When President Jacob Zuma finished delivering his last January 8 statement on Sunday, he acknowledged the crowd, turned around and received congratulations from Cyril Ramaphosa, his deputy, and Gwede Mantashe, the African National Congress' (ANC) secretary-general.
The first person he engaged with after returning to his seat from the podium, however, was State Security Minister David Mahlobo. After Ramaphosa and Mantashe shook Zuma's hand, Mahlobo moved in and had a brief conversation with the ANC leader. Zuma quizzed him about something, shook his head and Mahlobo retreated.
Mahlobo was quite the man-about-town during the rain-soaked event at Soweto's Orlando Stadium to celebrate the founding of the ANC 105 years ago. The minister -– who blocked cellphone signals in Parliament two years ago to protect his boss being embarrassed –- was all over the place: hugging somebody here, cracking a joke there, fist-bumping someone else at the DJ box (yes, there was a DJ on stage).
He will be quite a significant player over the next 11 months while Ramaphosa and Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma slug it out to succeed Zuma. Security and intelligence services will be in the thick of it while camps, factions and branches position themselves, bribe each other and flat out intimidate before around 4 500 ANC members vote for a new leadership in December. Intelligence will be the name of the game and even though the State Security Agency has no business involving themselves in succession politics, spies will tap phones and intercept communication between everybody involved. Just like crime intelligence and the erstwhile National Intelligence Agency did during the Zuma-Thabo Mbeki matchup in 2007.
And Mahlobo will be the spymaster.
'UNITY AND INTEGRITY'
The ANC went to great pains to massage the assembled media in the southern stand about the central theme of the NEC's statement (the January 8 message is a collective NEC one, not the president's political overview): unity. Mantashe, along with Zweli Mkhize (treasurer-general) and Lindiwe Zulu (senior NEC member) did the rounds in die media area emphasising the focus on unity, denouncing factionalism and berating the ANC's women's league for going public about their support for Dlamini-Zuma. Zuma's speech, indeed, was built around the theme.
"Divisive tendencies such as factionalism, gatekeeping and manipulation of internal processes exist at all levels of the ANC, the leagues, the alliance and the mass democratic movement. These tendencies inhibit our ability to give decisive leadership to society," he said.
"The people have told us that we are too busy fighting each other and we do not pay sufficient attention to their needs. Our own research and interactions with members of the ANC demonstrate clearly that the people abhor the apparent preoccupation with personal gain."
The ANC acknowledged the damage corruption, cronyism and factionalism have wrought on the governing colossus –- the poor local government election results were also cited in Zuma's speech. Mantashe and Mkhize also did not shy away from this in their interactions with the media beforehand and in the buildup last week. Mantashe said as much on every stage he took: corruption is rife in the party, from top to bottom, and will destroy it if left unchecked.
Some lines in the statement must have grated as Zuma delivered them: "The only noble fight we must engage in is a fight to serve the people and not ourselves ... leaders who are in positions for nefarious reasons contribute to our decline ... we accept we have made mistakes, we shall correct them ... cadres' morality does not allow for personal ambition or factional conspiracies ..."
The NEC statement has established the framework and set the tone for how the party's leadership would like the contest between Ramaphosa, Dlamini-Zuma and all-comers to play out over the next 11 months: debate should take place at branch level, centred around the values the party wants to see embodied in its leader, without manipulation, bribing or factionalism.
REALITY VERSUS WISHFUL THINKING
As far as politics is concerned (we haven't even started debating the policy issues the NEC, via Zuma, highlighted), the statement was a call for ANC members to return to the party's founding vision of humility and people-centred service, with the 100th birthday of Oliver Tambo as the crutch.
"We will root out corruption, factionalism, buying of members and gatekeeping. ANC members must be living examples of the values of service, selflessness, integrity and discipline. Members must be vigilant in protecting the internal democratic practices and traditions of our Movement. The ANC continues to act against all forms of ill-discipline and we will not hesitate to use the full force of our existing procedures to combat gatekeeping, corruption and abuse of organisational processes," Zuma said.
The reality of course is much different. The person reading the speech has been anything but selfless (Nkandla), or acting with integrity (state capture) or discipline (Nenegate).
Zuma won the destructive leadership contest with Mbeki by playing dirty. The only way to get to the top of the very greasy black, green and yellow leadership pole is to ensure the support of enough branches come December, be certain the gatekeepers that certify branches let your guys through and hope the other guy has more skeletons in his closet than you do.
And that's where Mahlobo, who on Sunday waltzed from NEC member to NEC member exchanging laughs and shoulder bumps, comes in. He knows it all.