Let’s dial back five years.
When President Jacob Zuma read the ANC’s January 8 statement in 2009, on the party’s 97th anniversary, he was a different man and the country was in a different place. He was the person who conquered Thabo Mbeki in the ANC leadership race in Polokwane a year before and under whose leadership Mbeki was recalled from office as state president four months prior. Zuma was at the top of his game, his forces in the alliance and the ANC Youth League marshalled behind him and he was gearing up to step into the Union Buildings riding the wave of popularity.
Zuma was to be the people’s president, the everyman from a humble homestead in rural Nkandla who was in touch with ordinary people and would run a people-centred government. The belief was also that since he had survived political persecution, coming through two criminal cases, he would ensure that the state would not be used to fight political battles. He had much to prove, so the assumption was also that he would now keep his nose clean. He even had a different song back then – he wanted his machine gun and nobody should waste his time to get it.
The ANC called the January 8 rally in East London in 2009 “unprecedented”. “Not since the release of former ANC President Nelson Mandela from Robben Island Prison have we seen such public outpouring of support for Africa’s oldest liberation movement… That people thronged into Absa and the adjacent Jan Smuts stadium – something unprecedented in South African politics – is an indication and a debunking of any myths that the ANC’s mass support was being eroded in the Eastern Cape,” the party said in a statement afterwards.
The formation of the Congress of the People (Cope) following Mbeki’s recall and whether it would eat into its support base in the Eastern Cape had been a serious worry for the ANC up to then. But the ANC had an ace up its sleeve. A frail-looking Nelson Mandela was half carried onto the stage at the stadium, the best endorsement Zuma could have asked for to top the ANC ticket for the 2009 election.
On the campaign trail, people judged Zuma on the muscle of the ANC collective elected at Polokwane and the strength of his word. Voters did not know what kind of leader Zuma would be as president – as deputy president, he had been in Mbeki’s shadow and not able to be his own man. But the ANC’s list of promises back then, articulated by Zuma, sounded impressive.
Based on the Polokwane resolutions, the ANC was introducing the five key priorities – decent work, education, health, the fight against crime and rural development – and was initiating the concept of a developmental state with a “strong planning capacity”. There would also be “ongoing coordination, monitoring and evaluation of the implementation of government programmes and projects”, the 2009 January 8 statement read.
So when Zuma became president later that year, he introduced the ministries of national planning and performance monitoring and evaluation. The National Development Plan (NDP) was to be the hallmark of his presidency and his legacy for decades to come.
The 2010 Soccer World Cup was still a year away and there was much excitement and anticipation. It was a good time in South Africa.
So, back to the future.
Nelson Mandela’s death hit South Africa hard. Despite preparing for it for close to a decade, it shook the country to the core. The passing of our founding father at any time would have been difficult to deal with – in the context of poor leadership, endemic corruption and the ANC elites raiding the public purse, it made South Africans mourn not just for Madiba but the lost era of selfless leadership. As Mandela’s life was celebrated the world over, everyone looked to see how those who were to carry on his legacy measured up. It did not look good.
A month after Mandela’s death, the ANC was celebrating its 102nd anniversary and announcing its election manifesto. Much of what was said and celebrated was rightly done in his memory. But Zuma and the national executive committee under him also had to step up with a statement that would hit the right note with its supporters and also get the attention of the voting public.
On Friday night, at the fundraising gala dinner in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, Zuma said looking back, the country had a good story to tell, and that the lives of millions of people had been improved. “Five years ago we made clarion call that, working together, we can do more, and we have worked together and we have done more.”
The “good story” is what will be belted out on the election trail – South Africa is a better country to live in now than it was in 1994. And indeed it is. On the 20th anniversary of democracy, the ANC should be allowed to crow about their achievements because they have been significant.
Zuma emphasised in particular government’s achievements over the past five years, which included greater advancement for women in the workplace, massive infrastructure expansion and overwhelming success in the treatment and prevention of HIV and Aids.
But what a “good story” Zuma would have had to tell had he maintained the goodwill and hope of 2009, and were his administration not battered by scandals, abuses and poor leadership? The Marikana massacre will forever haunt the Zuma administration as the first post-apartheid mass slaughter by the state. The litany of corruption scandals, topped by the over-the-top taxpayer-funded security upgrades at the president’s private residence, are difficult to rationalise and defend. The only option is to sidestep the scandals and try to keep up the good story narrative for as long as possible.
But even internally in the ANC and its alliance, it is tough to keep the good story going. Factional battles have divided the organisation at regional, provincial and national level up to the point where ANC leaders have faced off in court and people have lost their lives.
Since 2009, the ANC Youth League, which was at the forefront of Zuma’s rise to power, has collapsed and is now in incubation. Expelled, suspended and marginalised leaders of the former Youth League have regrouped under the Economic Freedom Fighters, which is promising to give the ANC a hard run on the election trail.
The Alliance is also in tatters, with the trade union federation Cosatu weak and paralysed. Cosatu’s enormous membership base is disorientated by the battles besetting its leadership. The decision by metalworkers’ union Numsa to withdraw support for the ANC in the upcoming election has opened the option to the working class of considering a new political path away from the ruling alliance.
ANC policies have been the subject of endless contestation and debate in the alliance to the point of government being hamstrung in implementation. The ANC has finally dug in its heels on the youth wage subsidy in the face of fierceopposition from Cosatu. The NDP is still being fought over, particularly on issues of the economy, and there is mixed messaging about how much of it will feature in government policy and programmes over the next five years.
With regard to the ANC list of promises, it is much of the same with a few ambitious new conveniently imprecise targets such as six million “job opportunities” and a million “housing opportunities”. But unlike in 2009 when the ANC promised priority focus on issues like jobs and the fight against crime and corruption, the Zuma administration’s track record speaks for itself. The good story of government delivery is less believable when service delivery protests are rampant and corruption is pervasive. Job creation has been the bane of the ANC government since 1994 as the economy has beenunable to produce more jobs than it sheds.
It is clear that the ANC realises that it’s going to have to work much harder on this campaign trail than ever before, with competition from the left and rightof the political spectrum. The good story it has to tell is being countered by many really bad stories, which tend to be more memorable than the delivery statistics, regardless of how notable they are.
President Zuma’s image has taken a beating over the past five years and where he was the ANC’s big draw card in 2009, he is now something of a liability. He does not have the strong support constituencies he had five years ago and the booing incident at Mandela’s memorial service exposed his vulnerabilities.
It is a different time. There is no World Cup to look forward to. There is no Nelson Mandela to trundle out at the right time to melt people’s hearts. There is no sense that a new era with a different leader with fresh ideas is beckoning.
People know exactly what they are getting, this time. DM
Photo: Photo: President Jacob Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe (L) toast the 102nd birthday of the ANC during the launch of the party’s election manifesto at the Mbombela Stadium in Nelspruit, Mpumalanga on Saturday, 11 January 2014. Picture: SAPA stringer
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