Winnie Madikizela-Mandela joins hands with President Jacob Zuma and his deputy, Cyril Ramaphosa, in a show of unity at the opening of the party’s National Policy Conference on Friday.
In 2017, the centenary year of late ANC leader and anti-apartheid stalwart Oliver Reginald Tambo’s birth, the governing party is doing its best to put on a show of a united front.
However, on Friday – day one of its National Policy Conference in Nasrec, southern Johannesburg – the scene that plays out on stage illustrates a house on fire, with no one making any moves to put it out.
“Wenzeni uZuma, wenzeni uZuma khawuphendule (Tell us what Zuma did),” sings a sizeable delegation entering the plenary arena. The group comprises delegates from KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. It is supposed to be a show of force, but it doesn’t gain much traction.
Moments later, President Jacob Zuma arrives and walks on to the stage. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela grabs his hand in one of hers and a hand of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa in the other. She joins the hands of the two leaders with a smile and the three share a chuckle.
Ramaphosa, a presidential hopeful, shares an animated story with Zuma and the two laugh louder. Having played the unity game, they take their seats at the “head table”.
Enter ANC chief whip Jackson Mthembu, who heads up the “other” ANC in Parliament. He approaches the seated president for his part in the act. With a toothy grin and his phone in hand, it appears as if he is recording the moment. Zuma catches on and jokingly points a finger at him, suggesting this thought: “I know what you’re up to.”
A short while before the formal proceedings begin, ANC national chairperson Baleka Mbete takes to the podium and starts calling for silence. To her left, Ramaphosa, along with secretary-general Gwede Mantashe and treasurer-general Zweli Mkhize, who make up one faction in the top six, are having a mini caucus.
Seemingly irritated by the gathering happening next to him, Zuma holds up his hand as if calling for them to wrap it up. Mkhize starts walking off, but Mantashe holds on to his hand, indicating that he is not yet done.
Finally, the programme begins with a lengthy interfaith prayer session. During the last prayer, Mbete cannot contain herself and tears stream down her face. She appears moved by the pastor’s passionate call for a unified ANC, which will deliver policies that will change the lives of the poor after this conference.
“It is very funny; they are like a real organisation”
Elsewhere, at the other end of the table, deputy secretary-general Jessie Duarte has found something highly amusing.
Zuma begins with a song, Oliver Tambo awulale ngoxolo. Delegates rise and sing along. Notable among them is former minister of tourism Derek Hanekom, who called for a motion of no confidence in Zuma at an ANC national executive committee meeting in November, and was axed from his post as part of Zuma’s March 31 Cabinet reshuffle. He stands with his arms crossed about his chest and his body upright. He doesn’t look too impressed with the whole set-up.
But others sing fervently and, soon after, the president begins what starts off as a measured and reconciliatory address.
“We will discuss the health of the organisation not just for the sake of it, but because our country needs a united, strong, focused and cohesive ANC. The ANC belongs to the people of South Africa and we must fix it so that it can continue improving the lives of our people,” he reads from his prepared speech.
After about 40 minutes, Zuma – as is his wont – abandons the speech and starts addressing the delegation from the heart, in his home language of isiZulu.
“Amandla asemasebeni but aniwasebenzisi (the power is in the branches, but you don’t use your power). Even when you elect a president, some people who have no right come to tell you that this president must go. They don’t consult you. Niyathula nje (you just keep quiet),” he says, as some begin to cheer and laugh.
Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, another presidential hopeful, is particularly tickled by the comment.
“Anginazi ukuthi nadalwa kanjani. People take your right, but you just keep quiet because you are the only ones who can hire and fire, not so? Senilale thina ngoba sesihamba kancane, sijikisamakhanda kancane. Sesithatha iyikhundla zenu maybabo,” he says, taking shots at the party’s stalwarts and veterans, who have boycotted the event. The few veterans sitting in the front row, some of them sleeping, are kept company by mining mogul Patrice Motsepe.
Zuma returns to the scripted address, but clearly feels that he has not sufficiently dealt with the elders. He starts reading a parting quote from Oliver Tambo but stops short.
“Let me, before I say the final words from OR Tambo, say something, because these branches haven’t met for a long time.”
He proceeds to outline the establishment of the 101 veterans’ initiative and then discredits their cause, saying an investigation showed that not everyone whose names appeared on the petition asking him to step down had consented.
He says the elders did not deem it necessary to engage the ANC leadership, and directs his final salvo at the group’s decision to boycott the policy conference despite the “compromise” reached to set aside two days to have a consultative conference about the party’s integrity.
“They want their own. It is very funny; they are like a real organisation. I am sure they must have an office operating. I don’t know; I am just guessing because they are very organised … They told the secretary-general’s office that they didn’t think the quality of the discussions here would be at a high level and that they needed to have serious discussions.”
At this point, Lindiwe Sisulu, a staunch advocate of the veterans, has her fists clenched as if gearing up for a fight. Shortly afterwards, ANC veteran Andrew Mlangeni, who has attended some of the engagements between the ANC leaders and the veterans, is helped off the stage by Tony Yengeni.
“Quite a number of them, when they talk to the media, say there is no leadership here [and that] we are the administrators, they are the leaders. But that’s fine,” says Zuma as he wraps up his assault and returns to quoting from Tambo.