Ranjeni Munusamy: The ANC forever & ever

This weekend, the ANC will tell you why you should vote for it. It will reveal its full gamut of election promises, contained in its manifesto, as well its statement of intent for the year, contained in its 102nd anniversary January 8 statement. The party leaders have been out and about in Mpumalanga, telling the province's citizens why they should vote for the ANC - apparently they will get cattle slaughtered if they poll over 90%. Most South Africans would prefer jobs and decent housing, but a piece of meat is nice too. While the ANC is trying to put its best foot forward, the face of its campaign, President Jacob Zuma, doesn't seem to be helping its case.

Mac Maharaj is not even bothering to take on this on - he cannot reach for the "out of context" crutch and anyway, there was just too much that came tumbling out of President Jacob Zuma in front of television cameras to attempt explaining away. Jackson Mthembu will not touch it either, saying "I'm not the one who was making the speech. Ask him. It is unfair to us for you to ask us to decode someone else's speech."

Trying to explain Zuma's comments, in any event, is like trying to wade through quicksand. It would now appear that both the presidential and party spokesmen have figured that it's best to step back and wait for the latest controversy to blow over - as they have done many times in the past.

Addressing supporters at KaNyamazane near Nelspruit on Wednesday as part of the ANC anniversary celebrations, Zuma said he wanted his party to win a two-thirds majority in the upcoming elections as this would enable them to change the Constitution.

"We want a huge majority this time because we want to change certain things that couldn't be changed with a small majority so that we move forward because there are certain hurdles. People talk about a Constitution they have never seen. We saw that Constitution," Zuma was quoted as saying by The Times.

Zuma also said he wanted the ANC to win 90% of the vote in Mpumalanga so that he could return to slaughter cattle for the party supporters. "If you get below 90%, I won't come back."

Carrot and stick, Zuma style, or a little presidential coercion and bribery to keep the campaign trail interesting?

Deciding perhaps that the prospect of a Second Coming was dicey to bet on, Zuma adapted his oft-repeated statement linking the ANC's electoral dominance to Jesus's return to a more definite timespan. The ANC would govern "forever and ever", he said.

"Whether they like it or not, we'll continue to govern. They always say the ANC won't win. When they say that they are daydreaming. Because when a person is dreaming while walking it means he's unstable."

That's either absolute confidence or absolute detachment from reality. Granted, Zuma was on the election stump, so rhetoric and hyperbole are to be expected. And he could not very well have said, "We are worried about dropping below 60%, so disregard everything you have read and heard and please vote ANC".

Hinting darkly about changing the Constitution is guaranteed to cause an uproar. As ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe pointed out at a press conference on Thursday, the Constitution has already been amended 18 times - without any fuss whatsoever. If the ANC wanted to propose amendment 19, why couldn't it be done like all the others, through a proper parliamentary process with involvement of all political parties? What would be so controversial that it would require the ANC to steamroll it through Parliament?

Mantashe claimed the party had no plans to change the Constitution. So either the matter has been discussed secretly in ANC structures and Zuma let it slip by mistake, or the president is revealing his own unmandated thoughts - which must be immensely frustrating for the rest of the ANC leadership and its communications unit.

You would think that by now Zuma would latch on to the fact that his every off-the-cuff remark is watched closely as they almost always spark controversy. You would also think that he would realise that speaking in vernacular is hardly a way to camouflage provocative statements.

But it would seem that Zuma is beyond caring what new controversy he might spark, even if it turns more people off him and damages the ANC in an election year. Perhaps he reasons that after the Nkandla scandal, it cannot get any worse. Or perhaps he thinks it is only the media and opposition parties that get riled by his utterances and that the ANC constituency is firewalled. Maybe Zuma thinks that the ANC's and his own popularity will triumph over controversy, and the ruling party will coast to a landslide victory irrespective of the litany of scandals under his watch.

The ANC is still smarting over the booing of the president at Nelson Mandela's memorial service at FNB Stadium last month. Mthembu told the media that booing did not happen at ANC events but only at state functions where people across political affiliations were gathered. He dismissed the possibility that Zuma could be booed at Saturday's rally: "We know each and every person getting into the bus and the taxis."

But there is no indication that the ANC has had any serious discussion at its national executive committee (NEC) meeting this week as to why its leader was booed by large sections of the crowd at the solemn event and in front of the world's leaders and media. Perhaps it is too sensitive a matter to discuss in front of Zuma. Or perhaps it is easier to accept the explanation that the booing was engineered, as it takes the onus away from the NEC to confront certain uncomfortable realities about Zuma's image.

The party is, however, trying to manage issues which are bound to impact negatively on its election campaign. Mantashe announced on Thursday that the NEC had received a briefing on the inter-ministerial task team report on the security upgrades at Zuma's Nkandla residence and accepted this report "as a factual representation of what had transpired". The report exonerates Zuma from responsibility and places the blame for the exorbitant spending on the upgrades on Public Works officials and the contractors.

"This report on the security upgrades at President Zuma's homestead in Nkandla will now be disseminated to the structures of the African National Congress for them to also engage with the issues as presented as we await the long anticipated release of the Public Protector's report on the same matter," Mantashe said.

It is quite rare for the ANC to take such measures to distribute a government report throughout its structures around the country. This means that it needs to do damage control within its own structures, even before Public Protector Thuli Madonsela's report is made public.

But how much spin and damage control will it take to repair Zuma's image, especially if he continuously makes statements that require clarifications or apologies? In December Zuma was accused of being a "cultural chauvinist" after he said he would marry a Venda woman if he was not already married to his four wives because they "even lie down to show respect for other people".

Speaking at Impendle in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, Zuma said: "When I was in Venda recently, I was so impressed to see how people there express respect for other people. A woman would clap her hands and even lie down to show respect."

The incident blew over without the ANC and the presidency having to respond, unlike a few months ago when a diplomatic furore erupted over Zuma's comments about Malawi and Africans. There have been a series of other controversies stemming from Zuma's statements, including remarks about gay men, jails being the "white man's way" of resolving disputes, people who care for dogs more than other human beings, and repeated religious intonations to affirm either the ANC or government.

Ironically, Zuma connects best with his audiences when he speaks unscripted - reading speeches is not his best attribute. But his propensity to dish out clangers when left to his own devices is now legendary.

However, both the manifesto launch on Friday and the January 8 statement on Saturday are scripted, so the possibility of some new controversy on a national stage is reduced. But it will be a long journey on the election campaign trail, where almost all statements will be unscripted. Four months might just feel like "forever and ever" for those assigned to the mop-up operation.

This column appeared on Daily Maverick.