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Political Correspondent’s Notebook: My Political Year, 2011

Political Correspondent’s Notebook: My Political Year, 2011

This year proved there is no second place in the great game of thrones. We saw the re-emergence of Jacob Zuma as an ANC powerhouse and the defeat of Julius Malema – as well as Fikile Mbalula and Tokyo Sexwale. And, as always, Kgalema Motlanthe remains completely inscrutable. It’s been a revealing year, but mostly one of new questions and possibilities. By SIPHO HLONGWANE.

At the end of the ANC Youth League’s elective conference in June, a triumphant Julius Malema took the stage to declare war against all comers. “Comrades, we are going to war,” he said. The enemy was everyone who stood between him and his grand assimilation project.

His strategy was clear. He had routed all challengers from within the ANC Youth League. In the three years he had been the Youth League’s president he had smashed the faces of Saki Mofokeng, Lehlogonolo Masoga, Andile Lungisa and Lebogang Maile into the dust. The Youth League, all 300,000 and some more of it, was fully under his control.

Then Juju had turned his eye to the big prize – real, measurable and meaningful control within the ANC itself.

At the conference, he repeatedly raged against the disciplinary hearing that had hung a noose around his neck. How dare these adults try to mediate a “contest of kids”. ANC money and even state resources were involved in the project to disrupt the ANCYL, he claimed. The juxtaposition between the talk of enemies and the rant against the sentencing he’d received was purposeful – the enemy was much closer to home than his actual words would have implied.

At the time, it was easy to get caught up in the hype of Malema’s power at the conference. He had just run a well-organised conference and managed to get the people he wanted elected. Not an easy feat by any measure, considering that savvy leaders like Fikile Mbalula and Malusi Gigaba before him had not succeeded. Could he pull off the same trick within the ANC at Mangaung in 2012, we wondered.

It’s hard to believe a mere six months separated Malema’s zenith, and the death of his career. Ultimately, cockiness was his letdown. He forgot one truism: never, ever bet against Jacob Zuma.

What the future will hold for young Julius is difficult to say, though we suspect a few lengthy interviews with the Hawks and the Special Investigating Unit may be in the offing. What we can be sure of is that the man who so powerfully ended the ANCYL conference in June is gone forever. Done. That’s a chapter on South Africa that we can close alongside the end of 2011.

For Jacob Zuma – and, by proxy, his trusty lieutenant Gwede Mantashe – this has been a year of carefully laying plans and watching them come to fruition. Aside from a few glitches like the Supreme Court of Appeal judgment against Menzi Simelane, of course. 

If Zuma started his term as president on the promise of a one-term man, that is far behind him now. If anything, he is well on his way to another victory at an ANC elective conference. He has several people to thank for this. One, as we’ve already discussed, is Malema for his exemplary, and soon to become legendary, stupidity. This is thanks to Mantashe, of course. The ANCYL may be right in one respect about the disciplinary actions against it: They come with the blessing of the very highest office in the ANC. Everything that has happened in 2011 to damage Malema’s power points to the fine art of being Mantashiavelli.

As Malema’s political ambitions crashed, so too do, albeit temporarily, Mbalula’s and Sexwale’s. Their horse in this race is hobbled. The two cabinet ministers were smart enough not to try to directly challenge Zuma. They will live to fight another day. Perhaps at Mangaung.

The president of the ANC won a major coup this year – he is no longer the candidate that isn’t Thabo Mbeki. He is the true king of the ANC, with real political power. Within government, he’s doing an excellent job of staying out of any serious trouble. Trevor Manuel is doing all the dirty economic work (in truth, though, if anybody should be sorting out the hierarchy of power between the planning ministry, the trade and industry ministry and Ebrahim Patel’s economic development ministry, it should be the president. And yet he’s staying well clear of this brouhaha). And as far as the security cluster is concerned, they’ve formed a circle around Zuma to prevent any return to those days when he spent more days in court than he did anywhere else.

But there are challengers to Zuma’s authority: the media, the judiciary and the Democratic Alliance.

Don’t be surprised if we see a draconian bill before Parliament sometime in 2012 which will institute a statutory media appeals tribunal, with the power to lock journalists away.

And while Zuma’s deference to the Public Protector suggests he has a lot of respect for that office, the judiciary and other accountability institutions, don’t be surprised if the courts are usurped under the guise of transformation.

And there are a million ways the ANC can properly screw with the power of the DA. Did you see what the national government just did to the provinces – Limpopo, Free State and Gauteng? Imagine the gargantuan tussle that will ensue if they tried the same trick in Western Cape. I’m not saying it’s going to happen – but it’s an option. A way to sow confusion among the DA and distract them from their steady upward plod. And it’s one of many options in Zuma’s arsenal.

I’ve said Zuma’s path to a second term as ANC president seems assured. Except… We still have Kgalema Motlanthe.

We have a nickname for him at Daily Maverick. We call him Keyser Söze. That’s because you can never quite predict what he’ll do next, or where he’ll suddenly make a move of consequence. And he’s even better than Mantashe at playing the waiting game.

At the Polokwane conference, he appeared on both the Zuma and the Mbeki slate. When his convoy drove into the venue, nobody could quite say where his leanings would be. So far, he’s playing the same game. Zuma seems to be quite comfortably in control. The enemies he’s making now can easily be defeated because they have no real support among the ANC branches.

If anyone can unseat Zuma at Mangaung, it’ll be Motlanthe. But if 2011 has taught me anything, it’s that Keyser Söze’s move, if it happen, will be quiet, slick and deadly.

Next year promises to be a bucket of fun. DM



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