The unravelling of the Polokwane brigade

President Jacob Zuma's closing address to the 52nd ANC conference at Polokwane in 2007 is perhaps one of his most memorable speeches. He was gracious towards Thabo Mbeki, the man he beat in a brutal battle for the ANC presidency, and displayed the character of a statesman willing to rise from the battlefield and take leadership.

"The conference is now behind us and we will continue to work together to unite and build a stronger ANC. There is likely to be anxiety regarding the existence of two presidents, one of state and the other of the party. There is no reason for uncertainty or fear in any quarter. Comrade Mbeki and I, both as members of the ANC first and foremost, will develop smooth working relations between government and the ruling party, assisted by the leadership collective," Zuma said.

Okay, so that didn't go so well because, as nine months later, Mbeki was frog-marched out of the Union Buildings. But still, Zuma at the time appeared to genuinely want to heal the rifts and restore the dignity and integrity of the organisation.

"All South Africans, and many others throughout Africa and the world, were keenly interested both in the quality of our deliberations and in the decisions we have taken. This interest is a welcome indicator of the high esteem in which South Africans and our millions of friends across the globe hold the African National Congress. We wish to confirm, as we rise from national conference, that the ANC will continue acting in a manner that earns it the respect and trust of our people."

Crucially, the speech was honest in admitting what had happened in Polokwane.

"One of the abiding strengths of the ANC has always been to be truthful to the people and never to hide our shortcomings or the extent of the challenges we faceā€¦ We do acknowledge that there were moments when some of us seemed to veer away from the dignified conduct that has always been the hallmark of the ANC. However, as we conclude the business of conference we are inspired that we have emerged with welcome consensus on our strategic outlook and the detailed policies that will guide our movement for the next five years and beyond," Zuma said then.

When he rose to deliver the closing address at last week's ANC policy conference in Midrand, he was flanked by the same national executive committee that stood behind him on the stage in Polokwane. The delegates were largely the same group of people who elected him in 2007. Yet it was a different Zuma who delivered the speech and a different ANC that listened to it.

The 2012 Jacob Zuma is one who is floundering to keep a grip on his presidency and to keep his organisation on course behind him. It is a Zuma who champions a theoretical concept of a "second transition" and gets told by his party that that's not what they want. It is a president who battles to articulate where the party is heading and what it needs to do to address the deepening social and economic crisis in the country.

Every time he spoke during the conference, Zuma was like a doctor diagnosing a dreadful illness requiring immediate hospitalisation - but wouldn't say what treatment or surgery was needed.

More importantly, this is a Zuma who last Friday could stand in front of 3,000 people who, minutes earlier witnessed vicious exchanges and scuffles, and say: "Comrades have displayed exceptional conduct and have restored the integrity of the organisation". He did this for the benefit of the media, which had been deliberately kept away from the hall to hide the fracas, and South Africans watching the live television broadcast.

To make matters worse, Zuma started giggling as he read "Disagreements took place in a comradely manner, and with a view to enhancing the policy proposals", showing that even he didn't believe what he was saying.

The delegates were largely the people who united to oust Mbeki in 2007 and elected a new leadership core they believed would set the ANC on the right path. Five years later, these delegates are manoeuvring against each other with provinces, leagues and the alliance partners split over support for different leaders.

Among the reported scuffles were between delegates from North West province. Delegates from Eastern Cape also disagreed during the plenary over policy positions, which should have been discussed and decided beforehand. There are now two clearly disparate camps in the province, which the leadership is unable to reconcile.

Limpopo, which was almost totally behind Zuma in 2007, is now almost totally against him. KwaZulu-Natal, which took a lead among provinces at Polokwane, is now jeered for "tribal tendencies" and for bringing delegates to the conference who were unable to engage constructively in policy debates and whose role was limited to singing songs in praise of Zuma. North West delegates out of the blue started singing songs backing deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe as the next ANC president.

Cosatu is no longer the united force it was behind Zuma in 2007. Their leaders also squabbled in the plenary, which stunned even their own delegation. The SACP has largely lost the voice of authority it had in 2007, and is now seen as cheerleader of the Zuma presidency. The ANC Youth League has been emasculated since its leaders were expelled and is pursuing its losing battle to restore their membership. The former kingmakers at Polokwane are battling to get their voices heard.

Behind all this strife in the ANC and its alliance is a general sense of mistrust of people's bona fides and agendas. The ANC was an organisation which survived decades of struggle in exile and in the underground because of the trust between comrades, even when they could not see or speak to each other for years on end. But now an air of suspicion, paranoia and distrust prevails, which results in ANC members running whispering campaigns against each other.

For example, delegates disenchanted with Zuma claim that ANC NEC member Tony Yengeni was backing the president on the issue of the now defeated "second transition" because he is seeking a presidential pardon from him. Whether this is true or not, Yengeni was one of the authors of the document and it would have been truly bizarre if he had disowned it midstream during the conference.

Despite efforts to paper over the cracks to give an impression that the ANC is a single, united force, and to blame the media for manufacturing false conflicts in the organisation, the problem clearly lies in the quality of the leadership and the motives of the ANC's members.

The body language even among the top six leaders shows that these are people who are now uneasy working with each other. They are a far cry from the unit that stood triumphantly on the stage at Polokwane with their fists in the air, ready to lead the ANC in a new direction.

In that closing speech at Polokwane, Zuma said the following:

"A lesson we have learnt from this conference is that, if the leadership fails to resolve issues, or to grasp the feelings of membership on issues that concern the movement and instead appears to perpetuate the problems, the membership takes over and asserts its authority in ways that we may not be comfortable with."

The people who gathered at Gallagher Estate last week would do well to read that speech before they learn that lesson again - the hard way.

This column first appeared on The Daily Maverick website.