President Jacob Zuma is due to make the ANC’s January 8th Statement in Polokwane on Saturday. While it is supposed to be a speech about policy, it will really mark the start of the new political year. By STEPHEN GROOTES.
There’s a certain level of political calculation that happens at the upper echelons of any political party when it comes to making policy. Generally speaking you have to balance the left and the right, the hawks and the doves, those happy with the status quo and those who are not. And in South Africa, when you look at our income disparity, the sheer difference in the worlds we inhabit, and the almost unbelievable power of the rich to find ways of inhibiting massive change, making a policy speech is more difficult than in most places.
But even if there were a way for a cunning political mind to overcome all that, for that mind to then overcome the real obstacle is still a genuine “challenge”. It’s the ideological breadth of the ANC that sometimes seems to be responsible for so much of the drift that we see in our politics. It’s hard for anyone to take a hard and fast decision on pretty much anything. Take de-unionising the defence force: For the hawks in the party, it’s a good idea and the Constitutional Court can go hang – it’s wrong, it leads to ill-discipline and hell, we don’t need the sight of police and soldiers clashing at the Union Buildings. But the lefty part of the Alliance, Cosatu particularly, is unlikely to be quite so keen on the idea. Teachers and discipline in the classroom is another example. Many ANC leaders, Gwede Mantashe among them, were furious at the teachers’ strike last year. But Sadtu has muscle and belongs to Cosatu.
There are some who would say President Jacob Zuma should rise above all of this. Really? Would you? And bear in mind, if Zuma were magically replaced by anyone else, they would have exactly the same problem. The ANC is not of a mind to allow an Mbeki-like character back into power; they remember those days too well.
So having said all of that, what can we expect from Zuma's speech? Well, as so often: more of the same, just a little different. Or to be more accurate, just spun differently.
However, Zuma is probably feeling more confident now than at any other time in his presidency. Remember last year: the State of the Nation disaster, the love-child, the claim that the National Health Insurance would be a fait accompli by 2011. Since then he’s managed to get the support of the silent majority of the ANC. Well, it’s more complicated than that, but in broad strokes, that’s been his big achievement of 2010. And this means he can now act more freely than before. So we could see a bigger glimpse of what he really wants this weekend.
Zuma’s made no secret of the fact he sees crime, Aids and education as his main priorities. Sometimes we forget the awful denialism that we saw about Aids and crime during the previous-but-one administration. The battle to get “teachers in class, on time, teaching for seven hours a day” is likely to continue. The NHI will probably not rate a huge mention for now, as it was dealt with pretty comprehensively at the National General Council last year. But health generally is likely to be well up there.
Crime is something Zuma gets very angry about. There’s bound to be a mention of the suffering caused by violent crime, and probably a comment or two about the increase in bobbies on the beat that we’ve seen recently.
When it comes to education, well, Zuma’s coming off a high after this week’s matric results. There’s still plenty of cynicism about them: was it the education ministry massaging the figures (this is technically an election year after all) or did something shift in our society when everyone realised the teachers’ strike and the World Cup meant our students/pupils/learners needed good old fashioned help. Or was there a mixture of the two. Either way, Zuma is unlikely to let such a good result go without a mention.
There will be plenty of focus on jobs and creating “decent work”. However we will be waiting to see if he gets fully behind Ebrahim Patel’s New Economic Growth plan. The plan typifies the problems facing ANC leaders: if you choose one path you get shouted, another path you get shouted, a path through the middle you just get it from both sides. Zuma’s been cautious so far, so we think some kind of qualified support for the plan, some nod towards “greater discussion” about it could be in the offing.
There is also a possibility of something brewing in Zuma camp that we don’t yet know about. It has happened before that something comes from left-field in these speeches, so we will listen to every word. But there will be plenty that will probably be left out. Don’t expect direct language on inflation targeting or economic policy generally, or the proposed nationalisation of the mines, or energy and electricity policy. Or even any detail on speeding up our court system to deal with the criminals our new police officers catch. And there will be some wishy-washy stuff on going green and the ANC’s “support” for greener policies, but that’s all it will be.
This event is taking place on ANC Youth League president Julius Malema’s home turf, Polokwane, the town whose main street is called Thabo Mbeki Avenue. But don’t read too much into that, it’s simply the Limpopo’s turn to host this statement. That’s right, the provinces do take it in turns. And while some might expect Malema’s Young Lions to be in the front of the big crowd, it’s unlikely he’ll take on Zuma publicly.
Zuma has a tough needle to thread this weekend. But if anyone has the political nous to do it, and do it well, it’s the great come-back kid of South African politics. DM
Grootes is an EWN reporter.
Photo: The Daily Maverick.