South Africa

Reporter’s notebook: The eve before the serious business

By Greg Nicolson 26 June 2012

The ANC national policy conference is officially getting underway. On Monday, all the routine details were ticked off. Delegates and media registered, while the party told us what was all about and placated the hoo-ha. But today’s the serious business, says President Zuma. By GREG NICOLSON.

Standing outside the Gallagher’s Estate Hall, the smokers agreed Zuma was in a good mood. He had just stepped off the podium at the BRICS dinner – the meeting of the group of developing nations, Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa – as ANC delegates continued to register for the party’s national policy conference.

It was a sharp reminder that Zuma has both the platform and charisma that many of his challengers lack. He opened with a joke about his days in the Struggle and the situations where he was required by police to speak Afrikaans – a language, he quipped, he struggled with.

He finished with a dig at the expelled ANC Youth League leader, Julius Malema. “The ANC is a wonderful organisation and I don’t know what it feels like not to be a member of the ANC. Someone will have to tell me.” The crowd, drawn from the event’s corporate sponsors and smattered with diplomats, was in his pocket. 

Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe sat listening. To anyone who saw him on SABC3 on Sunday night, Zuma’s onstage performance was a reminder of the charisma lacking in the deputy president.

“Should we draw anything from the fact that they’re on different tables?” another journalist asked me. “Not much.” High-profile ANC members were deployed to each table to schmooze with both current and potential investors in SA and the ANC. Zuma sat on a table next to African Rainbow Minerals’ Patrice Motsepe.

Zuma downplayed any divisions over the “Second Transition”. In between opening and closing with humour, he listed quotes from former ANC presidents. He said economic transformation had always been a mission of the party and that during the week, as in history, there would always be debate over these issues.

Delegates from across the country converged in Midrand on Monday for the ANC policy conference, which runs from today until Friday. Registration was supposed to move smoothly owing to new preparations, but some delegates and media were left waiting for hours.

Party secretary general Gwede Mantashe and head of policy Jeff Radebe addressed the press on Monday ahead of the conference. Mantashe said there would be robust debate, as delegates have had months to study the policy discussion documents. In Midrand, some members I spoke to had seen the documents and had been preparing for months. Others, however, had not.

Mantashe and Radebe said any delegates who caused chaos at the conference wouldn’t be tolerated, but this week’s a chance to debate the future of the ANC and the direction of the country. “That is what’s exciting us,” said Mantashe.

Radebe said there wouldn’t be any voting on the matters discussed. “We do not have to vote. Hopefully there won’t be any voting. Each member goes there with the aim that they contribute to the policies shaping South Africa.” He explained that KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape had sent the most delegates, thanks to their membership numbers, but they would try to split members from all provinces into the commissions.

The commissions are set to discuss the policy documents throughout the week. The sessions will be closed to the media, but we expect regular updates. On many delegates’ lips are the topics of organisational renewal, strategy and the second transition.

The latter has been seen as a proxy battle between Zuma and Motlanthe. I asked one delegate what he thought of the second transition. He replied, “I think the president should get a try at a second term.”

That delegate wasn’t present at the gala dinner. Nor were most other delegates. The ANC ministers present appeared to have little idea about the processing of their members. It was a night for business and international links. It was a reminder that policy, no matter what happens this week, is also, no doubt, influenced by other parties.

The president will open the conference this morning. After a day building the calm before the storm, we’ll get some indication of what we’re in for: what members think of issues such as nationalisation, those joining the ANC for individual gain, the youth wage subsidy, and land redistribution. If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to apply the logic of semantics to interpret the leadership battle. 

“Tomorrow’s the serious business,” said Zuma, finishing his speech. He will be the first to speak. DM

Photo: ANC President Jacob Zuma during the BRICS summit speech (Jordi Matas)

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