It is almost a year since President Jacob Zuma swept to the leadership of the African National Congress for the second time at its national elective conference at Mangaung. Zuma’s margin of victory cemented his hold on the oldest liberation movement on the continent and also concretised a new way of political organisation and patronage within the political party that had developed out of its Polokwane conference five years earlier. In the second part of this series first published in Rolling Stone magazine, Niren Tolsi emerges from the mushroom cloud that was Mangaung. The Con
“It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel fine.”
Neither the Irishman nor I was in death throes, floundering in a pool of vomit and blood after a relentless five days in Mangaung in December last year.
Having packed for the ANC’s 53rd national elective conference as if it were a rock festival, there was the comedown to deal with, naturally. The unopened box of government-issue condoms at the bottom of a laptop bag was a blue-and-yellow reminder of heady expectations and promises unfulfilled.
The Mayan apocalypse did not materialise in Mangaung as advertised, despite the attempts of a laager of Afrikaner right-wingers to blow up the high rollers from business and politics gathered for the conference’s Reconciliation Day start.
No massacre of the darkies-in-government on what used to be the Day of the Vow in commemoration of the Boers’ victory over King Dingaan’s Zulu impi on 16 December 1838 at the Battle of Blood River (or Die Slag van Bloedriver or iMpi Yase Ncome).
The centenarian ANC had not imploded, despite the dire warnings of those opposed to President Jacob Zuma serving a second term that this would signal the end of the party’s intellectualism and internal democracy.
With the spectre of an ailing, hospitalised Nelson Mandela hanging over South Africa, there had been no nation careering over the precipice into a Lord of the Flies meets The Silence of the Lambs nightmare with the bunkered-down rationing of tinned baked beans and human flesh.
At the arse end of five days of singing, dancing, shagging, drinking and deliberating by delegates, Zuma closed the conference in masterful form.
Earlier in the week, his slate had obliterated disparate oppositions including the flatulent Forces of Change brigade that appeared incapable of breaking any winds of change – perhaps because they were led by the likes of eternal ANC bridesmaid Tokyo Sexwale and erstwhile ANC Youth League president Julius Malema. The latter’s penchant for grandstanding and demagoguery apparently outstripped actual mobilisation at grassroots and branch level.
Malema had, anyway, been taken out by a series of well-timed leaks to the media; investigations into his allegedly dubious finances that had, timeously, started ending up in court and a political ostracisation had seen his clay feet replaced by cement ones before he was shoved into his personal Rubicon.
The sight of one-time Malema sidekick Pule Mabe joining the newly elected national executive committee on stage was a confirmation of the ANC’s Byzantine politics and the payback that came with moving the ANC’s Youth League into subservience.
The presidential contest between Zuma and his deputy Kgalema Motlanthe turned out to be less Muhammad Ali versus George Foreman in the Congo and closer to Ali versus Georgie Porgie Pudding and Pie in a bathtub of jelly – engaging only because of the absurd mismatch, fulfilling only for the sadistic gratification otherwise found in The 120 Days of Sodom.
Motlanthe, the Berthold Brecht-sprouting romantic, had attempted to appeal to the soul of the ANC by not lobbying, campaigning or promising positions and patronage in the build-up to the conference – anathema to how ANC structures now mobilise before elective conferences from branch level all the way up to national conferences.
Refusing inclusion on any of the factional slates being proposed, Motlanthe instead sought out the branch members’ independence of thought and political will.
He was crushed by 991 votes to Zuma’s 2 986.
Mangaung, it appeared, is where romance goes to die. Twitter’s spellcheck suggestion that Motlanthe be changed to “motley” was an apt summation of his attempt to challenge Zuma for the party’s presidency.
So Zuma was ebullient. Mangaung had confirmed his vice grip on the party and there was space to be magnanimous, time to remind its members and watching press corps how, and why exactly, he can be both authoritarian hard nut and the darling of the ANC’s flock and the broader lumpen.
Zuma understands ANC protocol more than anyone. He sings the songs of Zabalaza as if channeling the ghosts of Chris Hani, Albert Luthuli and Pixley ka Seme. Crouching low at the podium after his closing address, the president started with a buzzing hum that became throatier and throatier until breaking out into the first verse of a song that many (new) ANC members had not heard before: “Yinde lendela esiyihambayo! Kwasho Mandela kubalandeli bahke …!” (“It’s a long journey to freedom, Mandela said to his followers. I will see you on Freedom Day …!”)
It was classic Zuma: Ray Charles meeting Tom Jones to enrapture and underline his mastery of pop-(music)-ulism.
It was classic Motlanthe, too. While Zuma and his new top six jived on stage over the political corpses of former treasurer Matthews Phosa, Sexwale, Juju, and the rest of the Forces of Constipation sniggering, perhaps, at their “Valsalva manoeuvre” (the 17th century idea that a person straining at launching a lunch bar from their bowels could suffer the sort of air pressure that shuts down the heart), he walked away.
Ramrod straight, saddened, the realisation that the cadres he had warned in Polokwane were joining the ANC – much like Lenin had foreshadowed of revolutions almost a century ago – because of opportunism and careerism, had not contracted Brecht by osmosis seeping in. That if anything, the “alien tendencies” that the ANC consistently warns against yet appears ill equipped to respond to, were even further entrenched in the build-up to Mangaung.
Gwede Mantashe, who was returned to the position of ANC secretary-general on Zuma’s slate, had earlier celebrated the internal democratic process that is the blood that courses through an organisation that is 101 years old – the victory of the “Zumantashe” slate had been a victory for democracy, it was emphasised.
Slavoj Zizek, in his collection of essays In Defense of Lost Causes, notes, however, that “democracy – in the way this term is used today – concerns, above all, formal legalism: its minimal definition is unconditional adherence to a certain set of formal rules which guarantee that antagonisms are fully absorbed into the agonistic game. ‘Democracy’ means that, whatever electoral manipulation took place, every political agent will unconditionally respect the results.”
There is no evidence, or suggestion, that the ANC’s elections in Mangaung were fraudulent. In fact, the results and the margins of victory reaffirm the forecasts predicting a Zuma victory in a free and fair election.
Yet, peeling away the veneer of “democracy” like a plaster from a suppurating wound, one is left with the pus and ooze of banks of branch members whose membership is paid for by careerist colleagues who then own their allegiance, as Mantashe noted in his Organisational Report.
The practice of “gatekeeping” – of divergent views and leadership preferences being bounced out of ANC meetings and “deliberately excluded from processes” – Mantashe noted in his analysis of the previous five years, is on the upward trajectory and “is more glaring when we go to conferences”.
There is violence and murder, most scarily demonstrated in the two provinces Mantashe held up as a paragon of the ANC of the present and the future, KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga, both staunchly pro-Zuma going into Mangaung.
Reuters reported two months before Mangaung that in Zuma’s home province of KwaZulu-Natal an ANC investigation had confirmed that 38 party members had been killed in political violence since February 2011. Some had been inter-party, but the majority had been ANC comrades packing heat against ANC comrades as competition for patronage and positions intensified in the province.
An ANC leader who had contested an influential position in an important region of KwaZulu-Natal told Rolling Stone of the dirty tricks used to discredit his candidacy: “I carry a gun now, my brother, because I am scared for my life. I was followed around, my phone was tapped and they even convinced my wife to report to [the opposing faction and the state officials it had co-opted] on whom I was meeting, when and why. They had told her I was seeing many different girls,” said the staunch ANC member who declined to give his name, status within the party or region for fear of reprisals.
Antagonisms, as Zizek observed, are continuously absorbed and articulated within the formalised, festering wound of modern (intra-party) democracy.
But the most damning evidence of a party in crisis came from Mantashe himself in his Organisational Report.
He had noted that despite the party hitting more than 1.2-million members, the “real challenge is the inability of the structures to convert quantity into quality”. Many of these were “paper members”, he said.
Mantashe also said that “in the main, the most serious problem is the fact that in the majority of branches there is little or no political life. Branches get revived when we are heading for conferences and elections. Basically, our branches are driven by the need to either nominate delegates or candidates for local government elections. This is at the centre of a membership that is not politically conscious and therefore susceptible to manipulation … This has killed the culture of activism at branch level, making the ANC almost absent in communities.”
It’s a trenchant appraisal by Mantashe that, in his own words, suggests that self-interest and aggrandisement is at the core of the ANC and its impulses – including the election of its new leadership.
So the ANC is in its corpulent-Elvis-downing-burgers-and-barbiturates phase: about as new as Frantz Fanon’s forecast that the post-colony’s coppers would end up just like the Boers – tying people to the back of their vans and dragging them to death or massacring them en masse and leaving their families to wallow, in some cases, in unintelligible trauma exacerbated by inadequate social workers and an education system that steals the words to understand their pain.
There is an obvious triteness to the ANC’s – and South Africa’s – failure to realise the (still trumpeted) exceptionalism of that 1990 promise of a rearticulation of human rights and, most profoundly, democracy itself. Real politick is messy and dirty the world over, but more painful in a country around which that world had mobilised in the truest human spirit.
It’s even more disturbing when Western philias of snotty-nosed kids eating only plain, dry bread for their daily meal with hordes flies buzzing around are just too closely juxtaposed with the Caligula-esque decadence of Mangaung.
In a gated community in one of Mangaung’s richest suburbs, the Irishman and I were suffering a cranial fungal infection.
Zuma backers had gathered with international businessmen from China and Europe, Cabinet ministers and other high rollers to toast the Kanga-man’s victory with the usual libations older than the gaggle of girls gathered on the couches.
Mangaung legends had developed quickly. By the second day, word had spread of a white kombi reportedly ferrying nubiles to and from the guesthouses of the rich and famous holding the people’s will in trust for five-year terms.
The kombi was parked outside. The girls were parked inside. The Irishman was gagging for a spit roast to go with his mushroom omelets.
Good sense, and the knowledge that Zuma’s history as head of ANC intelligence and current control of government’s spoeks probably translated into surveillance of some sort, prevailed.
No one wants to be Juju-ed – especially if it entails grainy CCTV camera footage of one’s bouncing buttocks and high-class hookers yawning at the ceiling.
Among the sashaying strumpets and lascivious leers, talk was also turning to the “what now” for people like Motlanthe. Zuma, historically, has demonstrated intolerance to being challenged and ruthlessness in dealing with anyone who does.
Even before it was announced at the conference’s closing that Motlanthe was to head the ANC’s proposed political school, it was being confirmed by those who apparently have links to Zuma Inc.
But, as one businessman noted: “If Kgalema is in charge of the political school then, in 10 years’ time, the ANC will probably have the sort of cadre that will vote for him to be president.”
Mangaung was a victory for Zuma’s ANC: one where authoritarianism, paranoia, insularity, narrow and regressive hegemony, opaqueness and voracious self-interest prevails; an unashamed move to whisper Left, while walking even further Right.
The early signs appear to point to Cyril Ramaphosa’s installation to the deputy presidency of the party as being more about appeasing the chattering classes, business and the almost two million young first-time voters who will mark X’s for the first time in 2014 – an election the ANC is deeply troubled about.
There is also a growing perception that a progressive, intellectually vibrant movement is being further dumbed down with the likes of Cosatu general-secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, minister in the presidency Trevor Manuel, Motlanthe and South African Communist Party deputy-secretary-general Jeremy Cronin refusing nomination to the ANC’s national executive committee.
Manuel, at the time, told City Press newspaper that part of the reason for declining nomination was because in the political realm “logic does not always reign supreme”.
“We need to develop nuance,” Manuel said. “I was saying to somebody the other day that we make policy as if we are on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, where the loudest shouters get the biggest bids. It’s not a marketplace. Policymaking is more complex and nuanced.”
Manuel’s decision not to stand for the national executive committee appeared not to have bothered Zuma’s followers as he was never truly part of the 100% faction. But Zuma strongman and Free State chairperson premier Ace Magashule told Rolling Stone that the ANC elders had tried, behind the scenes, to convince Cronin – an articulate, decent man – to reverse his decision: to no avail.
Instead, the intellectual flag is being carried by the likes of Public Enterprises Minister Malusi Gigaba – who is an intellectual as much as thinners is acrylic paint – and SACP secretary-general Blade Nzimande, who does a sterling job with his Stalinist Chuckie impersonation.
The question every South African is asking is whether Zuma will translate his dominance within the ANC into tangible returns for the majority of the republic’s citizens who still live in abject poverty and are increasingly cowed into subservience by a state security apparatus that acts as if it is above the law.
The early signs in the president’s State of the Nation address suggests not. Criticised for lacking vision and not adding a substantive articulation of the National Development Plan, his was an inert speech for a country crying out for movement.
Zuma, as one former Constitutional Court judge told Rolling Stone, is unable to move on issues eviscerating the core of South Africa’s democracy – corruption, gender-based violence, a failing education system and authoritarian state-perpetrated violence, among others – because his presidency of both the ANC and the country is intertwined with their very manifestations.
Whether it is in his dealing strategically, rather than emphatically, with failing Cabinet members like Police Minister Nathi Mthetwa and Basic Education’s Angie Motshekga – who are untouchable because of their roles in ensuring Zuma’s supremacy with in the party – or in combating government corruption and overexpenditure in its dealings with tenderpreneurs (the latter linked to how money is released into the ANC’s own processes, which include the funding of support for positions).
“How can the president really clamp down on government corruption when he himself had those charges [of fraud and corruption related to his dealings with French arms manufacturers Thint and his legal adviser, the convicted fraudster Schabir Shaik] dropped so controversially before he became president himself?’ asked the judge.
The pro-Zuma camp appears to have started the pogrom against dissenters within the alliance. Politicians like Vavi, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the government’s deficiencies – and whose relationship with Zuma has broken down completely – appear the subject of attempts at smear campaigns.
The ANC has been unable to comprehend and respond to the contradictions becoming more apparent within itself. These are contradictions inherent in Zuma’s reinstallation in Mangaung and his continued hold on the party.
Its contradictions inveigle themselves into every part of this country. They were as apparent in the resolutions that came out of Mangaung as among the heaving, sweaty flesh gyrating to house music at Mahungra’s – a township car wash in Mangaung that doubles as a party spot that attracted thousands of people on an ordinary Tuesday night.
Township tsotsis were jiving next to delegates who were regaling the crowd with one of those spontaneous reactions to the party’s factionalism: a group move that has people chanting a crescendo-reaching “Chaaaaaaaaange” (with football substitution hand-signals) before a loud “Booom” and an accompanying flattening of arms outstretched to the sides – suggesting that the Forces of Constipation had fallen flat.
Despite the throbbing massive, manager KK Rampona was not happy: “We had our liquor license taken away a few weeks before the conference started – so we’re making nothing from the crowd here who have to bring their own booze,” he said.
According to Rampona, the car wash, which cleans more than 200 cars on a good day, including government vehicles, had “somehow become associated with the Forces of Change so people like [Free State provincial police minister Butana] Khompela were trying to stop us from cashing in on Mangaung because only those associated with the JZ faction must make money from the ANC”.
Rampona said he ran his business “as a business, not for politics – but this is how politics works”.
Politics works on contradictions – as humanity does. Yet, in a binary-obsessed world of good and evil, heaven and hell, the amorphous nature of contradictions is lost.
Now is a time when it is difficult not to entertain the idea of “hell” as contradiction.
For hell is contradictory in the extreme. It is the flourishing of government co-ops projects that are lifting the lives of many and the increasing emergence of co-operation between empty shelf-companies and government to lift the lives of a few.
For hell is both rancid and perfumed.
“Also in Hell,” wrote Brecht in Contemplating Hell, “I do not doubt it, there exist these opulent gardens/ With flowers as large as trees, wilting, of course,/ Very quickly, if they are not watered with very expensive water./ And fruit markets/
With great leaps of fruit, which nonetheless/ Possess neither scent nor taste. And endless trains of autos,/ Lighter than their own shadows, swifter than/ Foolish thoughts, shimmering vehicles, in which/ Rosy people, coming from nowhere, go nowhere./ And houses, designed for happiness, standing empty,/ Even when inhabited.”