ANC NGC preview: The leaders’ story

By Stephen Grootes 20 September 2010

While a “normal” ANC national general council should not be too much trouble for any political figure, being after all a “policy discussion”, the gathering in Durban may prove to be much more exciting for some of the leaders. Here's why. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

While we don’t expect this NGC to have anything of the same long-term impact for the ANC’s leadership as that event in Polokwane, it’s still going to provide the clearest long-term indication of the balance of forces. There are several people for whom the next few days are absolutely crucial. In short, once the dust clears, some reputations may be broken and some made.

The man with the most to lose is, of course, President Jacob Zuma himself. He’s spent almost all of this year reaping the whirlwind of his strange path to power. He’s now in a situation where just about the only statement he could make to the NGC that would be met with wild unrestrained applause would be some kind of massive attack on the media. Anything else is going to get a lukewarm reception. He can promise more economic transformation, but no one will really believe him, when it comes to moral regeneration people will stifle grins and think of that well-known monogamist Goodwill Zwelethini. Unless he promises to nationalise all the mines now, the Youth League will rock back on their chairs in a boredom, and if he does do that, the left will be less than impressed.

So we very much expect him to focus on the media. He needs to find a way to stamp his authority on this party, and he needs to do it quickly. If he doesn’t, 2012 will come upon him like a tsunami. We’ve said for ages that something that could draw attention away from his political (and other) woes would be to announce some real hard thought-through policy, but we’re not expecting any here. It’s a pity, but there it is. And that will play nicely into Cosatu’s hands; their prediction about the “paralysis” of the ANC’s top leadership will come about.

For Zuma, the real risk is not that he’ll be unseated at this NGC, but that it will sow the seeds of his defeat in 2012.

Gwede Mantashe also has plenty at play for here. He has to run the damn thing, and while that gives him some real power for a change, it is also fraught with danger. No one has been better at forging alliances and making them stick since Polokwane than Mantashe. But this will be his ultimate test. Still, he must have several chips he can call on. And he has the virtue of having a real live public enemy to play with, the Youth League which, actually, has done him a favour: he can now find some sympathy from the left and the unionists. For him, he needs to a run what’s seen as a good NGC, and to find a way to neutralise Julius Malema.

That may be easier than it sounds. While there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing over nationalisation, Mantashe could still find a way to hole that argument below the waterline. However, that’s nothing to the mistake Malema has made by trying to get his own disciplinary sentence nullified at the NGC. Does he really want his elders and betters to get to vote on his behaviour, when the process is controlled by Mantashe? Dare we say, but it looks to us like the kind of error someone makes while thinking, shall we say, emotionally. Or, to take an alternative view, has Malema somehow managed to pack this NGC with the “70% young people” he said he would? We have our doubts.

Malema himself could actually turn out to be the big winner or the big loser of this NGC. He is the pendulum on which the entire event could hang. He’s likely to be fairly quiet overall, but he could come away losing both the argument over his sentence, or the one around nationalisation. If that happens, he’ll be a shadow of his former self. And there’s nothing the League likes more than kicking someone when he’s down. His treatment of Andile Lungisa could come back to haunt him if things go wrong for him here.

Those are some of the more obvious people who could find their long-term futures decided in Durban this week. Two of the more interesting people are Mathews Phosa and Kgalema Motlanthe.

Phosa has been very quiet of late. We know from past experience with the ANC that the quieter candidates have a habit of winning in strange ways. He has some strong levers of power to pull. He also knows where the money comes from, which makes him a powerful figure. He seems to be ambitious, and has a long memory. We think he’ll stay below the waterline for most of the NGC, but any whispers about him we do hear we’ll follow with great interest.

Motlanthe has to tread that awful tightrope of ANC politics that decrees “thou shalt not be interested in leadership”, but not to appear too passive. His comments last week in London that he’d rather be an “advisor” than president again perhaps went too far in one direction, as it seems that he is protesting a little too much. His real dilemma is how to attract (or keep) the support of the Youth League, while not alienating everyone else. Motlanthe is very likely to gain the support of the unionist movement from whence he comes, the left would accept him, but the whole job would be much easier if the League backs him too. So his real job is to try to create some kind of united front that could say to Zuma, “we all back Motlanthe, just don’t run again in 2012”. That would save Motlanthe (and the ANC) from spilling the political blood on the floor and making a mess of a leadership election that marred months in the run-up to Polokwane.

Overall, the next week’s coverage of the NGC (barring booing and other incidents) is likely to be dominated by the media appeals tribunal and nationalisation. The media will be strongly criticised for personalising these debates. The fact is, they’re the best way of working out who is strong, and who is not. This NGC is not likely to create  public fireworks. But it is setting the stage for the display that’s expected in 2012.

If we’re allowed to report on it, that is. DM

Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter.

Photo: The Daily Maverick.


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