As it arrived at the 54th National Electoral Conference in Nasrec, Gauteng, the ANC was speeding not towards a crossroads, but straight at a T-junction. On the right was a candidate and a slate with a level of competence who, to some greater or lesser extent, would have ended the Zuma era and returned the country to a version of credibility. On the left, a continuation and a deepening of the gangster state, with the same old don and some new players. Instead of picking a direction, the ANC careened into the stop sign and exploded on impact. By RICHARD POPLAK.
This part is bad
“I am very doubtful whether history shows us one example of a man who, having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently,” wrote C.S. Lewis, amazingly without having met Jacob Zuma.
In all the hullabaloo, it’s easy to forget that there are two major thematic refrains running through the African National Congress’s 54th National Electoral conference. The first, of course, was the succession battle – now resolved, in the most fuckballs way possible. The second (or perhaps the first, depending on your sequencing) is the fact that this was Zuma’s swansong. The conference presented an opportunity for the congress to thank him for his 10 years of stewardship and to celebrate his manifold successes.
And yet, this refrain was muted, nearly indistinguishable – more like John Cage’s 4:33 than Wagner’s The Ring Cycle. On the first day of the conference, fraudster Carl Niehaus and fake young person Collen Maine lurked about the media centre, selling their beta version of Msholozi 1.5, AKA Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, a former physician who would make a fine morgue manager, but who does not possess the bedside manner to administer politics to the living.
(Ramaphosa’s people were nowhere to be seen. They’ve never bothered with media, because the media is, by and large, up their ass already.)
Niehaus and Maine had the time and space because the proceedings were massively delayed by the organisational committee pondering how best to factor in the recent court rulings pertaining to delegate disputes in KZN, North West and the Free State. (This ends up being important to the eventual outcome, though less like Chekhov’s revolver, and more like an incoming nuclear warhead.) But all of this mattered less at the time than Zuma’s uncharacteristic bout of legacy-enhancing munificence: to the immense bafflement of his terminally baffled finance minister, he announced that university tuition would soon be free-ish – a huge social welfare dispensation that could, if properly implemented, massively benefit students from poor families, and those from the so-called “missing middle”.
Zuma effectively took the Heher Commission report on higher education funding, delayed its release, ran it through the iPopulist app, and then free-styled a set of policy recommendations that are now being sold as a done deal. Regardless of how one feels about the matter, presidential whim is not how governance works in a functioning state, and a massive, budget-bending entitlement programme can only exist in a well-managed economy. This was nothing more than an act of Msholozi-branded opportunism, apparently drafted by the former boyfriend of Zuma-Dlamini-Zuma Inc.’s daughter (who just so happens to be a lavishly over-educated State Security Agency spook).
Fasiha Hassan, a blueblooded Fees Must Fall OG, looked far less than overjoyed than she might have, probably because Zuma’s recommendations resembled a pipe dream bomb flung into the midst of the conference, one that was rigged to explode in the hands of uBaba’s successor. “Ag,” she shrugged, “we must take our victories where we can find them.”
Anyway, these are quibbles. We had come to gangster’s paradise to anoint a regent.
It gets worse in this part
The wild, churning whizzbang machinery of the ANC in action – there’s nothing like it in global politics. It really is breathtaking, like waking up under the Annapurna mountain range on a cloudless Nepalese morning, naked but for a yak fur ankle bracelet.
The ANC is still very much a liberation party, and leadership battles are contested using the grammar of revolution: songs, T-shirts, slogans, gestures, the pantomime of violence. What would the re-animated corpse of a Soviet apparatchik make of an ANC plenary session – one of the last inadvertent shadows of the Comintern –as it gasps for air at the bottom of Africa? The dour suits and fug of ciggy smoke are replaced by a riot of gold and green, and while there is still much boring, slogan-laced speechifying, at least its leavened by singing.
But don’t let the colours fool you: this was a bright, rowdy city of the dead. It was immediately obvious that every aspect of the conference was corrupted by the congress’s internal inconsistencies. (This does not apply to the food in the media lounge, which was copious and mostly delicious.) The proceedings kicked off with a lengthy “interfaith” prayer session that was a glorious reminder of how, should certain forces in the party prevail, a full-blown theocracy is but a “Hallelujah” away. The historic importance of the South African non-Calvinist religious establishment – the men in robes who helped read the apartheid megalith its last rites – has been reduced to a bunch of used-car salesmen shilling for their supper.
“God has chosen His leader,” screamed one of their number, prior to spraying Doom in David Mahlobo’s face. (I’m kidding about that last part.)
In the ANC’s conception, the Creator of the Entire Universe is nothing more than a voting delegate.
When the priest and imams finally allowed Zuma to approach the lectern, he ambled up wearing a yellow long sleeve ANC-branded golf shirt. He held in his claw a triple-decker sandwich of a speech – an ominous sign of terrible things to come. He spoke about the many issues that had dogged his presidency, but he spoke about them like he’d had no influence over their outcome – as if the shitty economy, the slow pace of land reform, the terrible state of education, the gap between rich and poor, the racial discord, the gutting of state-owned institutions, all of it just happened. “We need to find a way of protecting the ANC from corporate greed,” he said, doubling down on the usual “radical” relativism regarding corporate and government corruption. Both, he insisted, had come under fire on his watch.
I must have missed that part.
Oh, it was a horror show of an address – a mewling, whining interminable Bhutan death march that portrayed the ANC (but more to the point, Zuma) as victims of the courts, Parliament, colonialism, factionalism, the ANC’s alliance partners, London, the media, the weather. The crowd remained muted throughout, even when he mentioned the free education ploy. This was not a farewell to a beloved father figure, but a coldly transactional hasta la vista to a man who massively enriched himself, his family, and his friends over the course of his tenure.
“I did my best,” said Jacob Zuma.
Indeed, no greater indictment of his record is possible.
This is the slightly even worse part
In a reactionary nationalist party, renewal moves at pace with recidivism. In other words, like a WWII tank mired in a field of mud, left to fire shells at the moon, the ANC is going nowhere. Understandably, the focus at national electoral conferences has always been on the sexy palace intrigue that serves as the outward manifestation of the ANC’s factional divide. Factionalism, however, is but one of its problems, and by no means the most lethal. (After all, any political party with more than two members is beset by such divisions.)
Rather, it’s that the party is such a complete mess in every way that counts. This whole journey, going back two years at least, was hampered by delays, court edicts and murder campaigns. Let’s trace the arc: from provincial electoral conferences to branch general meetings to the credentialling process, none of this resembled anything close to a democratic process, but rather a souk in medieval Qatar – everything and everyone was reduced to a tradable commodity. As for the competing ideological strands: as meager as they are, they cannot co-exist in the same party.
And so, we were due for a massive, awe-inspiring meltdown.
After just a minute into the plenary session leading up to the nominations process, after observing a bun fight over a) whether a dual ID system should be employed in the election booths (fucking obviously), and b) whether or not a list determined by the “branches” can be brought to the booths in order to nominate members of the 80-person National Executive Committee, it becomes clear that the organisation is a business conglomerate in which the divisions between winners and losers mirrors the rest of this unequal land.
During the nominations process, severe, wiry election hacks from an independent outfit named Elexions made their way to the stage wearing sci-fi-era smocks – nurses from a distant planet here to wield giant democracy enemas. Hours later, delegates began the election process in blocs of 200. Over the course of a long night, 4,708 voters filed through the hall, handing over their mobile phones and submitting to rigorous security procedures. So many rules, so many regulations, so much procedure. Journalists had never had more friends: WhatsApps pinged through the night: Who is winning? When are the results due?
And yet, no one knew a thing. Seriously. No one. The most advanced pundits, with thousands of combined years of institutional ANC experience, could not have called this debacle. By mid-afternoon it was clear that Ramaphosa would be the new president. But the real story was that, following dreary, disinterested campaigns from the frontrunners, hours before the outcome no one could properly foresee the results.
How was this even possible in an age of insta-communication and extreme leakiness?
Answer: the ANC is the sun in the centre of the Copernican universe, so it doesn’t matter what happens down here on Earth.
This part is the worst, probably
The plenary during the announcement of the results was rock-show insane. Singing, table-jumping, the mass chewing of fingernails. The wait, once again, was interminable. Behind the scenes, three recounts had called for at the behest of the Dlamini-Zuma campaign. Some faces were long. Others were scrunched into glistening happy emojis. Zuma sang Umshini Wam, the priapic ditty he sang at the rape trial that kicked off his miracle presidency – surely for the last time. We knew that Ramaphosa had the presidency locked down, and that a recall was merely weeks away.
Jacob Zuma was fucking toast, no?
When Ramaphosa’s name was read out by the Elexions CEO, a now famous piece of video depicts him struggling to contain his facial expressions – he resembled a tortoise in the throes of agonising constipation. (How, I wonder, was he one of the last people in Nasrec to have been informed of the result?) But then things started looking up. Mpumalanga Premier and gangster supreme David Mabuza was borne up to the stage, installed in the deputy presidency on the back of a landslide slaughter of Ramaphosa’s preferred candidate, Lindiwe Sisulu. We then learned that Gwede Mantashe would become the National Chairperson – a reward, of sorts, for architecting Ramaphosa’s campaign.
Cyril was up 2:1. White Monopoly Capital was going long on the rand – you could sense the currency crawl its way up the US dollar’s trousers. Everything was going according to pl…
Wait, Free State premier Ace Magashule as Secretary-General of the African National Congress? Indeed, the electoral conference had voted into a position of significant national power a politician so fundamentally unsuitable that he’d be a caricature in a 1930s Hollywood gangster flick. Ace Magashule? A man so hated within the congress that he could literally collapse the party with his loathsomeness? As Ranjeni Munusamy put it on Twitter:
“Something to think about. The Free State Provincial Electoral Conference was unable to participate in two consecutive ANC national conferences. The man in charge of that province is now responsible for managing the entire ANC. And the ANC’s 2019 election campaign.”
By the time all was said and done— – it wasn’t really done, was it? – the ANC’s Top Six were split between Ramaphosa’s camp and the opposing faction. Drunk people would describe this as “unity”. It is better described as a stalemate.
Come to think of it, these parts are bad, too
So what, then, does Ramaphosa now preside over?
The great negotiator, who somehow strong-armed apartheid’s mass-murdering lunatics into ratifying a constitution that enshrined gay rights, has never come up against something like this. He will yank one way; his opponents will yank another – that impossible tension will define the country for the foreseeable future. Once the votes for the National Executive Committee are counted, there’ll be more clarity on how urgent matters like a recall of President Zuma will unfold. Mabuza and Magashule, old Premier League cronies, will have control of the National Working Committee, another key decision-making body. In all of the disarray, the results are a perfect articulation of what the ANC has become.
As I write these words, the usual fluffing over 68 ghost votes/delegates with regard to the secretary-general position is under way in a steering committee deep in the bowels of Nasrec. Regardless of whether Magashule retains his position over Ramaphosa ally Senzo Mchunu after this dispute is resolved, the party has revealed itself for itself, and the suspected purge and clean-up will not be simple. The slapdash monster Ramabuza will stumble forward, lurching from horse trade to horse trade, tearing up what remains of the country in its path.
And then there is the ultimate ghost delegate – President Jacob Zuma, who refuses to go quietly, and who seems incapable of losing anything that counts. (Sadly, in South Africa, court cases don’t.) CS Lewis asked whether a man “having stepped outside traditional morality and attained power, has used that power benevolently”. But how is that man’s stain to be removed when those that succeed him have also ignored traditional morality? The answer, of course, is that it can’t be.
The ANC have had 54 chances at renewal. They made good on some of those. Not this one, they didn’t. DM
Photo: David Mabuza and Cyril Ramaphosa embrace each other as they are announced as new leaders of the ANC. (Daily Maverick)