South Africa, #ANCdecides2017

#ANCdecides2017: Reporter’s notebook – smile and wave boys, smile and wave

By Stephen Grootes 16 December 2017

The plus, perhaps the only one, of working a very early shift during the week is that when your alarm goes off at 05:00 on a Saturday morning, you’re already awake. The dogs are whining for breakfast, the cat is blaming you for the fact that he refused to come inside last night. At this time of year, even the sun is up, the day is ready. Nasrec was ready too. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

The cops at the media entrance were friendly, running a scanner up and down and chuckling that there was no need to walk through the metal detector. On the left hand side were the remains of funfair amusements, the clowns’ grin more grotesquely scary than welcoming.

Just off the main press conference venue was the 702 studio. The ANC has copped a lot of flak for its treatment of the media over the years, it’s clearly trying to make amends. There is free wi-fi, free food, a media centre with plenty of space. It is impossible to compare it to the Polokwane experience, which brought only mud and tears.

Wandering around it allowed time to catch the vibe of the commentariat:

Who’s it going to be” was on the lips of every hack; some shook heads, others whispered a name. No one whispered the other name. But everyone agreed, be careful, don’t predict… don’t. Don’t, don’t.

Then 08:00 came. And went. No, of course not, the ANC was never going to start this on time, there was no way it would begin at 09:00. Gwede Mantashe did a media tour, his last as secretary-general. He was whistling, holding hands with Zizi Kodwa, as they walked together up to the final meeting of this NEC. That meeting went on.

And on.

The official starting time became a long-forgotten joke.

Experienced hacks laughed and traded stories about NGCs and provincial conferences; younger ones got frustrated. Finally, an announcement of a press conference at 11:00. And then something happened which has never happened in the history of relations between the ANC and the media. A press conference started early. Completely unprecedented. A sign of boredom on the side of the media; also, Mantashe wanted to get it out of the way.

It was all pretty obvious really, the court rulings from Friday had to be obeyed, the affected delegates could not vote. Another mark against Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. Hacks like myself searched for calculators on phones to add 27 and 27, while others tried to look up how many branches there are in North West’s Bojanala region. Significant, but not that important, was the consensus.

By now the commentariat was in full flow. Angry, too. Not at being bored, or delayed, but at President Jacob Zuma’s announcement about nearly fee-free higher education. Karima Brown was furious, Lumkile Mondi thought it was irresponsible.

Higher Education Minister Hlengiwe Mkhize was angry at the anger to the reaction. She came on 702 claiming that it was a “game-changer” and just very important. Her issue: how dare we be cynical about the timing? But when she was pushed on why it should be announced this morning, of all the mornings of the year, she simply failed to answer.

One had to wonder if she even knew it was coming before he announced it.

And then to lunch. There can be a lot to complain about with conference food. Even journalists can turn up their nose at a free lunch from time to time. But actually, so long as you weren’t not Tim Noakes or a veggie, you’d be fine. It was heavy on the meat, heavy on the carbs. And you fell into the trap of tourists in a strange country. You didn’t know when you’d eat again, so you keep eating.

Yep, politics is bad for your health.

Eventually, finally, finally, eventually, the conference started. It was now after 15:00. A full 10 hours after the alarm went off. But here it was.

The hall was a mass of noise and yellow. Lots and lots of yellow. A particularly bright yellow. So bright, Eskom could have plugged in if they needed a little more light. It was the T-shirts, on every delegate. Unity was the visual symbol. But the audio told a different story. It was loud and proud, singing praise to Nkosazana. Delegates from KZN, the Free State and Mpumalanga were tapping their wrists, explaining that it was time for a woman president. If this was a battle of the bands, Ramaphosa’s had already lost. But many other delegates did their singing silently, sitting down, arms folded. Discipline. That was their symbol.

Then the music came through the speakers, old liberation music, designed to drown out anything else. It worked, stopping the singing dead. And it stopped the reaction, or non-reaction, to the entrance of the leaders. Once again, it worked.

Zuma and Ramaphosa and Dlamini Zuma were greeted warmly by Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Ramaphosa shook hands and laughed with Dlamini Zuma. It’d be the picture on the front pages of the Sunday newspapers. And a “create a caption” competition on Twitter on Monday.

Then Baleka Mbete took to the stage, and the priests, imams and pundits took over. Something the ANC still does very well, this. Reflecting all of the country’s beliefs. And the preachers were going to milk it for every minute. Wouldn’t you, if you suddenly had the attention of the most powerful group in the country? One preacher, the only woman among the religious types, asked everyone to hold hands and pray for peace. Many were emotional and warm and moved.

Unfortunately, when it comes to religion, like the communists, I consider myself immovable. Somewhere, I thought, David Mabuza is holding hands with someone and praying for peace.

I must confess, perhaps it’s overly-cynical, but I just wondered if it was some sort of tactic.

Then, time for more music. But this time the anthem. It’s interesting this. The ANC has an anthem of its own. Can you guess which it is… can you… can you… Nkosi Sikilel’ iAfrika, obviously. There would have been nothing wrong with the party singing its own anthem. But it chose the national anthem instead. Which means that 5,000 delegates, in ANC shirts, were singing part of Die Stem. It’s a great nod to nation building. But perhaps it’s time for young South Africans, children, to stop learning it.

Zuma’s arrival at the lectern was always going to be important. Not because of what he said, but because of the reaction to him. It was muted. Incredibly muted. Some cheering, but almost none. And when he recognised “Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa”, the cheering from the back grew loud. If support for Zuma is a proxy for support for Dlamini Zuma, if it speaks mightier than the songs, then the balance must tip the other way.

It’s hard to explain a Zuma speech sometimes. Divorced from reality would be polite. Poplak might use the word “batshit”. It had no bearing on reality. Nothing was his fault.

There was the “successful commemoration of the year or Oliver Reginald Tambo”. Really? How has it been successful? How much more unified is the ANC, compared to just a year ago? Then there was the focus on the past. Always this with Zuma. Always the past. Never the future, never how things are going to be done, never what has been done by the ANC to change policy and enable wealth-creation. Instead, the comfortable past rather than the difficult present.

Then came the moment on economic policy, about how those who benefit from the economic status quo will oppose radical economic transformation, that “we should act decisively”. It could have been a real crowd-pleasing moment, with people on their feet cheering wildly. Instead, no one seemed to notice. Then came this:

Reckless action will plunge the country deep into economic and social stresses. We must tread carefully, but act, because of the serious economic challenges facing our country currently.”

Huh? Really, Mr Zuma? This from the man who used his State of the Nation Address to specifically discuss radical economic transformation. Why the backtrack? Perhaps, just perhaps, that defeat on the issue at the police conference was more important than we realised.

It was the same on the land question. All very muted. In fact, Zuma was perhaps less “radical” on all of these issue than he was back in 2012. Which, considering the current narrative, doesn’t really make sense.

But the real moment when reality divorced us entirely was when he started talking about State Capture. “The claims…” he said, “would be probed by a judicial commission of inquiry, in a bid to uncover the truth.”

Well, Mary, you’re the one who is stopping exactly that from happening. The ANC’s outgoing NEC has a standing resolution that that inquiry should happen, a judge has said it must happen, we all know that Zuma doesn’t want it to happen.

It was like this again when he started to talk about unity, about factionalism and how bad it was that people had taken the party to court. Why don’t they come to us, he asked. Forgetting, of course, that he himself is the man who has done more than anyone to bring factionalism into the party, and that people only go to court because they don’t trust him. In all the cases where ANC members have disrupted events, Ahmed Kathrada’s KZN memorial, the people who threatened the SACP’s Solly Mapaila, it has been to Zuma’s benefit. It is people who claim to support Zuma who have done this. And there has been not a word of condemnation from him.

Disingenuous” would be a polite description. “Delusional” probably more precise.

And then came the bitterness, about how the alliance partners, the SACP and Cosatu had turned their backs on him. Despite their repeated warnings, their imploring, their public gnashing of teeth at the way they have been treated, in Zuma’s world they are the ones who are guilty.

Along the way were other lies, that some companies had given workers a paid day off to march against the “democratically elected government”. I am not aware of a single one.

In essence, much of Zuma’s speech was a lament, a lament that people have reacted to his actions in the way that they have. But why are we surprised? At every step of Zuma’s leadership, he has consistently failed to hold himself accountable. He never understood that he was the person in the wrong.

As I started to wonder aloud about leaving, he started to sum things up. The singing at the end was much louder than his reception; people finally joined him, albeit in song. At the back, a delegate I saw from the Eastern Cape was singing, and waving, as if waving him away in disgust. Such are the mixed messages of this conference.

Time to trudge out of the plenary hall, and be watched by a dozen security officials as I walked the pen preventing me from interacting in any way with delegates. It was polite, but firm. There was still much to come this particular night. But for me, it was time to pack up. I have to be here early on Sunday. Already, whispers and rumours and reports that Jessie Duarte has said the credentials report isn’t finished yet. Ah, the fight, the drama. DM

Photo: South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma speaks during the 54th African National Congress National Conference held at the NASREC Convention Centre, Johannesburg , South Africa, 16 December 2017. Photo: EPA-EFE/KIM LUDBROOK

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