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Reporter’s notebook: Siyanqoba shows off ANC popularity and Zuma’s mind-numbing speech

Reporter’s notebook: Siyanqoba shows off ANC popularity and Zuma’s mind-numbing speech

The ANC likes to party. And why not? When you have the resources to take over the FNB Stadium you may have something to celebrate. And it’s best to have the party now, because you may not feel like partying later. So if you’re the ANC, it’s best to party like it’s 1994. By STEPHEN GROOTES, who manages not once in his entire report to use the word “toilet”, not even once.

We may sound a little boring about this, but the FNB Stadium is world-class. Deep in the bowels of the structure, near where the television trucks hang out, there are miles of corridors. The well-lit passageways are lined with hooks every few metres. It’s so that you can lay literally miles of TV cable and not get anything snagged. Once you’re up in the media section, you realise those little rooms are actually commentary booths, and in one of them a couple of Spaniards were rather excited last year.

At 8:00 in the morning, Fikile Mbalula was getting a little excited too. He had the world’s biggest PA system to play with, and he wasn’t going to give up the power of the microphone easily. He was in a jovial mood, joking about keeping people off the grass because, “as sports minister you’re costing me a lot of money”. It’s interesting that despite the suggested sidelining of his role during these elections (he pretty much ran the ANC’s campaign in 2009), he’s still the partier-in-chief.

It is perhaps an indication of the increasing influence of the ANC Youth League that the political side of this event started late. By the time President Jacob Zuma got going, he was two hours and 18 minutes behind schedule. Not that that forced the SABC to break away from its coverage in any way. So how does one fill the time? Well, you bug politicians.

And perhaps the most interesting was Ngoako Ramathlodi. He’s deputy correctional services minister these days, but he’s also serving his second stint as ANC election head (He filled the same post in 2009. Confused about his and Mbalula’s roles? Us too. Ramathlodi is “head of elections” and Mbalula is “head of campaigns”. Clear? No, we didn’t think so either). He often comes across as a little defensive with the media. He’s had a rough ride, unsubstantiated corruption allegations hung around him for years and he was never someone who took that lying down. But he was in a pretty expansive mood. When asked what had changed in this election compared to last, he said, “the people are now holding us to account, as they should… it’s not enough any more to say we liberated you”. When pressed on whether that makes it harder for the ANC to campaign, “well, of course, but if you want to lead you must earn your stripes”.

This is a fascinating insight from the bloke who actually knows. In essence, it’s a realisation the ANC actually has to operate like a political party, it cannot just be a liberation movement. Despite the fact Zuma always uses the latter definition. It’s also, perhaps, an indication the DA is doing well by concentrating on service delivery. It doesn’t have a history to fall back on, so it works bloody hard at what it has. And what the DA has is beginning to matter. Ramathlodi seemed quite sanguine about it, it’s a fact of life really, and the party will have to get to grips with it.

Eventually, the leaders started arriving on the pitch. Yes, the person who got one of the biggest cheers of the day has the initials J.S.M. But Zuma got even more. That’s not necessarily a sign Zuma is more popular, as he does embody the ANC. Zuma also got to do the lap of honour around the stadium, if it had been Malema, well, the cheers would probably have been much louder. They were certainly disproportionate for the position he holds.

Finally, after some SABC scheduler had lost a bit more hair, things got going. There’s a script to these rallies, the head of the ANC province that’s hosting the event says a few nice things, then there’s messages of support from the leagues and the alliance partners (they’re not introduced, so as to save some from potential embarrassment) and then Zuma gets his chance. It’s a sign of the times that Malema’s five minutes contains far more news than Zuma’s 40.

He was his usual controversial self. There was the “we’ll take back Cape Town from the madam”, the “ANC is the only party that will ensure economic freedom in our lifetime”. Then the hectic stuff. “The DA is a party only for white people, it is not for you. It is a party for minorities, the ANC is for everyone, black and white”. Hmm. It’s the same old strategy, let Malema play the woman and go racial, while Zuma sits back and looks presidential.

Where Malema was really surprising though, was what he said about Zuma. He said he wasn’t going to talk for long, because “our President, will give the main message, the only President, the undisputed President of the oldest organisation on our continent”. Contrast that with what he said in Rustenberg at the start of this campaign, “This is not a democracy of families”, that famous jibe at the Guptas who are close to Zuma.

Clearly, there’s an election on, there’s a script and even Malema dare not stray from it.

Finally, Zuma himself stood up.

Dear reader, it was dreary.

Even the magnificence of the stadium couldn’t make it interesting. It was a litany of what the ANC has achieved in office, its greatest-hits album if you like. How it alone brought electricity and water to millions, how it brought improved telecommunications (and invented the Internet, pushing Al Gore to margins of history) and basically provided heaven on Earth. It was like watching Thabo Mbeki’s address at Polokwane: long, dull and almost totally irrelevant. But perhaps it reminded the voters of why they should vote ANC, and hell, he had a free pass on the SABC in which to do it.

Zuma didn’t spend much time on local government issues, there was the odd mention of potholes and how “people want clean efficient local government”, but it was really a speech about “when we vote on Wednesday, we will be protecting the ANC, and protecting our hard-won freedom”. Yes well, okay if you say so.

A word on the crowd. We’ve said before that one of the first indications of how the ANC will do in these elections will be how it does in getting out the voters, and thus, how successful it is in bringing in people to this rally. The party had claimed it would fill the stadium, there would be a 100,000 people or so. It had set up overflow areas for the extra. In Rustenberg, those areas stood empty as did half the seats. This was different. It was nearly full, not quite, but nearly. There were patches of orange seating that could plainly be seen. Does that mean it’s going to do well or badly then? We’re not sure. It does seem to have lost some of its grip on the electorate. That doesn’t mean it won’t win most of the municipalities on Wednesday. But it does indicate something seems to have changed. The Zuma Tsunami is over. The elation is gone. With it, perhaps, the “we will vote for you no matter what” effect.

It’s foolish to make predictions based on one rally and before people have actually voted. There are several things this election could be remembered for. It’s possible that one of those could be the moment the ANC starts to be judged on its track record and not its history. And that will make our politics very interesting indeed. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

South Africa’s President, and President of the African National Congress (ANC), Jacob Zuma waves to his supporters during his arrival for a final rally in Soweto May 15, 2011. South Africans will vote in municipal elections on May 18. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko.


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