the time had come for a woman president. The patriarchy would fall, from the top down. This time it was all about gender.
But when it came to Lindiwe Sisulu, who had inconveniently aligned herself with Ramaphosa, well, voting is secret, you know, mumbled women’s league head Bathabile Dlamini. And stop trying to use your patriarchal tactics to push us into a corner here, you patriarchal patriarchs.
Some women may want to know just what that was all about. But we daresay Dlamini thinks cattle are easily confused.
We wouldn’t be so sure.
Since 1994 ordinary ANC members have, broadly speaking, run South Africa. They have forced leaders to adopt positions and policies some of those leaders found uncomfortable but, as we were told time and again, a leader of the ANC is there to implement the will of the collective.
ANC members charted the course. They mattered.
But there is a very real chance that, before the end of 2019, the ANC, and thus its members, will be in only marginal control of the country.
And even as power bleeds away from the party as a whole, it is being taken out of the hands of party members. The ANC is now a party of backroom deals, one where leaders sow division to serve their own ambitions.
It is in this context that Nasrec delegates will have to report back to branches on the policy decisions taken at the conference.
Those delegates will return to branches where there were endless debates about whether it should be “radical economic transformation” or “radical socioeconomic transformation”, or where the debate on the future of the Reserve Bank nearly brought comrades to blows. There the delegates will have to explain that, actually, no, the branch position did not make it into the national policy position as such because, you see, there really wasn’t much time to discuss, you know, policy or anything, because it took rather a long time to figure out who would be the boss.
It is never nice to hear that you no longer matter. It is a great deal more unpleasant when you are told you don’t matter after facing down the threat of murder, as did ANC members in KwaZulu-Natal, or the kind of intimidation some in Mpumalanga were subjected to.
Yet, at the same time as the Nasrec conference told members they don’t matter, it was sending a clear message about their potential power. That message came in two parts: the fence erected between delegates and the media and the solid wall of security guards set up between the conference plenary floor and the table for leaders.
The fence told members that their party was afraid of what they may say; the security guards told the members that their party fears what they may do. Through word and deed, these members were being told that they could unleash chaos — or what the leaders would consider to be chaos by losing control of the narrative and the stage.
We do not know what effect these conflicting messages (“you do not matter, but you could again”) will have on ordinary ANC members. The younger and more hotheaded members went to the Economic Freedom Fighters, leaving behind those with a deep respect for tradition and loyalty forged in fire. Perhaps they will consent to being led, regardless of everything.
Or perhaps not. They say you should never turn your back on a herd of Ankole. Not if you know what is good for you.