While del­e­gates are all smiles and do their best to put up a united front, the pres­i­dent voices his dis­dain for the 101 vet­er­ans

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In 2017, the cen­te­nary year of late ANC leader and anti-apartheid stal­wart Oliver Regi­nald Tambo’s birth, the gov­ern­ing party is do­ing its best to put on a show of a united front. How­ever, on Fri­day – day one of its Na­tional Pol­icy Con­fer­ence in Nas­rec, south­ern Jo­han­nes­burg – the scene that plays out on stage il­lus­trates a house on fire, with no one mak­ing any moves to put it out.

“Wen­zeni uZuma, wen­zeni uZuma khawuphen­d­ule (Tell us what Zuma did),” sings a size­able del­e­ga­tion en­ter­ing the ple­nary arena. The group com­prises del­e­gates from KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. It is sup­posed to be a show of force, but it doesn’t gain much trac­tion.

Mo­ments later, Pres­i­dent Ja­cob Zuma ar­rives and walks on to the stage. Win­nie Madik­izela-Man­dela grabs his hand in one of hers and a hand of Deputy Pres­i­dent Cyril Ramaphosa in the other. She joins the hands of the two lead­ers with a smile and the three share a chuckle.

Ramaphosa, a pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, shares an animated story with Zuma and the two laugh louder. Hav­ing played the unity game, they take their seats at the “head ta­ble”.

En­ter ANC chief whip Jack­son Mthembu, who heads up the “other” ANC in Par­lia­ment. He ap­proaches the seated pres­i­dent for his part in the act. With a toothy grin and his phone in hand, it ap­pears as if he is record­ing the mo­ment. Zuma catches on and jok­ingly points a fin­ger at him, sug­gest­ing this thought: “I know what you’re up to.”

A short while be­fore the for­mal pro­ceed­ings be­gin, ANC na­tional chair­per­son Baleka Mbete takes to the podium and starts call­ing for si­lence. To her left, Ramaphosa, along with sec­re­tary-gen­eral Gwede Man­tashe and trea­surer-gen­eral Zweli Mkhize, who make up one fac­tion in the top six, are hav­ing a mini cau­cus.

Seem­ingly ir­ri­tated by the gath­er­ing hap­pen­ing next to him, Zuma holds up his hand as if call­ing for them to wrap it up. Mkhize starts walk­ing off, but Man­tashe holds on to his hand, in­di­cat­ing that he is not yet done.

Fi­nally, the pro­gramme be­gins with a lengthy in­ter­faith prayer ses­sion. Dur­ing the last prayer, Mbete can­not con­tain her­self and tears stream down her face. She ap­pears moved by the pas­tor’s pas­sion­ate call for a uni­fied ANC, which will de­liver poli­cies that will change the lives of the poor af­ter this con­fer­ence.

Else­where, at the other end of the ta­ble, deputy sec­re­tary-gen­eral Jessie Duarte has found some­thing highly amus­ing.

Zuma be­gins with a song, Oliver Tambo awu­lale ngox­olo. Del­e­gates rise and sing along. No­table among them is for­mer min­is­ter of tourism Derek Hanekom, who called for a mo­tion of no con­fi­dence in Zuma at an ANC na­tional ex­ec­u­tive com­mit­tee meet­ing in Novem­ber, and was axed from his post as part of Zuma’s March 31 Cabi­net reshuf­fle. He stands with his arms crossed about his chest and his body up­right. He doesn’t look too im­pressed with the whole set-up.

But oth­ers sing fer­vently and, soon af­ter, the pres­i­dent be­gins what starts off as a mea­sured and rec­on­cil­ia­tory ad­dress.

“We will dis­cuss the health of the or­gan­i­sa­tion not just for the sake of it, but be­cause our coun­try needs a united, strong, fo­cused and co­he­sive ANC. The ANC be­longs to the peo­ple of South Africa and we must fix it so that it can con­tinue im­prov­ing the lives of our peo­ple,” he reads from his pre­pared speech.

Af­ter about 40 min­utes, Zuma – as is his wont – aban­dons the speech and starts ad­dress­ing the del­e­ga­tion from the heart, in his home lan­guage of isiZulu.

“Amandla ase­masebeni but ani­waseben­zisi (the power is in the branches, but you don’t use your power). Even when you elect a pres­i­dent, some peo­ple who have no right come to tell you that this pres­i­dent must go. They don’t con­sult you. Niy­athula nje (you just keep quiet),” he says, as some be­gin to cheer and laugh.

Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, an­other pres­i­den­tial hope­ful, is par­tic­u­larly tick­led by the com­ment.

“Ang­i­nazi ukuthi nadalwa kan­jani. Peo­ple take your right, but you just keep quiet be­cause you are the only ones who can hire and fire, not so? Se­ni­lale thina ngoba sesi­hamba kan­cane, si­jik­isamakhanda kan­cane. Se­sithatha iyikhundla zenu may­babo,” he says, tak­ing shots at the party’s stal­warts and vet­er­ans, who have boy­cotted the event. The few vet­er­ans sit­ting in the front row, some of them sleep­ing, are kept com­pany by min­ing mogul Pa­trice Mot­sepe.

Zuma re­turns to the scripted ad­dress, but clearly feels that he has not suf­fi­ciently dealt with the el­ders. He starts read­ing a part­ing quote from Oliver Tambo but stops short.

“Let me, be­fore I say the fi­nal words from OR Tambo, say some­thing, be­cause these branches haven’t met for a long time.” He pro­ceeds to out­line the es­tab­lish­ment of the 101 vet­er­ans’ ini­tia­tive and then dis­cred­its their cause, say­ing an in­ves­ti­ga­tion showed that not ev­ery­one whose names ap­peared on the petition ask­ing him to step down had con­sented.

He says the el­ders did not deem it nec­es­sary to en­gage the ANC lead­er­ship, and di­rects his fi­nal salvo at the group’s de­ci­sion to boy­cott the pol­icy con­fer­ence de­spite the “com­pro­mise” reached to set aside two days to have a consultative con­fer­ence about the party’s in­tegrity.

“They want their own. It is very funny; they are like a real or­gan­i­sa­tion. I am sure they must have an of­fice op­er­at­ing. I don’t know; I am just guess­ing be­cause they are very or­gan­ised … They told the sec­re­tarygen­eral’s of­fice that they didn’t think the qual­ity of the dis­cus­sions here would be at a high level and that they needed to have se­ri­ous dis­cus­sions.”

At this point, Lindiwe Sisulu, a staunch ad­vo­cate of the vet­er­ans, has her fists clenched as if gear­ing up for a fight. Shortly after­wards, ANC vet­eran An­drew Mlan­geni, who has at­tended some of the en­gage­ments be­tween the ANC lead­ers and the vet­er­ans, is helped off the stage by Tony Yen­geni.

“Quite a num­ber of them, when they talk to the me­dia, say there is no lead­er­ship here [and that] we are the ad­min­is­tra­tors, they are the lead­ers. But that’s fine,” says Zuma as he wraps up his as­sault and re­turns to quot­ing from Tambo.

TALK TO US What do you make of the pres­i­dent’s open­ing speech on Fri­day?

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