South Africa, #ANCdecides2017

#ANCdecides2017: Reporter’s notebook – End of Days

By Stephen Grootes 20 December 2017

And so, Dear Reader, it came to pass that the laws of space and time, in the end, apply to ANC conferences too. The conference is now ending. I will return home, shout at the pool pump and spend a happy half-hour picking up dog poos. Spock will watch with disdain and Vulcan detachment, making the odd comment about Romulans, and the fact that their ears are a little bit funny. Later, at around the time Cyril Ramaphosa will give his first address as ANC President, the wife and children will be returning home. I can’t wait, and may later be accused of dereliction of duty by leaving this conference early to be with them. It's been a long conference, and a crazy year. By STEPHEN GROOTES.

2017AD came after a year that was also incredibly tough for those of us who spend our time trying to work out – and understand – what is happening within the ANC, and how that will affect the nation. In so many ways, the dynamic that started the night President Jacob Zuma fired Nhlanhla Nene is now coming to an end, and something new is beginning.

It was good to see Zizi Kodwa one last time as a spokesperson. I thanked him on air this morning for always being available when he could speak, and for the way he has conducted himself. It has been a tough time for him over the last couple of years. I remember so well asking him on the Midday Report last year if the ANC was proud of having Zuma as its leader. His complete failure to answer said it all. I wasn’t surprised when he finally came out and said he was voting for Ramaphosa. His response to my farewell was warm and took me back to around 12 years ago and his role as the spokesperson of the ANC Youth League. Once, back in prehistoric times, he actually was the man tasked with defending Julius Malema for saying “I’d kill for Zuma”.

And that led me down another track: Gwede Mantashe, during his final press conference as secretary-general earlier this week, made the point that whoever took his place should build relationships with journalists. Despite everything that is happening in the media world, politicians may need that interface, the ability to reach out to someone who actually knows you, who can give backstory and explain what is really happening. It goes to the difference in opinion on Mantashe between journalists and non-journalists.

Now, stop for a moment, and think about this. Can you see Ace Magashule having any kind of relationship with any journalist who does not work for DStv Channel Saxonwold? I’m sorry, but I can’t. And every press conference he gives could end up being around the Guptas and his own relationship with them. And it’s unlikely to end there. There was a time, just over 10 years ago now, when the ANC’s communication was controlled by its president; the person who did press briefings was Smuts Ngonyama. It would probably be difficult for that to happen again now, and may even require a change to the ANC’s constitution. But every time Magashule appears live on TV, he is unlikely to garner more votes for the ANC.

I can’t help but wonder what the atmosphere is going to be like at Luthuli House with him in charge there…

Of course, as I write this, sitting next to an old friend who taps away at her piece for a competing online daily in the media centre, there is the much bigger question. What is going to happen to power in the ANC, and what will that mean. The big issue is whether Ramaphosa may be able to entrench his power, as Zuma did between Polokwane and Mangaung. There is a strong argument that he could. A little bit of power can often lead to more power. You may find that people in government, even in the security forces, who have so far strongly backed Zuma, decide that the wind is blowing the other way. This means that power could come to him in many ways.

But the opposite is also true. It could be that the NEC comes out of this irreversibly divided and stymies Ramaphosa at every opportunity. In an environment where the ANC is already battling to poll at over 50%; he could be stuck with cement shoes in the ever-spreading mud.

However, it is likely that people who have backed Zuma up until now do just change their tune. Even someone like Magashule may decide it’s important, for their own personal reasons, to jump ship now, to push Zuma’s decaying frame overboard, to ensure they don’t sink with him. Someone like David Mabuza could decide that publicly calling for Zuma to leave the Presidency is the best way to change his public perception overnight – and it is not a good perception right now. The same could hold for everyone on the new NEC. Or it might not. It is that opaque right now.

There are several levers of power in this country, but one of the most powerful has got to be control of the National Prosecuting Authority. I do wonder if Advocate Shaun Abrahams is sweating hard, and not sleeping, both of which he richly deserves. Surely, unless something dramatic happens, he will lose his job after the 2019 elections, probably much before. And that could change everything. Ramaphosa could use that to whip people with difficult track records into line, if they do not just fall in behind him anyway.

One thing, for me at least, is surely true. The ANC has been difficult to manage for the last decade. It is now, surely, going to be almost ungovernable. The scandals will keep coming, the stories of looting will be out for all to see. People will continue to push in opposite directions; the church is becoming impossibly broad. The result of this conference surely tells us that this will simply continue, and is a process that is probably unstoppable.

In the end, what is crucial for all of us, to remain a free country, is for not one group of people to have too much power. For some people this was the central issue around the 1994 election, the fear that a small bunch of executives or cabal of populists would be able to concentrate power in their hands. That for historical reasons, they could guarantee themselves a long stay in office. It is now clear that this will not happen again easily; power is slowly being spread around.

And so, Gentle Reader, it is time for me to leave this media centre. My friend is still writing her piece (she claims that quality takes time), someone is being incredibly loud on a sofa somewhere (I’m told he’s from ANN7), and the food is finally running out. Spock is waiting. He only feels one emotion. Curiosity. Which I may use to entice him out of his warm sunny bed, once he has finished his stretching. I am going to spend the next three weeks with my family. I hope you do too. DM

Photo: Newly elected president Cyril Ramaphosa and outgoing ANC president Jacob Zuma at the ANC’s elective conference at Nasrec. Photo: Leila Dougan

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