Zuma can afford to be generous to the left

Stephen Grootes

As President Jacob Zuma prepares to launch the African National Congress’s new year with his annual January 8 address in Durban on Saturday, he will have several objectives in mind.

Some of these will relate to his goals within the government and the country more generally, and others both to his leadership position within the ANC and to the ruling party itself.

Already ANC secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who can be presumed to have seen a draft of Saturday’s speech, has suggested that those who followed the ANC’s Mangaung conference closely in December would not be surprised by its contents. This is a strong suggestion that Zuma will concentrate on the National Development Plan (NDP).

The NDP aims to move South Africa from being one of the most unequal societies in the world to one in which all citizens get opportunities to improve their lives.

Zuma is on strong ground here, as delegates at Mangaung strongly supported the NDP. This is an opportunity for him to start making his case for the plan to the country at large.

Traditionally, what the leader of the ANC outlines as policy priorities during this speech tend to resonate with the state of the nation address in February. Thus the NDP can be expected to be the main feature of Zuma’s speech to Parliament too.

This may be a relatively easy political task, but his other objective this weekend could be trickier.

At the moment, while there is a final declaration from the Mangaung conference, there are still some details around the outcome of policy discussions that need clarification. But, from what is known in the public domain, both the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) and the South African Communist Party (SACP), collectively known as the "left" within the alliance, failed to achieve some of their policy goals.

Delegates did not ban labour broking or reject the youth wage subsidy. They also did not make any radical changes to the country’s economy or decide to fully investigate nationalisation of South Africa’s mines. At the same time, the ANC elected as its deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa — for many the face of capitalism and black economic empowerment. To make it worse for the left, Ramaphosa now appears to be the frontrunner for the ANC’s next leadership elections in 2017.

Although Zuma may personally no longer need the support of Cosatu and the SACP, he may well believe it is important for the ANC that these organisations stay within the alliance. The leaders of these groups have constituencies of their own and will be asked tough questions about why they were not successful at Mangaung with their policy objectives.

Thus Zuma may choose to placate Cosatu and the SACP in his speech on Sunday, possibly by talking up their achievements and other policy victories.

As a man entering his second, and probably final, term, Zuma can afford to be magnanimous towards his opponents, knowing it would take a political disaster the size of a tsunami to dislodge him now. However, it is also a chance to launch projects that may determine his legacy.

Much of Zuma’s first term as ANC leader was spent dealing with the fallout from Thabo Mbeki’s tenure, and then the situation created by the formation of the breakaway Congress of the People. Now, he has fewer distractions of that nature, leaving the way clear for him to be far more ambitious with policy than in the past.

This column appeared in The Business Day.