South Africa

ANC PolCon Reporter’s Notebook: Zikalala and Mbalula hold forth

By Stephen Grootes 3 July 2017

The ANC’s Policy Conference is still taking shape. There are no dominant trends. Yet. Delegates are talking, leaders are spending more time in the media lounge than out of it, and journalists are hunting for stories. It’s remarkably non-boring. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

Day Three. Sunday. A day of rest(lessness) for the ANC. Time for delegates to get down to the hard graft of actually debating and discussing. At this stage of the conference, there still seemed to be no hard news story. Everyone was talking, there was plenty of news, everyone who is anyone was happy to talk about. Bathabile Dlamini had explained, and then denied, that she had included men in the ANC Women’s League delegation because “women are emotional”. There were all sorts of provincial strongmen walking around, speaking, talking, politicking. But there was no overall story, it was all a bit fragmented.

This is probably to be expected, nothing really had happened yet. And that meant there was a little bit of space for people to push their own agendas. In some ways, this is a very good thing. It’s the ANC, or the different parts of it, being open and honest on where they stand on certain issues.

I spent part of my morning listening back to an interview I’d done with Zweli Mkhize the day before. I was struck by his reaction to a question I’d asked. I wanted to know if he believed the #GuptaLeaks were genuine. He said “I don’t want to go into that… what we need is a proper investigation and certainty… that’s what South Africans deserve”. Nothing special in that. But contrast it with Jessie Duarte’s comments from earlier that Saturday, that “I’m not a forensic expert… unless you are, Stephen”. To me, there seemed to be some real clear water of difference between the two.

Then, after a fun half-hour with Clement Manyathela and my political buddy Ralph Mathekga, it was time for a wander. I’d arranged to interview the leader of the ANC in KwaZulu-Natal, Sihle Zikalala. His people were most embarrassed. It appeared he’d been drafted in to chair a commission and couldn’t be dethroned at this stage. I felt for them actually, they really seemed keen to have their man speak.

So, I continued to walk around and look for interesting people to bump into.

It was just before lunch that something I simply do not fully understand occurred. I was standing in the sun passing the time with an old friend who used to grace these pages until very recently. A golf cart carrying Jessie Duarte passed by. Suddenly, Duarte leaned out and shouted at us: “I’m not stupid and useless.” We couldn’t quite believe it. An analyst who spends an awful lot of time increasing the intelligence of our political discussion on television heard it too. He couldn’t believe it either. “Did she just do that in front of us all…?”, he asked.

A few minutes later Duarte came back, strolling with someone. She was mild in her tone, but repeated the comment. “But I didn’t say that,” I protested. I know that I didn’t because I don’t think it and have never thought it. I did a long radio interview with Duarte on Saturday in which no such comment was made, and then wrote about that interview. I did not, and have never said that about Duarte.

But she wasn’t done, “You know I’m not a racist, it doesn’t matter if you’re red or white or blue, but if I think you’re a spoilt white man I don’t go around saying it.” Huh? I was still confused. I still am. Then she muttered about something that had occurred on Twitter.

The only explanation that I can think of is that someone said something like that on Twitter in reaction to the interview that I did with her. Anyway, it will go down as one of the mysteries of this conference.

After that it was time to wander into the main press conference hall, where Fikile Mbalula was holding forth. He seemed to tap-dance a little on the issue of “white monopoly capital”. It seems, for now at least, that the ANC has resolved that “monopoly capital of any kind is not desirable”. There is still much discussion to come at this conference. But if that remains the position of the party, it would appear that the forces around President Jacob Zuma and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma are not winning this round.

Mbalula was also strong on the idea of whether ANC MPs would vote against President Jacob Zuma in a confidence vote. It has always been my view that this whole thing is a red herring, and that it would not be in the interests of the ANC and its MPs to do this at this point. As far as Mbalula is concerned, ANC MPs must follow the party line on this. He then went on to say, at a later stage, that it is the country that comes first, and not the ANC.

Yes. There is plenty to chew on there. Zuma, of course, has said the opposite in the past. And Mbalula appears to be jumping ship while he still can. A few weeks ago he tweeted that having Ace Magashule as secretary general of the ANC would be the end of the movement as we know it (or knew it…) and that Gauteng Premier David Makhura would be the correct person. A tweet that you could argue is a slating of a slate.

Finally, lunch time. The ANC does well here. It’s free, there is no arguing about it, and it’s really not bad. I am well aware that there is a social grant joke to make here, but let’s just say that Bathabile Dlamini is not in charge of it, so delivery is quick, efficient and hot.

Talking of Dlamini, she actually ate lunch in the media lounge. Considering that her stock among the media sorority is about as low as it can go at the moment, I wondered, unkindly, if perhaps she was more welcome here than in the ANC lunch area itself.

Then, time for that interview with Zikalala. The man doesn’t stroll or wander as your average indolent hack does. He strides, as if he’s a man on a mission. Everything he does is quick and sharp. He remembered the last time we had spoken. Which, considering that he spends most of his time well outside the media bubble that is Gauteng and the Western Cape, is saying something. It was in Davos, actually, and we reminisced briefly about the cold.

Then on went the microphone and off we went. I asked him about his suggestion that the person who loses the ANC election automatically gets the deputy leader position. He suggests that this is the way to end slate politics, that it will automatically bring an end to the idea of leaders running together, because, I presume, it will disrupt them structurally.

Of course, it is a good idea. It would provide a solution to some of the problems facing the ANC. Perhaps without meaning to, he actually conceded how difficult these are simply by making this suggestion. But, at the same time, I argued, won’t this really just prolong or delay the problems, because you would have the same factional politics just continuing into government. I didn’t say this explicitly to him, but it would surely mean a repeat of Ramaphosa as deputy against Zuma as President in just five years time, with plenty of sniping and bitterness in the meantime. He wasn’t able to give a proper response, I thought, but just repeated how it will end “slates and factionalism”.

That said, as short-term solutions go, if it’s the only one on offer, well then perhaps the party, for its sake, should consider it.

And then it was on to the idea, floated by the ANC in KZN a few weeks ago, that there should be a referendum on whether land should be expropriated without compensation. There had been a report on Sunday that other provinces were backing this idea, and delegates here would want to discuss it. Zikalala appears to be moving away from this pretty quickly, actually. He says that the KZN ANC’s provincial general council last weekend decided that instead of a referendum, “just go on and amend the Constitution, try and get the support of the EFF and IFP and other African-dominated parties…” Yes, Mmusi, that was a dig at you.

Of course, this would be a much better course. Because there are several real dangers ahead if such a referendum were to be held. The first is that it could end up turning our people against the Constitution. Imagine a situation where 60% of those who vote, vote yes, and yet the Constitution remains unchanged because you would need 66% in Parliament. Never mind what would happen if people who believe that we should reintroduce capital punishment get a hold of the idea. Hell, we could end up becoming a theocracy because people believe we are a “Christian nation”. It would be the beginning of the actual unravelling of things.

And that’s before we even consider the emotions that would run during such a referendum campaign. Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if those who propose it actually managed to lose. That could lead to a very real anger. And it could even provoke the final split of the ANC.

But, for the moment, that all seems unlikely to happen.

Zikalala was not prepared to admit that his province appears split in terms of who it will support in December. He’s always, in public, said that it would be Dlamini-Zuma. He wouldn’t use this opportunity to “announce” their decision, but he put it like this: “If the province agrees on Cde Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma it will be fine… one of the principles of leadership in the ANC, it’s not just defined by your position now… it’s about what have been, your contributions all the way along… and Nkosazana has been one of those who has been in the Struggle all along…  she has credibility also… and has been a minister in several departments. So if the province agrees on her name, we’ll engage other provinces to support.”

Nope, I didn’t see the support for Ramaphosa there either.

As I started to pack up and say my goodbyes and see-you-tomorrows, I wondered what is really going on in the commissions. We simply don’t know. A fuller picture of this conference will only emerge by about Tuesday evening. There are so many different factors to consider. So many different stories playing out all at the same time. But that is slowly starting to change, and the conference is taking shape. DM

Photo of the ANC Policy Conference delegates by Ihsaan Haffejjee.