South Africa

ANC Policy Conference, Reporter’s Notebook: Vintage Duarte not done fighting yet

By Stephen Grootes 1 July 2017

One of the joys of a political conference that runs over a few days is that you actually get the chance to do the occasional long-form interview with someone you’ve known in various guises for several years. Jessie Duarte, the deputy secretary general of the ANC has had an interesting and full political career. And she isn’t done fighting yet. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Five. Degrees. Celsius. Surely, not again. My car was wrong this time around. It was actually warmer than that poking out of my middle-class suburb and heading off to Nasrec. The sun was up this time. And in a way, that was the case for the ANC too. Perhaps it’s because the main point at which things could fall apart is behind us, and President Jacob Zuma has done his political address. Of course, that doesn’t mean that Gwede Mantashe’s internal diagnostic report was going to be, or is, uncontested. But at least it’s over.

I was finally on air, just after nine o’clock when the person producing our “Policy Conference Special” turned around, and through the door of the broadcast van, gave me the hugest thumbs up ever. It wasn’t about anything I’d done. It was confirmation that Duarte had been sighted, and was on her way over.

I first came to really know Duarte in the time just after Zuma became ANC leader. It was just after 2007 and Polokwane and all that, when she was appointed spokesperson for the ANC. She was, quite simply, incredible. Quick, alert, assertive. I’ve always thought, and I’ve said this before, that there was a time that if you wanted to explain the ANC to a middle-class urban-English speaking audience in this country, Duarte was better than anyone. She knew when to attack, when to concede, when to appear to be listening, when to make a point and how to end a really bitter argument in a constructive way.

I am aware that many people do not see that in her anymore.

So, one of my aims as she climbed up into our van, was to not have a fight. Really, sometimes, there is much more to get out of an interview with a person through a discussion than pushing the point home. I started by offering her a rusk. She declined with a smile and a wave. Perhaps the fact it was a butter rusk made what I was trying to do rather obvious.

And then into the interview. How is it all going so far? Well thanks, as well as can be expected and all of that sort of thing. A couple of moments of this and I went into the President’s speech, and how the SACP was happy with the first half and not the second. Duarte, being very much on Zuma’s side, was having none of it. His unscripted comments were “an amplification” of his earlier, scripted comments, she says. And as for the SACP, she believes that “the new  SACP speaks to the media first” before actually speaking to the ANC. In other words, they’re going outside the alliance, while “sometimes it’s better to discuss something in a boardroom first, hammer it out”. She  took great care to cloak her criticism of the SACP with the figure of Gwede Mantashe, saying again and again that “you know, Gwede has also made this point”. Of course, given his close personal relationship with the SACP, it does give her a lot of political cover. And considering where the SACP and the ANC are at the moment, her criticism could be described as “mild”. But she knows, as does everyone here, that it would not be a good idea to be the first person to rock the boat as far as the sort-of-cease-fire that is underway is concerned.

Talking of “Gwede”, it was time to get into her relationship with the Mantashe-in-Chief. The Sunday Times has claimed that she screamed at him in the corridors of Luthuli House in the days after Cosatu members booed Zuma during that May Day Rally. I put it to her that I had heard that story, that it was originally written by a journalist I respect (the simply phenomenal Qaanitah Hunter), but that to hear her talk of “Gwede” the way she had was  difficult to believe. It was an invitation to her to put the record straight, and to see if she would actually deny the story.

“You know what. Gwede Mantashe and I have to work together. There are going to be days when we have to argue about certain things, and they are more technical things. Ideologically we are not on a different page, this I can tell you. We’ve come a long way together and there’s constant attempts to suggest that we don’t work well together. And frankly I must just say that that’s absolute nonsense.” There may be a denial in there, but I don’t see it. It was the kind of answer that made her so good as a spokesperson, there’s no lie, some honesty, and no actual acceptance either.

Then it was on to “Gwede’s” diagnostic report with me asking whether she agreed then, with around 90% of it. “No”, she said quickly, “I agree with all of it.” The point she makes is that it is the result of work done by several role players, and that the NEC signed off on it. Considering that it appears there were some attempts to block parts of it, or at least contest bits of it on the floor, that’s a little surprising. But she is also playing the role of making sure that everyone looks unified at this conference. It is an important role, but not an easy one. And Duarte would surely know that to say she did not agree with all of it would be to invite the follow-up – which parts do you disagree with? And that would be, as they say in the trade, one hell of a top-line.

And then, inevitably, on to the Guptas. Them. #PoplaksFaves.

I suggested it was impossible to believe that the #GuptaLeaks were not authentic. Not her. “I can’t say that, I’m not a forensic expert. But perhaps you are”. Vintage Jessie.

“All I can say then is that we are discussing corporate capture…” I interject  with: “rather than state capture…or is are the same thing?” This really gets to the crucial divisions in the ANC. Those who are against Zuma want to investigate the Guptas, those who are for him claim that a whole-scale investigation into corporate capture since 1994 is necessary. This would be a bit like collective responsibility – no one will actually carry the can.

And so it was that Duarte confirmed which side she was on with this response: “As the President and Gwede said, it is not going to be in our interest to only focus on one family or one company and be deflected away from the big picture itself. Yes, that company must be looked at, the Guptas must be looked at…and if they’ve done something wrong they must go to court.”

Of course, as we all know, if someone finds the smoking gun, it’s no help if the village constable is  under the control of the person who committed the murder. So, I put it like this, “No one believes that will happen because the Hawks have been captured”. Duarte of course disagrees.  “That’s a very cynical view…you can’t say everyone in the Hawks has been captured…it’s a bit like me saying that everyone at 702 has been captured…that you’re the voice of business and the voice of the opposition…”.

Sometimes, it really is difficult to not argue with Jessie Duarte. Instead, I offer her a rusk as a take-away. She declines again, laughing.

Her strength, as it has always been, is her ability to accept differing points of view. Not everyone can do that. But her weakness is surely that she doesn’t allow her own mind to be changed. The #GuptaLeaks are genuine. There can be no doubt about that. Her own ministers, and four of her own leaders (according to her good friend and comrade “Gwede”) have said this. For her to now blow smoke is political double-talk. And to try to cloud the issue and make it “corporate capture” is simply an attempt to shield Zuma, who does not, at this stage, deserve shielding.

But still, there is much to take away, apart from her un-taken rusk, from her comments. The ANC is in a sort-of-cease-fire, but Zuma’s supporters will not give up easily. For some reason, they have to continue fighting. Which is something Duarte is very very good at. DM

Photo: Jessie Duarte at the ANC Policy Conference (Ihsaan Haffejjee)



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