South African president Jacob Zuma was reportedly so worried about a rumoured challenge to his leadership at his party’s National General Council that he opted to spend last week with 4,000 party delegates on Durban’s so-called Coast of Dreams rather than attend the United Nations General Assembly in New York.
The move paid off. Everyone said the South African president had emerged from the African National Congress’s policy-making conflab looking in control. But that is only because no one wants his job at the helm of the former liberation party that’s now suffering a deep identity crisis.
Sixteen years after the first all-race elections, South Africa remains effectively a single-party democracy. Election after election, the ANC’s biggest worry is whether it will get two-thirds of the vote–the proportion needed in parliament to change the constitution. A slight niggle lies ahead: the municipal elections due in February 2011, at which a low turnout would suggest disenchantment with the ruling party, its polygamous president and the politically connected elite that has emerged through Black Economic Empowerment (BEE).
What Zuma needed to do in Durban was to signal that his ideologically overcrowded vessel – whose crew of supporters includes captains of industry and potential leftwing mutineers – is still capable of steering an even course.
Troublesome ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema, intent on continuing to call for the nationalisation of mines until the ANC drops disciplinary charges against him, was told by the president that “youth should respect their elders”. Some people took this as proof that Zuma had gained the upper hand. But two days later, Malema and his supporters stormed the stage during a debate. Sops were provided to the left wing, including an uncontroversial assurance that a national health insurance system is on the cards and a market-friendly concession to appoint a committee to look into increasing the state’s role in mining and in the banking sector. Everyone agreed on a need to regulate the media because, in the ANC’s present state, clamping down on critical journalists is the only subject that appeals to all factions.
Political analyst Andile Mngxitama says the ANC is playing a deceptive game, aimed simply at keeping “comrades” in power. “The ANC, with the endorsement of the Communist Party and [trade union confederation] Cosatu, manufactures discourses that suggest they are concerned about the poor. Ideological battles between them crowd out the real questioning of how they are running the country. Meanwhile, the spoils are shared.”
In Durban, Zuma’s leadership of the party was never actually under threat. The ANC intellectuals who are really running South Africa – deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe and presidential planning minister Trevor Manuel – are grateful for his crowd-pulling qualities. These allow the party to keep recycling its liberation rhetoric while coasting along in a market-friendly dream that pleases investors but worries socially conscious South Africans.