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January 8th statement: Jacob Zuma’s grand holding pattern

January 8th statement: Jacob Zuma’s grand holding pattern

Making big promises at grand events is always a tempting prospect for a politician. Which is one of the many reasons that it is so odd how so many of us cynical hacks now go into a speech by President Jacob Zuma with very low expectations – because he never really says anything, unless placed in a corner. Given the political situation with an overly-ideologically broad ANC, it’s sometimes a miracle that anything is said at all. But the party's national executive committee clearly feels that there are some big changes to be made. The promises we know about, but how will it all pan out? STEPHEN GROOTES takes a look.

Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most contentious of the NEC’s plans for change concern the internal workings of the ANC itself. Hidden deep within the full text of the January 8th Statement, under the heading “We should take urgent and practical steps to fast-track the development of cadres – new and old” is a revealing paragraph about leadership elections. It states “Leadership development shall be accompanied by the review of the leadership elections systems within the ANC in order to enhance internal democracy, credibility of the process as well as the integrity and suitability of candidates. This will protect the ANC from the tyranny of “slates, factions and money…” If the word “tequila” is still a little more relevant to you than the word “slate”, a slate is a group of people who run for various leadership positions as one group, rather than as individuals. Thus Mathews Phosa ran on the Zuma ticket at Polokwane, Kgalema Motlanthe was on both Mbeki’s and Zuma’s slates etc.

Zuma and pretty much the entire NEC face the problem, seen from time to time by leaders, of wanting to change the system that saw them rise to the top. Immediately they are assailed by cynics who believe they only want to change the system to keep themselves in power. But this time, there is a very real problem. The system of slates has emerged because it really does work as a path to power. It has become so entrenched that it seems almost impossible to dislodge. There is a pattern where a senior leader goes to a provincial leadership conference, warns of the dangers of slates, only to watch that province elect a slate. It happened in Limpopo in December, and in Gauteng before that. It will probably continue to happen simply because there is no real way the leadership can stop people from using the most effective campaigning tool there is.

The same would appear to hold true for the proposal to completely change the branch system, into voting districts and street committees. It sounds really good on paper. The branches are falling into complete chaos, and have been since before Polokwane. But branch leaders worked hard to get their posts; they’re unlikely to give them up easily. It’s the same in the provinces, no matter how much people might talk about abolishing or changing them, the fact is people who are entrenched in those structures will fight to the death to retain them, and thus their own positions.

Taking a look through the provinces will also show you how easy it is for those with less than the integrity the NEC is calling for to get into power. Cassel Mathale, John Block and David Mabuza are hardly the models of probity you’d want your children to look up to. But since they’re provincial bosses, they will use their power of incumbency for all sorts of naughtiness, and to keep themselves in power. But more than that, they will build up a war chest of political favours. If you control KwaZulu-Natal with 244,000 members, you could almost tell a Zuma, or anyone in that position, that they will only stay on through you. And who would want to take such a powerhouse on? It would seem the power of the provincial barons is only going to grow, as they build up political debts. This is bad news all round for fans of decisive action from the centre.

When we look at policy in government, it seems a similarly depressing picture will prevail. Zuma and the NEC made no bones about it over the weekend, our “education outcomes constitute a crisis”. Well, that’s only going to change if someone takes on the teachers’ union Sadtu. At some point, an official deployed by the ANC is going to have to sack thousands of teachers, and then refuse to take them back on. It will be a huge turning point. It will involve all sorts of back-channelling through the Alliance rather than proper government to union talks. The ANC will have to fight on all fronts. But no general is going to put time and effort into a fight like that in an election year.

This might sound like Zuma is not going to achieve anything. The history of the last few years of the ANC would feed into that belief. However, if we accept that all the talk about “discipline” is really about “Malema”, then here he may make some progress. It still seems that Malema is on the way out; if that happens, Zuma will have won a big victory.

Supporters of Zuma and the ANC may well say this critique is overly harsh of the party. However we must look at what happened last year. We were all told that job creation was the priority. And we lost jobs. It’s not quite so much a priority this year, so hopefully we may now lose fewer this year than last. But it’s an indication of how little power the ANC has to shape the world around it. This is not necessarily its fault, it’s just a fact of life. So we need to treat this statement as more of a wish list than anything else.

Now, a silver lining: the ANC NEC used the January 8th statement to also state that the Freedom Charter demand that “People shall share in the country’s wealth” has been fulfilled. This seems to be a huge rejection of mine nationalisation, which has huge implications. If this debate is put to bed properly this year, if the status quo is maintained, and Malema is sent to the political Coventry of Limpopo, this should help our disastrous reputation among investors. We might find as the commodity super-cycle continues, that finally we are able to properly benefit from it. Hopefully.

Our politics seems to be in a holding pattern; we are all waiting for Godot. January 8th statements, once you’ve heard two of them, are events in which nothing happened twice. Once Malema is disposed of, no doubt some other opponent to Zuma will eventually emerge. But we may also be entering a becalmed period, in which there really is very little policy change.

And so the drift will continue. Into more and more dangerous waters. DM

Grootes is an EWN reporter.

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma looks on after an ox was sacrificed as part of a cleansing ceremony ahead of the upcoming African National Congress (ANC) centenary celebration in Bloemfontein January 7, 2012. South Africa’s ruling ANC celebrates its 100th birthday on Sunday. The long-banned liberation movement took power in 1994 after Mandela negotiated an end to apartheid with the white-minority government. Capitalising on its role as the standard bearer in the fight against apartheid, the party has dominated politics since then, but bitter faction-fighting and accusations of rampant corruption have raised questions about how long it will continue to lead Africa’s biggest economy. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko


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