President Jacob Zuma bestrode the stage at the opening of the African National Congress's (ANC) policy conference like a colossus.
Dressed in a garish, loud leather jacket in the colours of the governing party, he danced a little jig when he set foot on stage, greeting all and sundry with the now-traditional shoulder bump, embracing Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma and even reaching out to Derek Hanekom, the outspoken former minister of tourism who wants him out.
It's a tall ask when the divisions are so deep when so many cadres are captured and survival stakes so high. https://t.co/eJc4x1au44— HuffPost SouthAfrica (@HuffPostSA) June 30, 2017
Zuma's opening speech was all power and bluster, attacking the group of party veterans insisting that a consultative conference must be held, berating those (like Hanekom) who openly criticise the ANC, heaping praise on the branches and questioning democratic tenets like the rule of law.
That was to be expected though. The ground war in preparation for the elective conference in December is still being fought, with the battleground being the hundreds of branches dotted all over the country. The policy conference will be a window on these battles, and Zuma needs to be seen leading his charges.
"Comrades! We must only sing songs that unite us!" Baleka Mbete, the ANC's chairperson implored the delegates, while KwaZulu-Natal, North West, Free State, Mpumalanga and Limpopo sang a medley of Zuma-inspired songs. "We are not scared, we love Zuma', "Zuma! Lead us!" and "What has Zuma done?" all featured in the moments before the piper of Polokwane took to the podium.
Zuma's attacks are telling. It is common cause that the party is facing the biggest crisis of its existence. Its banning in the 1960s was an obvious low-point, but the party is starting to face up to the reality that it might just lose power in 2019. The ANC has been beset by political scandal upon scandal over the last 18 months – but it has been unable to do anything to address its problems in any meaningful way.
While Zuma was on stage, the latest in the #GuptaLeaks saga broke on News24, Daily Maverick and elsewhere, detailing how the taxpayer in effect helped pay for the lavish Gupta wedding at Sun City.
It was in this context that Zuma – with Hanekom not sitting more than five metres away from him – attacked cadres that have spoken out against state capture, patronage and abuses of power.
Remarkably, he said: "We also need to look at the issue of ill-discipline in various forms, including public utterances by ANC leaders attacking the movement instead of handling matters within the organisation and finding constructive solutions. Some leaders and members have become primary conveyors of negative information about their own movement."
This – people speaking out – has a negative impact on the economy.
Later, he went further, launching an extraordinary attack on veterans such as Frank Chikane, Barbara Masekela, Mavuso Msimang and Murphy Morobe, saying the group of 101 senior party members – who have called for Zuma to resign and have called for a consultative conference – calling them "so-called stalwarts".
"It was very funny, how they did things, they are very funny, almost like a real organisation. These comrades said they want a discussion at a (high) level," Zuma told delegates.
"They need serious discussion, they think the branches are just riff-raff, they think they can say the president must resign because he is not doing a good job, they think they have the power. They are not as strong as they think . . . we will never engage them in public."
Zuma – who has suffered many defeats in the country's courts – also threw shade at democracy, banging on about how much it irritates him that people and parties "run to court at the drop of a hat".
"Is this the type of democracy we had in mind when we designed it, mmm?" he asked and said the conference needs to discuss judicial interventions frustrating ANC policy.
"When the opposition disagrees with you they go to the court where there is no majority, no debate . . . we must discuss this very seriously, because, in other words, it is a counter to democracy . . . you can't do anything. People vote for you as the majority and once you get in there and try to implement policy, somebody takes you to court . . . it's unconstitutional . . . it undermines the simple logic of majority prevails."
Zuma spoke in third person, disconnected from the metastasizing cancer of state capture, patronage and corruption. He said the problem with "capture of the state" needs to be investigated and defined, so that everybody understands what it means. He also said a proper investigation needs to be done to see which corporates have tried to influence government and how long they have been at it.
Every single problem Zuma identified and pontificated about form upon high – the economy, party unity, corruption – could be traced back directly to him. There was almost something Hlaudi-esque about the oblivious and self-confident manner in which he instructed his colleagues to sort out their crap.
When the low-octane event concluded – the big Nasrec halls are ice-cold – Mbete stoically ordered delegates "to deepen unity" and only sing songs that "unite". A smiling Ramaphosa disappeared and Hanekom departed with clenched jowls.
Zuma is spoiling for a fight. The party is, after all, still his.