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Polokwane - two years on

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Polokwane – two years on

It’s been a long road since Jacob Zuma strode victorious down Polokwane's Thabo Mbeki Avenue. What's happened over the past two years? And what does it mean for our future?

With the benefit of hindsight, the differences between Zuma and Mbeki were always going to be too big for one to be in power and the other in office. But we should probably be grateful that things ended when and how they did. While it wasn’t great having three presidents in eight months, we survived it, and so did the ANC. Okay, let’s just say it coped. You might want to scoff a little at that, but think about some of the things that have happened since Polokwane, and whether many other countries’ political systems would have survived as ours has.

Think about it: Since December 2007, the people’s favourite son was charged with corruption. A judge blamed the president, in public and on TV. The president was asked to leave. He did. There was an election. The Reserve Bank Governor changed. Four Constitutional Court judges retired, and were replaced. 

And mostly, people carried on with their lives. Remember, some of those people stocked up on canned goods in 1994. That perhaps more than anything shows how stable our society has become. And that is undeniably a very good thing. But look a little closer and there have been changes, in some ways, quite quick ones.

Aids is the best example. The biggest change to the daily lives of many people in this country has come in the health sector, although it did take the new ANC a while. They actually lived with Manto in office for eight months, and only turfed her out when they’d had enough of Mbeki. As a result, starting with Barbara Hogan and moving on to Aaron Motsoaledi, antiretroviral drugs are now far more available in public hospitals than they were. Also, crucially, there’s now leadership rather than denial. And that will start to have a major impact soon.

Photo: Greg Marinovich

The new ANC has also started coming to grips with that other great South African fear – crime.  Leadership has arrived, and more than that, the country is now getting the hug it needs on the issue. People are being listened to and resources are being flung at the problem. Those resources include some of the best brains in the business. 

This is just one indication of how the new ANC has changed things. We now have the feeling that those in power actually give a flying fig about the things that matter to us. In the past, one got the feeling that no one really cared. Zuma should get much of the credit for this, along with Gwede Mantashe. Zuma’s ANC presidential campaign roared into life publicly, just two weeks before Polokwane, with this soundbite, “We must declare a state of emergency on Aids and crime”. It was more than just a shot across the bows, it was grapeshot bringing down the rigging of the good ship Mbeki. 

Amazingly, another area where this has been felt is in the party’s dealings with the media. A couple of weeks after the conference, Mantashe, Jessie Duarte and others met with a few editors. They were shocked when told that this hadn’t happened before. That there had been no lines of communication between the party’s top brass and the media’s head honchos. The editors complained about how Smuts Ngonyama had been unreachable during crucial times, when the media message really had to be managed. Duarte, while a slightly combustible personality, got it. Her phone was on, virtually all the time. And she would actually answer it, understand you, and call you if something was going wrong. That was a major change. It was hugely surprising, when you consider Zuma’s previous dealings with the media had involved showers and suites. The strategy worked and the media has been kinder ever since.

The economy was always going to be difficult for Zuma. Not because of perceptions around his education, and possible lack of interest in the detail, but because the ANC is at its broadest when it comes to economics. You have those who want to nationalise everything now, those who just want the mines, and those who’ve done pretty well out of capitalism. This argument was always going to play out in macro-economic policy in general and inflation targeting in particular. It’s too early to say how this argument is going to end. But a change is coming. Inflation targeting is not going to remain the holy grail it was when created under Mbeki. We should point out though that it’s really worked pretty damn well until now. Pravin Gordhan has explained he “welcomes discussions” on the issue, and Cosatu and the SACP seem pretty confident. How much of a change there will be, and what the ultimate impact of that will be, are still open to vigorous, if allegedly comradely, debate.

Photo: Greg Marinovich

Where the “new” ANC gets a bit of a black mark is in the justice arena. Things have been pretty difficult there. The National Prosecuting Authority has been pushed this way and that depending on who was in power at the time. First, it was used to charge Zuma, then to withdraw the charges against him. Now it’s got Menzi Simelane, a man who we’ve previously described as an appalling choice, at its helm. So matters are unlikely to improve anytime soon. What may allow some stability, however, is that at least there is no titanic battle for power (that we know of) that can shake it to its foundations. At least we’ll know what we’re dealing with.

The ANC has made up a little for its mistake with Simelane with its choice of Constitutional Court judges. There are possibly better qualified, and better legal minds in this country than the four who were picked to fill the vacant slots. But that would hold true for any supreme court in any country. And the ones we have are good people. What is clear, is that the kind of nonsense indulged in by Judge John Hlophe won’t be tolerated by the new ANC. And yes, we did hear that snigger over there in the corner, from those who think it was circumstance that forced the ANC not to pick Hlophe. If that were the case, there are other candidates who are much weaker, who would suit a president hell-bent on power at all costs better. And it would have been easy to push them onto that bench. 

Overall, the post-Polokwane ANC is better than that which went before it. It listens, or at least it tries to. It cares, or at least says that it does. Its top leadership doesn’t indulge in spiteful diatribes against certain sections of society. That’s what Julius Malema is for. But he’s still less damaging than if those kinds of words were coming from the mouth of the ANC’s top leadership. Lives are being saved on the HIV front. And crime is getting the attention it deserves. But there is still a question mark over Zuma’s, and by implication, the ANC’s vision of judicial independence. This really matters, because, to paraphrase Tony Leon, it’s the judges that can really cock things up. Judicial appointments last for a long time, get the wrong one in, and it’s almost impossible to get them out, as the Judicial Service Commission will happily tell you. So, the damage can last literally for 20 years. Economic policy can be changed quickly, and so the damage is reduced.

The ANC is now just three years away from its next leadership conference. The leadership battle is on. Well, for the post of secretary general, really. As events at the SACP’s special conference showed, the knives are out for Mantashe. Zuma looks safe for now, if he wants to continue. But his alliance is fraying at the edges. And if he can’t manage seemingly trivial things such as the Malema/Cronin dispute, someone could pull a thread too hard, and things could quickly start to unravel.

By Stephen Grootes

(Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter)

Main Photo: Greg Marinovich


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