On Wednesday I bumped into a veteran journalist just back from the ANC’s 55th national conference at Nasrec, Johannesburg.
He described his five days at the event as “hellish” — everything endlessly delayed, impenetrable ANC jargon in place of plain speech, zero attention to crucial policymaking and pervasive chaos and unruliness.
Happily, spared such a gruelling ordeal and far removed from the business of South Africa’s self-proclaimed national revolutionaries electing leaders, I rather thought that to be in the midst of the ANC conclave must, at one level, be quite splendid. The sort of state achieved when none of the norms and rules and privations inflicted on the general population apply to its ruling caste.
First, while the rest of South Africa suffered through another dark week of stage 6 load-shedding, in which 24-hours-day electricity is a fading memory of a better yesterday, the comrades at Nasrec were illuminated with uninterrupted power. That this was courtesy of a DA-led city administration is another of the unintended ironies of politics, South Africa-style.
Then there was the coincidence of the calendar. The ANC jamboree occurred at the commencement of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah, the festival of lights based on a miracle. Since South Africa has neither lights nor any miraculous interventions in sight to save its collapsing energy grid, it seems again that the wheel of local history is turned by the God of irony.
As for the election of the so-called top seven leaders who will helm the ANC until 2027, assuming the governing party survives contact with the electorate in two years. Not for our political lords and masters any need to offer a nod to “demographic representivity” or the transformational imperatives of racial inclusivity. While the racial bean counters in the state bureaucracy demand that every mid-sized firm and certainly every public institution — from the largest to the most obscure — provide proof of its ethnic diversity, the ANC happily exempts itself from this burden.
Among the seven top officeholders, there is not , a single white, Indian or coloured person. Stranger still is that this omission attracted not a word of criticism, least of all from the commentariat that piles on the far more multiracial DA, for example, for being a “white party”. Still, a solitary white woman was elected to one of the 80 places on the national executive committee (NEC), doing better than the Indian section of our population mosaic, which has zero representation.
Then there was the emphatic re-election of “the Lionel Messi of the ANC”, as his backer, deputy minister Zizi Kodwa, enthusiastically described Cyril Ramaphosa. Messi, whose magnificent lead-from-the-front style secured Argentina’s fantastic Fifa World Cup win on Sunday, has been crowned the GOAT — greatest of all time.
Perhaps the acronym applies to Ramaphosa: “Got out of another trap”. The best-laid plans of ex-spy boss Arthur Fraser, former president Jacob Zuma and the radical economic transformation faction went astray this time.
The president is credited with the authorship of a constitution based on transparency and accountability. But he is yet to offer in public a proper explanation for the lurid and apparently rule-bending activities around the Phala Phala episode. We remain in the dark.
Just the state in which the hundreds of media representatives at Nasrec were landed when, despite ANC promises to the contrary, Ramaphosa failed to grant them a single interview about his new term. Meantime, the suffering public remains unilluminated and uninformed by a president who offers not a word on the energy crisis and what he is doing to get the lights back on.
However, Ramaphosa was again clear on his desire to end corruption and curb gender-based violence. As Eliza Doolittle once sang, “Words, words I am sick of words”.
Whatever his ideas or intentions, the comrades in their collective wisdom had other ideas. The election of the NEC proved a triumphant comeback for convicts, Zondo suspects, serial ministerial miscreants and an eminence convicted of criminal assault against three women.
Ramaphosa, whose backers strain every sinew to explain that he is hemmed in by a fractious and warring party, could say he is not personally responsible for the decisions of his party collective.
But he is entirely and personally responsible for the composition of his cabinet and administration. If he has the remotest intention of translating his lofty words into, just for once, a spasm of action, his looming cabinet reshuffle will be the test.
He undertook to translate the recommendations of the Zondo commission, barely mentioned at Nasrec, into action. Let’s see how he deals with the six (and counting) ministers and deputy ministers against whom justice Raymond Zondo made adverse findings and worse. Ridding the body politic of these corrupt and compromised ulcers will be a clear signal that an emboldened president is at last ready to match deed to word.
Keeping them in place will be like the 16th-century Antinomian heretics. “To the pure all things are pure,” as Geoffrey Wheatcroft explained this quaint sect and its doctrine of convenience. “If you are of the elect, the saved, you could do no wrong; you could merrily eat, drink, fornicate (as they duly did) in the certainty of salvation.”
Sounds a little like the 21st-century ANC. Happy holidays.
Tony Leon, a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications. @TonyLeonSA