11/12/2017 05:55 SAST | Updated 11/12/2017 13:36 SAST

The Polokwane Decade Is Over: 'Comrades, Comrades: Sit Down!'

It has been 10 years since President Jacob Zuma was elected ANC leader at a wet, humid and muddy elective conference in Limpopo.

President Jacob Zuma sings his trademark song "Umshini Wam" after his closing address to the ANC's 52nd national conference at Polokwane in December 2007.


The Polokwane decade is over.

The ANC, a vastly different party than the one that went to its 52nd national conference in December 2007, will this week prepare for a leadership contest every bit as divisive and acrimonious as the one before Polokwane, where President Jacob Zuma was elected party leader.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa's campaigners will ensure that they have been in contact with every single one of the voting delegates that will be mandated to cast their ballot in next Sunday's leadership election. His rival, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, will on her part attempt to make sure that she secures the support of delegates of the two largest ANC provinces: KwaZulu-Natal and Mpumalanga. Meanwhile, allegations of irregularities, vote-buying and intimidation will remain rife as the party's bureaucracy, led by secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, will try to make sure the integrity of the conference and its proceedings remain credible.

In 2007, Dlamini-Zuma was minister of foreign affairs and a candidate for secretary-general on then-president Thabo Mbeki's slate. Ramaphosa was out of politics and a full-time businessman, although he did attend the conference.

Felix Dlangamandla
Jacob Zuma and the top six elected at Polokwane on 18 December 2007: Thandi Modise, Gwede Mantashe, Baleka Mbethe, Jacob Zuma, Kgalema Motlanthe and Mathews Phosa.

The Nasrec conference, which will officially be opened on Saturday with a political report to be delivered by Zuma, marks the end of 10 years during which the party has been under direct control and manipulation by Zuma.

In 2007, the ANC had electoral support of 69.69%. At the last election, the party lost three more metropolitan municipalities and its popular support collapsed to 54%.

In 2007, the country's GDP was headed for growth of 5% plus per annum. It won't reach 1% this year.

In 2007, the alliance was united and in lockstep behind the governing party. This year, the SACP contested its first election alone while Cosatu is a shadow of its former self.

Had we known certain things we know now, we would have acted differently.Blade Nzimande, general secretary of the SACP and former minister of higher education.

Zwelinzima Vavi, one of Zuma's chief organisers in 2007 and his most vocal supporter, has since repeatedly apologised for helping bring Zuma to power. "I apologised to the country for that mistake, for getting it so wrong. We were angry, and found anyone willing to challenge him [Mbeki] and raised them up," Vavi said last year.

Johnny Onverwacht
Mathews Phosa, elected alongside Jacob Zuma in 2007, singing and dancing with Zuma supporters at Polokwane. Today he is an ardent opponent of his erstwhile comrade.

Blade Nzimande, another one of the chief architects of Zuma's victory a decade ago, has since also recanted, saying: "Had we known certain things we know now, we would have acted differently. Had we known that our revolution and our struggle were going to be handed over to an immigrant Indian family going by the name of Gupta, we would have behaved differently. We would not have thought that Zuma was the right person to lead the ANC and to lead the alliance or the country, for that matter."

A series of "Siyanqoba" ("victory") rallies were held across the country in honour of Zuma and surrogates like Mo Shaik were giving interviews outlining what a Zuma leadership's priorities would be.

And Julius Malema, who in in 2008 told a rally of the ANC Youth League he and his cohorts were "prepared to die for Zuma... we are prepared to take up arms and kill for Zuma", has left the party and formed his own organisation. The Nasrec conference, he told the BBC recently, "will serve as a burial for the ANC."

The marquee tent that served as the plenary hall during the ANC's national conference at Polokwane in 2007. This image was taken moments before the results of the leadership contest was announced.

But in the week before Polokwane, exactly a decade ago, this wasn't the case. On 10 December 2007, Zwelinzima Vavi spoke at an event commemorating International Human Rights Day the University of the Witwatersrand. There is a massive propaganda campaign underway that seeks to undermine Jacob Zuma as a devil with a long tail, Vavi told his audience. "When the provinces announced their nominations for ANC president, South Africans couldn't believe it. After seven years of demonising him, people can't seem to understand why we see ourselves in him."

Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who is on the verge of becoming the party's leader, was minister of foreign affairs during Polokwane in 2007 and candidate for secretary general on the Thabo Mbeki slate.

A series of "Siyanqoba" ("victory") rallies were held across the country in honour of Zuma and surrogates such as Mo Shaik were giving interviews outlining what a Zuma leadership's priorities would be. Zuma himself visited the U.K. and the U.S. to calm investors, before he was joined at a rally in the Eastern Cape where he addressed a rally with Vavi, Fikile Mbalula (then president of the ANCYL) and Bathabile Dlamini (then secretary-general of the ANC Women's League).

Five of the ANC's nine provinces nominated Zuma on the back of branch mandates in the weeks ahead of Polokwane. But Mbeki's campaign steadfastly refused to heed the warning signs, rebuffing attempts at an eleventh hour compromise that would see him stepping aside in favour of another candidate to challenge Zuma. "We're ready for Polokwane. Don't you worry. Just see what's going to happen. We have the numbers," a member of the Mbeki Cabinet told this reporter a week before the conference.

Bloomberg via Getty Images
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa at the ANC's Polokwane conference. He was out of politics and a fulltime businessman then.

The conference was held on the ground of the University of Limpopo's Mankweng campus, outside of town. A massive marquee tent was erected on the sports fields while the university's lecture halls were used as plenary venues for the different commissions. Unlike at the ANC policy conference this year, where the fourth estate was interned behind high fences and behind closed gates, journalists were allowed to walk freely among delegates, hung around at commission halls and mingled with the smokers during breaks. It became clear that Mbeki was in trouble.

This was confirmed in the opening session when Mosioua Lekota, Mbeki's minister of defence and ANC chairperson, was shouted down and booed in full view of the media when he tried to report on the credentials process and other administrative issues.

Mosioua Lekota, then the ANC's chairperson, struggles to contain the jeering and booing on the opening day of the ANC's national conference at Polokwane in 2007.

Zuma's delegates wanted a manual voting process, not an electronic one, believing that it was open to manipulation. Mbeki and Zuma, sitting next to each other on stage, made uncomfortable small talk and sometimes laughed as Lekota tried to restore order. But hundreds of delegates made the now famous "substitute" signal with their hands, indicating that the time for change had come, while others held aloft a City Press section with an image of Zuma underneath the banner headline: "What the Zumafesto holds."

Comrades, comrades! Can the comrades at the front please sit down so the comrades at the back can see?Dren Nupen, the electoral officer who read out the results, to singing and dancing delegates.

On Monday, 17 December 2007, delegates started voting in cool, damp conditions, the result of intermittent showers that made the university campus a muddy mess. Television trucks got stuck in mud, delegates slipped and fell when they tried to navigate the steep embankments leading to the marquee tent and tempers were fraying.

ALEXANDER JOE via Getty Images
Tensions were high as the conference started on 16 December 2007. As president and deputy president Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma -- arch enemies -- had to sit next to each other on stage.

ALEXANDER JOE via Getty Images
The marquee tent where plenary meetings were held at Polokwane was filled with Zuma supporting delegates holding up City Press of Sunday, 17 December 2007.

Trevor Manuel, then minister of finance and a major target of the Zuma campaign in the build-up to Polokwane, even accosted photographer Felix Dlangamandla with his Nedbank Golf Challenge umbrella when he tried to take a picture of Manuel on the way to a polling booth. During the afternoon, the divisions became even more stark when a pro-Mbeki rally, led by Mluleki George and Saki Macozoma, was held on a sports field behind the marquee tent. Pro-Mbeki praise songs rung out across the grounds: "Thabo, Thabo Mbeki . . ."

18 December 2007. South Africa. Limpopo. Polokwane. Minister of Finance, Trevor Manuel attacking Beeld photographer, Felix Dlangamandla after voting for a new presidential party leader at the 52nd ANC National Congress.

The announcement, when it came, was sudden. The media, dispersed across the campus between the cramped and ill-equipped media centre, lecture halls and cafeterias, were ushered into the stuffy and hot marquee tent on Tuesday evening, 18 December 2007, and confronted by hundreds of delegates standing on their chairs, on tables and dancing in the aisles, singing Zuma's trademark "Umshini Wam". Most were wearing their cream-coloured conference shirts and caps. The outgoing NEC had vacated the stage and was sitting on the left-hand side of the hall.

"Comrades, comrades! Can the comrades at the front please sit down so the comrades at the back can see?" Dren Nupen, the petite electoral officer of the Elexions Agency, the organisation that oversaw the election, said from stage.

She was struggling to make herself heard amid the singing, dancing and ululating. Mbeki, wearing a tan jacket and navy golf shirt with the buttons done up, was sitting among his kitchen cabinet, those that told him what he wanted to hear: Essop Pahad, the minister in the presidency and his consigliere, his brother Aziz, deputy minister of foreign affairs, Mbhazima Shilowa, the Gauteng premier and Lekota.

It was a political earthquake. In that moment, sitting next to a smiling and clapping Lekota (who was to leave the ANC in less than a year) and in front of an angry Shilowa (who followed Lekota), Mbeki grew old.

Then Nupen, with party veteran Bertha Gxolwa by her side, took the microphone at the podium and read from a note: "The number of votes received... by comrade Jacob Zuma... two thousand three..." The rest of her words were drowned out as the hall erupted in song and dance. They knew the math and it was clear their man had won. Zuma secured 2,329 votes and Mbeki 1,505.

ALEXANDER JOE via Getty Images
Then President Thabo Mbeki congratulates Jacob Zuma on the evening of 18 December 2007 after Zuma beat Mbeki in the race for the ANC's leadership.

It was a political earthquake. In that moment, sitting next to a smiling and clapping Lekota (who was to leave the ANC in less than a year) and in front of an angry Shilowa (who followed Lekota), Mbeki grew old. His face suddenly became more creased and his trademark goatee greyer. Zuma's election, which he warned his comrades against, came to pass. He managed a thumbs-up to the media, sitting in front of the stage, and went to give his successor an awkward hug. He left the stage as the rest of the results for the top six were read out. The Zuma slate won out by roughly the same margin every time: 60% to 40%.

Polokwane was an abrasive political event for the ANC. It signalled the start of the party's decline and entrenched divisions which had become apparent in the first decade of democracy. It led to the disintegration of the historic tripartite alliance and gave Zuma the opportunity to mould party and state in his image.

Polokwane has done much damage to party and state. It remains to be seen whether Nasrec will signal a change of course.