President Jacob Zuma has finally admitted publicly what we have all been saying for several years: The ANC “is in trouble”. It is also interesting that he sees the genesis of the problem as having started in 2005 – the year he was fired as Deputy President and the factional warfare in the ANC broke into the open. But the remedy the president is prescribing is also revealing – go out and defend the ANC to counter the “negativity”. Zuma neglected to say what he thinks might be the source of the “trouble” and “negativity”. The great unsaid might be because he still does not recognise that his weaknesses and leadership failure is in the heart of the problem. By RANJENI MUNUSAMY.
Thursday was the last day the National Assembly convened for 2014 – a special sitting to deal with unfinished business for the year. Again the House was bogged down with crossfire between the ANC and opposition parties, this time over the Powers and Privileges Committee report recommending the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) suspension without pay. The suspension stems from an incident in August when the EFF staged a protest demanding that Zuma pay back the money for benefits he received at Nkandla.
The 2014 parliamentary year may have come to a dramatic and chaotic end, but this is by no means the end of the Nkandla affair. The EFF has stated repeatedly that they will disrupt the State of the Nation Address in February if Zuma has not yet answered when he will reimburse the state, and the Democratic Alliance is demanding that he come to Parliament to answer outstanding oral questions.
Zuma seems to be buoyed by the weekend’s ANC national executive committee (NEC) meeting and has in the past two days spoken on current domestic issues, something he has steered clear of in recent months.
Speaking to the SABC on Thursday, Zuma said he was unfazed by plans by opposition parties to disrupt his State of the Nation Address. “To have people who say to their voters my job is to disrupt Parliament… Why should I waste my time talking about those people? Why should you disrupt Parliament because you want to satisfy your egos? What about the people who voted for us? Is that serious?”
What this means is that Zuma intends sticking to his guns and will not answer questions about Nkandla or pay back any money for benefits he and his family accrued from the security upgrades. It also means that he expects the ANC to continue to pick up the flack for him and carry the burden for his poor leadership in the party and in the state.
Speaking at the ANC Youth League (ANCYL) consultative conference on Wednesday, Zuma made bold, off-the-cuff statements, which have been rare in recent months. The ANCYL’s long-awaited elective conference was changed at the eleventh hour to a consultative meeting after its national task team and the ANC leadership feared it would turn chaotic. Zuma walked into a conference hall fraught with tensions after several ANC leaders had been booed by delegates, unhappy that they were not able to elect a new ANCYL leadership this week. ANC and ANCYL leaders battled to keep rowdy sections of the crowd under control.
But Zuma received a rousing welcome, and for the duration of his speech, delegates sat enraptured listening to him. He broke away from the text of his speech several times to talk about the state of the ANC and its youth wing. Zuma said the ANC was bigger than individuals and that when the current leaders “depart”, the organisation remains. “What contribution have I made to make this organisation better than when I found it?” Zuma asked the delegates, and then later, “It is the manner we conduct ourselves that will attract people to come us.”
It was the comments Zuma made as part of an “intervention” to stop the rebellious mood at the conference that were most curious. Zuma said the problems in the organisation now were as a result of past mistakes. “There are mistakes that happened in this glorious movement since 2005… which must not repeat themselves. We as the leadership made a mistake by not attending to [them],” Zuma said. He would not elaborate on this curious statement and undertook to do so when “I have time”.
Many people have different theories as to when the problems in the ANC began. Many point to the time Thabo Mbeki took power, which coincided with Zuma’s rise to national office from the KwaZulu-Natal government. But power struggles were bubbling under the surface long before that, even at the organisation’s first post-unbanning national conference in Durban in 1991.
It is interesting that Zuma pegs the “mistakes” on the timeline at 2005. There were major events that happened that year. Zuma’s financial advisor Schabir Shaik was found guilty of corruption and fraud, and Zuma was fired as Deputy President shortly after and then charged himself. An ANC national general council was held in July of 2005, where there was a massive rebellion from the floor of the conference, demanding that Zuma assume his full duties in all leadership positions in the ANC. At the end of 2005, Zuma was charged with rape. That was also the year that his support campaign took flight, with Cosatu, the South African Communist Party and the ANC Youth League taking the lead roles.
It is not clear which of these Zuma thinks was a “mistake” or whether all of them were. Perhaps he thinks that Mbeki’s decision to fire him caused the deep-seated factional battles in the party, or perhaps he thinks the fight-back campaign that started then has now manifested in all the organisations now facing internal strife.
While Zuma seemed to be taking shots at Julius Malema and his leadership of the ANCYL in his speech, Malema took over the reigns only in 2008. And the fallout with Zuma and ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe came much later. The ANCYL was a handy mechanism for Zuma and the ANC until that fallout.
There has, of course, been a litany of mistakes along the way that caused the problems in the ANC and ANCYL, but it does not appear as if Zuma is willing to take any responsibility for that. Yet it is significant that he has for the first time openly admitted that there are problems.
“There are many people who will want the ANC to disappear, and they are trying everything, because there’s no alternative. The Youth League has been shaken and also the mother body has been shaken. At the NEC we said too, we admit the organisation is in trouble.”
At an ANC media briefing on Monday, Mantashe gave no indication of discussions about the ANC being in “trouble”. However, he said the president’s overview was “a frank and honest analysis about contemporary issues and the challenges facing the movement and the country as a whole”. It must be a rather awkward discussion to have when issues around Zuma’s leadership style and the scandals that have surrounded him have so much to do with “the challenges facing the movement and the country”.
But Zuma appears to live in a bubble of denial about his role in the crisis. During his address to the ANCYL conference, Zuma urged militancy to defend the ANC. He said they should fight back against criticism of the ANC and government.
“You know every morning I listen to some programme on some radio station… people phone and say so many negative things. Those people are few. We are all keeping quiet and listening to negative (things) when we should correct it,” Zuma said.
He urged the delegates to take to social media to “cloud” out the negative sentiment against the ANC.
Not once did Zuma say why there was this negativity. The ANC is well aware of how much of it comes from the various scandals circling the president, particularly Nkandla. When Mantashe was asked whether there were any expressions at the NEC meeting that Zuma should pay back the money or account for the Nkandla scandal, he did not answer the question.
From the ANC’s conduct in Parliament in this tumultuous term, it is clear that the MPs have been instructed to shield Zuma at all costs, at great damage to the image and standing of their organisation. It has also led to session after session of endless grief and head-butting with the opposition over the president’s failure to account.
And from Zuma’s comments this week, it is clear why this is. The president refuses to take responsibility and swatted the problem back to his organisation to deal with. But the ANC clearly cannot deal with it, and for this reason it is steeped in “trouble” and “negativity”.
Until the ANC confronts the real cause of its problems, it will remain in “trouble”. The Nkandla elephant is here to stay. It has taken a central position in South Africa’s living room and the only way it will disappear any time soon is for the ANC itself to deal with it honestly and decisively, the way it dealt with many problems in its storied past. Then only can the ANC have a hope to discover the path to redemption.
Until then, its closed eyes will not see the country in decline, its circled wagons will not lead us out of troubled times, and its future, and South Africa’s with it, will remain hostage to one man’s foibles. DM
Photo: President Jacob Zuma speaks at the ANCYL congress, Wednesday 26 November 2014 (Greg Nicolson)