South Africa

South Africa

TRAINSPOTTER: They’re back—the Great Big Messy lead up to ANC105

TRAINSPOTTER: They’re back—the Great Big Messy lead up to ANC105

On Sunday, January 8, the ANC celebrates its 105th birthday in Soweto’s modest Orlando Stadium. The weather promises mayhem, which would be entirely in keeping with the days leading up to the event. Already, 2017 is a gong-show. By RICHARD POPLAK.

Soweto’s world famous Vilakazi Street seemed simultaneously well prepared for, and completely taken aback by, the ANC invasion: Christmas decorations still hung over the entrance of the Sakhumzi restaurant, and under the overgrown mistletoe ducked the party’s great and powerful. Friday’s prelude to the ANC’s 105th birthday celebrations was a summit of consumption: heaping plates of grilled dead stuff; fruit salads bobbing inside fishbowls of alcohol; Louis Vuitton everything. Outside the restaurant, Minister of Sport and Recreation Fikile Mbalula, wearing a white ANC golf shirt (because sports!), posed with the crowd, while big men with not-so-concealed weapons policed the selfie orgies. Heat-struck German tourists on mountain bike tours watched as Bavarian luxury vehicles wound through Vilakazi’s insane traffic.

Little did they know that the ANC shared with them a second commonality: a version of Angela Merkel-ish social democracy-lite that twists with the political weather.

Speaking of social democracy, South Africans have recently been promised that 2017 will be the Year of the National Development Plan 2030. A vast and unwieldy document, the NDP serves as the ANC’s riff on reasoned, economically sound, socially progressive Merkel-heid. (Let’s put it this way: the Democratic Alliance endorsed it, which can only be a bad sign.) The NDP remains a weird beast, one that follows the Freedom Charter, Ready to Govern, the Reconstruction and Development Plan (RDP), and the Growth, Employment and Redistribution plan (Gear) along the ANC’s paper trail into near total political incoherence. It starts off as a work of Kumbaya poetry, and then sinks into a torpour of policy talking points that will, by the random year of 2030, magically promulgate “growth” and “transformation”.

Because the Zuma years have turned out as something of a disaster, the ANC poobahs apparently hit their desk drawers in Luthuli House, scrabbling for a something—anything—around which to rally.

Et Voilà! The NDP.

Those on Vilakazi Street who were probably unclear on what the NDP represents included, of course, Minister Mbalula, but also Minister of Home Affairs Malusi Gigaba, Secretary General of the ANC Gwede Mantashe, and a host of other party leaders. The whole week, they’d been flogging the 105th birthday party celebrations at a host of functions and press conferences. Already, there had been some hiccups. A social media campaign debuting the now notorious #WeAreANC hashtag turned toxic, because how could it not? And an initiative by the Gauteng liquor board to extend Sunday drinking hours, of all the goddamned things to consider a priority, was roundly derided, until it was abruptly cancelled.

Lordy Lord, the ANC has problems. And on Vilakazi Street, no one—or, at least, no one sober—seemed to be denying that fact. A circle of elegantly turned out ladies wore t-shirts bearing the slogan Siyabuya!—We are coming back! Wait, back? Indeed, the loss of the country’s major metros in last year’s local elections was more than just a humiliation—it was the opening movement in an aria of eschatological inquiry. This was the vibe of a party under threat, a sort of overdog/underdog scenario accessorised with top end Bentleys and exotic BMW models I had literally never seen before. It was sort of like Pep Guardiola insisting that Manchester City is really nothing more than an amateur beer league team, despite the fact that monthly payroll exceeds the GDP of West Africa.

But anyway, there was genuine warmth on display, the hugs and backslaps and smooches reminding the observer that the ANC is one big sloppy family—an institution that is very hard to leave once its claimed you as kin. In this context, in the midst of all the love and bonhomie, the party’s decline registers as a tragedy rather than as a standard-issue political farce. Everyone/thing dies, no? But the ANC dies harder than most.

Or perhaps it need not die at all? I chatted with Treasurer General Zweli Mkhize as he hoisted giggling children aloft for photo-ops. He implied that the just-concluded National Executive Committee (NEC) meeting was nowhere near as contentious as the one that rounded off 2016’s annus horribilis, during which Tourism Minister Derek Hanekom initiated a no-confidence vote against the president. Mkhize told me that the current celebration was less a celebration per se than a revival—a big-tent evangelical get-back-to-our-roots sort of thing, rather than a straight-ahead piss-up of old.

“It’s about re-mobilizing our membership,” he said.

Yes, but considering how vicious last year proved to be—and considering the fact that Jacob Zuma has apparently not transformed into the Dalai Lama over the course of a combative Christmashow gruesome was the ensuing 12 months going turn out?

“No, we’ve discussed all of that [at the NEC],” he said. “We will move forward in an orderly manner, and make sure that the organisation is cohesive.” Indeed, two priorities were to be, er, prioritised: the NDP and its various and variegated programmes. And a re-upped commitment to transformation.

The whole leadership thing? Not a problemo, implied Mkhize. A box to tick. A formality. A breeze.

***

Yeah well, tell that to Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa.

As I was jawing with Mkhize, Ramaphosa was speaking to an audience commemorating commie firebrand Joe Slovo, who died exactly 22 years ago. Now, keep the following in mind: last year, Ramaphosa informed ANC members that he was “available” to serve as their president—a break with a party tradition that insists those running remain coy right up until the quinquennial national conference, at which point they are either installed as president, or dispatched to South Sudan to deal with someone else’s problems. The attendees at Avalon Cemetery Joe-Slovo-athon listened as Ramaphosa entered full-blown campaign mode, decrying the corruption and rot that has consumed the ANC under the sordid reign of his apparent superior, Number One.

“Those who may want to sell the ANC or a portion of it must know: it’s not for sale,” thundered Ramaphosa, before gawping South African Communist Party faithful. “It can never be bought. That’s what Joe Slovo taught us.”

Uncle Joe would have hated the current ANC, fulminated billionaire Ramaphosa, fairweather friend to communists of all pay grades. “He was the type of leader who did not say: ‘Do as I say, but not as I do’. Because today we have leaders who always stand up on platforms, say a whole lot of things, but do the opposite.”

So well Holy Shit, here we were: in War Mode. Ramaphosa was obviously referring to President Zuma and his Gupta Family benefactors, who have indeed purchased half of the ANC NEC, along with parastatal boards, party functionaries, more than 40 percent of the country’s media, and a goodly chunk of Dubai.

Meanwhile, at around 14:30, the man Himself showed up on Vilakazi Street, in a motorcade that has in the last three years transformed into a wonder of taxpayer benefaction. (When I expressed my undying awe at the ever-growing Zuma-cade, I was reminded by a wag that President Yoweri Museveni has a 27-vehicle cortege to escort him around Uganda. Zuma is getting there.)

On stage loomed a large cake, the first—or perhaps not the first—of many to be cut this weekend. Zuma appeared in a sober charcoal suit, looking hail after his break. He spoke in isiZulu of the celebration’s key talking points: looking forward not backward, renewal, transformation. Everything remained uncontroversial, until Jesus, with a cameo appearance from the Prophet Muhammad, made an appearance.

“This day is similar to the day when people go to Mecca. We often hear of people saying they are going to Mecca, in the Middle East. This is our Mecca,” intoned the president, referring, I suppose, to Soweto?

And then: “We faithful never forget that, just like the son of man who came to wash away all of our sins, the birth of the ANC happened to free the people who were oppressed. We will never forget that, just like we don’t forget Christmas.”

The ANC and Jesus. What is it with this guy?

While all of this was going on, a second Brobdingnagian motorcade pulled up the hilariously BMW-fied Vilakazi Street. Out jumped Ramaphosa, in the middle of Zuma’s speech—bad protocol, certainly, but probably unavoidable given the time/space restrictions.

And there we had it: a motorcade face-off. I imagined both the President and the man who intends to replace him trying to leave Orlando West at the same time, while increasingly frustrated security hacks dinged bumpers, until about 300 automatic weapons were discharged at the same time—a fusillade of belligerence that only ends when Executive Mayor Herman Mashaba, of the Democratic Alliance, is called in to mediate.

Not a bad metaphor for the ANC as it stumbles towards its rain-drenched 105th birthday in an aquarium-like Orlando Stadium. This is a party almost completely in ruins, defined by a factional war that will only get nastier as the year progresses. Already a hashtag is emerging from the political night soil: #3rdTermLoading, a reference to a potential third stint at the helm of the ANC for the unbendable, unbreakable, un-erasable Jacob Zuma.

It’s certainly possible, given the power and desperation of his faction. Which is just another way of saying that of the cakes the ANC cuts on various stages this weekend—not everyone gets a slice. And, as has become customary, Zuma gets more than his share of the icing. A Very Happy Birthday to you, and all that. DM

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma after speaking to members of the Twelve Apostles’ Church in Christ at the Moses Mabhida Stadium in Durban, South Africa, December 4, 2016. REUTERS/Rogan Ward.

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