A convoy of blue lights and political hacks rolled into Polokwane this weekend for what Limpopo seems to do best: a critical ANC conference. Julius Malema, Cassel Mathale, Kgalema Motlanthe and GREG NICOLSON are there.
The provincial vote was billed as a barometer for the party’s centenary celebrations and national elective conference in Mangaung 2012. With the conference running two hours late on Saturday morning, delegates fidgeted in the University of Polokwane’s University Hall while Limpopo Premier Cassel Mathale began his speech. “Colonel Gaddafi was a true African leader who never surrendered in that. Even under Nato bombing he never fled his country, but he courageously led his forces and supporters with a firm promise that he will stand with them in the battlefield and fight along them until victory or death,” said the Limpopo ANC chairman in a monologue on African and Middle Eastern politics, and the UN Security Council.
Perhaps Brother Leader is his favourite Africanist, but the comments seemed to confirm what we already know – that the Limpopo ANC conference is not only about battle of ideas, the process of participatory democracy or access to resources, but who will lead the ANC after Mangaung 2012. In-between Palestine and the self-interest of the West, Mathale criticised South Africa’s UN vote for the no-fly zone in Libya, the simplest of attacks on President Jacob Zuma’s foreign policy.
This weekend Mathale was challenged for the job as ANC provincial chairman by deputy arts and culture minister Joe Paahla. The vote was billed as one of the first scuffles on the road to Mangaung 2012. Mathale is a close ally of ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema who has thrown his weight (waning politically while increasing physically) behind his preferred candidates – Fikile Mbalula as secretary-general and Kgalema Motlanthe as president. Although the ANC does not have as many members in Limpopo as a province like KwaZulu-Natal, a Paahla victory would have been boost to Zuma’s bid to retain the leadership.
Paahla is said to enjoy Zuma’s support and before the vote he urged ANC members to judge Mathale’s performance. "It is the responsibility of the members, primarily, to assess your performance as leadership for the period for which you had a mandate." Paahla was reluctant to comment on the province, but had acknowledged concerns raised by Cosatu, one of the few organisations who weren’t supporting Mathale. But opponents were critical of Paahla coming from state government. “Joe Paahla has been away from the province for ten years. The ANC is not a recycling company,” said Sani Mannya, provincial secretary of the South African National Civic Organisation.
The powerhouse of Limpopo, Julius Malema, arrived on Saturday morning, leading 300 delegates singing their support for Mathale and mocked Zuma by doing the “shower dance” (see photo). His eyes darted as he sat on stage as a non-voting member, invited as a prominent politician from Limpopo pending the appeal of his ANC suspension. Juju was instrumental in replacing Sello Moloto, who bet the house on Thabo Mbeki in Polokwane in 2007, with Cassel Mathale.
The pair remains close on many levels and it came as no surprise on Saturday when Mathale defended the role of the ANC Youth League. Since its inception it has been a critical voice of change that should be encouraged, he said. If Youth League leaders make mistakes the ANC should assist rather than punish them.
But Mathale said little about Limpopo. He was critical of the media’s role in reporting corruption and called for all matters to be reported to state institutions. “Unfortunately, the ANC government in Limpopo has been painted as the most corrupt provincial administration in the country by some of the media houses, backed by some individuals in our alliance partners,” he said. Journalists were sitting front and centre as the crowd cheered. “We have always indicated that corruption must be exposed and reported to law-enforcement agencies regardless of its source. Today we are standing here in front of you, reiterating that message.”
Five of the province’s departments were put under national administration in December after finance minister Pravin Gorhan would not approve a further R1-billon loan. “This effectively means that the affected departments will be controlled from Pretoria. We have accepted this move and committed ourselves to cooperate with the national government. And work has commenced in that regard,” said Mathale.
Representing the national government was Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, who replaced Zuma after worries the president would be jeered. Motlanthe was the first to address the 1000-plus delegates. He called for discipline in the election and told party members not to vote according to slates. "The emergence of slates within our organisational culture and the processes represent the worst form of corruption of the spirit, character and vision of the organisation.
“We meet here to evaluate and assess the state of the organisation, and reflect on what has happened since the last conference where the current leadership was given a mandate to lead the organisation,” he said.
The deputy president read off the page, then sat stone-faced next to Mathale, while the delegates reacted unanimously in awe. Each time his name was mentioned, the hall would rupture with applause. This, sources claim, was because of Limpopo pleasantries; critical delegates didn’t want to be rude. But the crowd didn’t just refrain from booing; it treated Motlanthe like Michael Jackson at a resurrection concert.
Delegates voted until 3am on Saturday night for the party’s top officials. Despite Motlanthe’s advice against slates, the winners were all on Cassel Mathale’s ticket. Mathale will remain provincial chairman, with 601 votes to Joe Paahla’s 519. Dickson Masemola will be his deputy with revolutionary-named Soviet Lekganyane as secretary. Pinky Kekana won the vote for treasurer. In each position, the candidates on Mathale’s list won by about 90 votes.
His supporters, of course, said it was never a contest, but some conceded it was a close call. Outside the conference, they danced with mimed showerheads on the side of the road as a line of BMWs and Mercedes waited to enter. “The main purpose is to draw the line to the Mangaung conference to install Kgalema Motlanthe as president,” said one supporter.
Delegates favouring Paahla, conspicuous as they rolled hand over hand like a rotating barrel as a sign of change, (the same way as Zuma's supporters were signalling it was time for change in 2007 version of Polokwane) were diplomatic in defeat. “It’s a contest, so I understand,” said Freddy Makhoka from Vhembe. “We are still going to engage each other on the regional and sub-regional level.” The result was taken as an aspect of party democracy.
The comrades spent Sunday split into eight policy commissions. Economic transformation was top of the list, promising to focus on nationalisation of the mines, land ownership and the structure of production. Both Cassel Mathale and Julius Malema have supported the idea of state intervention in the mineral sector and Limpopo is likely to push for nationalisation at the national Mangaung policy conference in June, if it’s adopted in the resolutions released on Tuesday.
By 5pm on Sunday, however, a constructive dialogue shifted as Paahla supporters heard of foul play. Before the vote a journalist had been assaulted after taking photos of extra accreditation passes being printed in Polokwane. Paahla’s supporters were crowded on the grass last night discussing a plan. “These guys have stolen the election. Mobsters,” said one delegate. He claimed that voters were turned away after being told they’d already voted. The group resolved to continue contesting the additional elections while disputing Mathale’s victory with the ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe.
In a closed session on Sunday night one delegate took the leadership to task for stifling discussion. Why is Julius Malema playing a prominent role, he asked, when he has been suspended? The firebrand is unlikely to be perturbed. He’s planned a party for Mathale’s victory and as his political career survives another day, what’s not to celebrate?
But the toasts won’t last long. The 2012 battle lines for the ANC have been drawn and Limpopo is clearly on the side against Zuma. DM
All photos: Greg Nicolson