[OPINION] ANC’s January 8 Statement, 2017 edition: A quest for unity – or else
Perhaps the most fundamental question in our politics since the local elections has been whether or not the ANC can “self-correct”, whether it can stop the slide. All of the evidence presented in 2016 suggested that it could not. The Nkandla judgment, the State of Capture report, the refusal of President Jacob Zuma to take responsibility for anything, the Gupta's influence; all of this indicated the ANC was heading in just one direction. But to listen closely to Zuma speaking at a packed and wet Orlando Stadium on Sunday, and then to read the ANC national executive committee’s full January 8th statement, is to see some evidence that the party is trying to change. That it really has heard the message sent so loudly last year. However, the ANC Women’s League’s behaviour over the weekend suggests that it is still going to be a long struggle for the party to change.
Jacob Zuma is not someone who likes to concede a point. He would not resign after the Shaik judgment in 2005, he did not take personal responsibility for Nkandla, he has continuously claimed the Gupta family’s apparent success has nothing to do with him. So it must have been with gritted teeth that he read this line yesterday:
“The ANC has heard the message that the people delivered on the 3rd of August. We accept that we have made mistakes and shall correct these mistakes.”
One of Zuma’s first comments was this:
“Our people have told us that we come across as too busy fighting one another and do not pay sufficient attention to their needs.”
This sentence is also in the NEC’s expanded statement. That document goes further, to say:
“Our own research and interactions with members of the ANC demonstrate clearly that the people abhor the apparent preoccupation with personal gain.”
While senior ANC leaders have made these kinds of comments before, particularly in the weeks after last year’s pivotal election, this is surely unprecedented for the ANC. Normally, its January 8th statement is dominated by policy issues; it’s a document prepared for a government, almost a set of marching orders for those in the Union Buildings. To focus on the internal situation within the ANC tells us that the game has indeed changed, and that the top people in the ANC realise that.
On a sympathetic reading, this could be a sign that in fact the top people in the party, including Zuma, have realised that 2017 is the year that will decide the ANC's future. Either it unifies and shapes up, or the slide will continue. That may indeed be the case – it is possible that even Zuma has been shocked into a realisation of this. But the evidence for this is slim. It’s understood that he told an NEC meeting after the polls that people were taking these results too seriously, and there is no other sign that he has taken any of this to heart, including his speeches over the holidays.
A more interesting interpretation could be that this is actually the result of a tide turning. Zuma was merely reading a precis of a statement prepared by the NEC. The same NEC that last year debated removing him from office. In other words, the speech is an amalgamation of positions taken by all of the groups within the top body. It is possible that the reformists have started to gain some momentum, and started to win some of the big arguments. Thus, perhaps, they could have ensured that Zuma had no choice but to make these comments on Sunday. If that is the case, then the situation in the ANC may be about to change; the boundaries around Zuma’s behaviour (note the lack of reshuffle in December) may have started to move in.
And of course, if there had been some whole-hearted change by Zuma, then surely, as a colleague pointed out, he would have said something publicly about the ANC Women’s League’s decision to publicly nominate Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma. It’s a move that breaks with all precedent, and Gwede Mantashe certainly wasted no time in smacking it down. If there is a push towards unity, then the Women’s League have wilfully and deliberately tried to stop it. It would be interesting to know if Zuma knew that they were going to go public in this way just hours before such a public declaration of unity by the ANC. If the answer is no, then why did he not rebuke them in public, in some coded way? And if the answer is yes, then he clearly doesn’t believe a word of what he said.
There are some other parts of the ANC’s full statement that don’t appear to make much sense. The NEC says, “The ANC is optimistic that the 2017 growth forecast of 2.9% will be achieved.” Really? And where did this forecast come from? Mzwanele Manyi? No one who understands our economy seriously believes that that will happen – including the ANC deployees at the National Treasury.
Speaking of the economy, the ANC has again (yawn?) promised “radical economic transformation”. There was a time when capitalists were really scared of that phrase. No more. The ANC does not seem able to agree on almost any aspect of policy at the moment, never mind something as complicated as economic policy. Even something as technical and minor (for most people) as the Financial Intelligence Centre Amendment Act is the source of very real disagreement. Which surely suggests that proper change to the economy driven by a united ANC is almost entirely out of the question.
Sometimes, in statements such as these, there are small nuggets that tell you what is really happening in an organisation. In this case, the NEC’s full statement says, “We are also committed to expanding renewable energy capacity and initiating ongoing projects to advance its use.” One wonders what Eskom’s current acting CEO Matshela Koko thinks of this. He is pushing hard for nuclear, and Eskom as a whole appears to be disobeying this aspect of ANC policy. As with the SABC saga, it’s more evidence of possible distance between the ANC and its leader.
If there is one thing for which the ANC cannot be faulted, it’s in the implementation of various court rulings given full effect to the LGBTI community. There has been a small but significant change in the way that the ANC has dealt with this issue recently. It’s not so much an implementation of laws and rulings, but a whole-hearted message of support that is now coming from the party, a message that we are “not including you because we have to, but because we genuinely want to”. It is not just that it includes this community in this message, it’s that the party says it’s “proud that our Constitution espouses progressive values”. Part of this even got into the main spoken speech. (Even if there was an unfortunately timed clearing of the throat from Zuma immediately afterwards.)
There was another “Zuma moment” a few minutes later, when he said that “never again, in our democracy, will any newspaper be banned as happened to The World newspaper 40 years ago”. And then he said that the “media…. should report fairly and factually”. He pressed the point, repeating that “the media should report fairly, and it should report factually”. Well, Mr President, I have no mandate to speak for the entire media, but let me just retort for a moment. That is the case indeed, we must report fairly and factually. But politicians also have a duty not to lie, and always to tell the truth, to the nation, to the Parliament. (See: Nene, BRICS Bank)
Considering that this is (presumably) Zuma’s last January 8th address as ANC leader, it is probably important to say a few things about the touch-and-feel of the address.
Zuma himself is not who he was just a few years ago. While delivering speeches in English has never been one of his priorities, this time around he seemed even more lackadaisical than usual. Perhaps he really hadn’t seen the script beforehand, perhaps he was tired (there was a gala dinner the night before), perhaps he just didn’t care for it because it’s not what he would have wanted to say anyway. But there was something rather subdued about the ANC president this damp morning. This changed a bit when time came to announce the winners of the internal competitions the party holds; it was the old, publicly happy and smiling, Jacob Zuma, man of the people. But when it came time to sing, there was no Umshini Wami, just a choir who seemed ready to back him up. For a man who has previously held the entire, much bigger, FNB stadium with a single note, perhaps it’s a sign that things really have changed. Or perhaps it was just the weather.
Zuma was not the only one top official that was subdued on the day. Mantashe’s eyes looked redder than usual, Zweli Mkhize appeared to be losing his voice. It’s odd to see so many tired people before what is supposed to be a celebration. Perhaps there has been some fundamental politics behind the scenes. Perhaps the dinner was really, really long.
For those who support the ANC, Sunday’s event could turn out to be important, the first signal that the party is turning the corner. There are many things that did not happen that are also important; Zuma was not booed, the stadium was not empty - despite the rain, everyone was disciplined. But there was also the absence of real celebratory spirit. The ANC is not what it was when its previous leader gave his final January 8th Address in 2007.
Back then, it was possible to keep the veneer of unity in public. No longer. It is hard at this point to see how the party could get that spirit back. Zuma has stolen the party’s spirit, the sense that it is unique. Now, it’s a political party. And it has to act like one, and find a way to manage the competing interests within it. Hello, 2017.
Stephen Grootes is the senior political correspondent for Eyewitness News and the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 CapeTalk. He is the author of 'SA Politics Unspun'. Follow him on Twitter: @StephenGrootes