LONG before Jacob Zuma delivered the opening lines of his speech to launch the 5th policy conference of the ANC, the signs of the agony enveloping Africa’s oldest liberation movement was there for all who still don’t know, to see.
And the picture that was painted was that of an organisation at odds with itself …
There was an intriguing mix of actions and gestures to consider.
Some top officials danced enthusiastically when delegates from the North West, Free State, the ANC Youth League, the Women’s League and the MK Veterans marched past the front of the stage, singing: “Lead us Zuma, Lead Us”.
But what then were observers to make of the scowling presence of Human Settlements Minister and NEC member Lindiwe Sisulu? With hands firmly clasped together, she watched with ill-disguised indifference as others danced or gave the uniquely South African “substitution” (seemingly aimed at Zuma) sign.
And then there was Mama Winnie Mandela.
Her response to the arrival of Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa was one of genuine pleasure. With two arms and hands interlinked around his neck, she engaged in animated conversation with him for more than three minutes.
Surely, based on this display of political affection, there can be little doubt over who she would choose to be the ANC’s next president.
Parliamentary Speaker Baleka Mbete, meanwhile, made two appeals to delegates to “sing songs that unite, rather than divide”. Seasoned political observers would no doubt have been wondering whether she would be more successful with these appeals than with her calls to order in Parliament.
Zuma was as relaxed as he always seems to be, except, perhaps, during the opening prayers, when he bowed his head and clasped his hands together in the style of old-style evangelists.
His speech was largely uncontroversial, and anyone suggesting it could have been prepared by one of Luthuli House’s communicators may well have been correct.
But a Zuma going off-script is another story. He can either be much more effective – or disastrously controversial. This time, he was disastrously controversial
Only he will know what possessed him to attack the ANC veterans and stalwarts. Was he trying to manufacture an outcry when he told his audience that the stalwarts believed they were more important than delegates?
If this was his intention, it didn’t work.
His attempt at taunting delegates into an outraged response was met largely with silence.
What he did succeed in doing was to prompt respected ANC elder and Rivonia trialist Andrew Mlangeni to leave.
Matters escalated from there.
Sisulu leapt into the fray on the side of the stalwarts. “In our policy documents we have always recognised the role of our veterans,” she said. “I did not think he would launch an attack like this on the veterans. He is bigger than that. I wasn’t happy – and I couldn’t hide it.”
Overall, a new mood has emerged in the ANC. Gone is the previous attitude, encapsulated by Zuma, in particular, that the “ANC will rule until Jesus comes”.