On the eve of the ANC's 54th National Conference, in which it will elect new leaders and more clearly define the contours of its policy and future politics, HuffPost SA's Editor-at-Large Ferial Haffajee and Editor-in-Chief Pieter Du Toit discuss the party's post-Polokwane trajectory under the leadership of Jacob Zuma and the road ahead for the movement.
Pieter Du Toit (PDT): Ferial, it's been ten years since Polokwane. A lot of things have happened. If you think back to 2007, we had the charges dropped against the president dropped in 2009, the FIFA World Cup in 2010, we've had two national elections, two local government elections... a lot of water has flown under the bridge.
What's been the standout theme for you in the last 10 years ever since we left Polokwane?
Ferial Haffajee (FH): I don't mean to be a naysayer, but it's been a difficult 10 years for the ANC and country because during this period our president has taken us through six or seven scandals which have hurt governance, slowed down the economy. They've meant for me as a South African that we're not where we could have been.
So for me it's very much a lost decade. A sad decade. Despite the wonders of things like the World Cup.
PDT: We're coming to the end of JZ's term as ANC leader. We've spoken about the impact this decade has had on you as a South African. If you look at the impact on the economy, on social cohesion (which in our country is still a major talking point), the impact on the ANC itself... how would you judge his legacy based on these three metrics?
FH: At Polokwane, there was happiness when he won. People felt we'd be able to let our hair down, that for the ANC it would mean the emergence of a festival of ideas unlike where people had been shut down by President Thabo Mbeki, who liked to run things tight and small with intellectuals. Suddenly there'd be a flowering of opinions; competing ideas would get to the top to determine how to take our country forward. Almost none of that has happened.
The ANC has ended up, for me, even smaller than it was at that point. None of the promises of the Polokwane team came to fruition. In fact, I would say all of that team have either left the government, left the party, or been silenced and marginalised. Or, like Zwelenzima Vavi, Blade Nzimande and Julius Malema, have become active opponents of Jacob Zuma.
PDT: You refer to the positive spirit [at the time], and I agree with you. Also in 2009, we know people said [Zuma's] got this cloud of corruption hanging over him, but suddenly the ANC became more of an open organisation. There was debate and dialogue, so many people said, "Give him a chance".
With the advantage of retrospect, why did he want to become president?
FH: It's pretty clear to me now that while the people around him were passing us books talking about modernist government and delivery to the people, [suggesting] that it would shape this African modern democracy that's greater at development... almost none of that has happened. He has, for me, been a president who was in it for personal aggrandisement.
His friendship with the Guptas came to the fore almost immediately after he became president, and from then it's been a single-narrative story. Bringing his family in to run huge businesses, making a personal fortune and using the state as much as he could to build up his personal power and personal economy.
PDT: Listening to you now and seeing what's happened since then, it doesn't look like he was ever in it to strengthen the ANC or to build it and ensure those policies would be implemented?
FH: I suppose that's the benefit of very near hindsight. In the first years he did return a lot of power -- he shifted the axis away from the Union Buildings back to Luthuli House. The Monday meeting at Luthuli House became like an occasion of state. The streets would be closed off, plenty of cops. It felt like that's where power went to, and I think for the first five to six years at least he served the ANC in that way. He returned it right to the centre of government, he made this very much a party-led state, and for some years (I think he's stopped now) Gwede Mantashe felt himself to be the 'prime minister' of South Africa.
PDT: You say at least for the first couple of years he shifted the ANC back into the centre. Do you think or would you agree that after that he made Jacob Zuma the centre rather than the ANC?
FH: I don't mean to be glib, but the centre did turn (as we now see) to Saxonwold, to the Gupta compound where the president regularly visited. We understand now how that family of patrons of the president -- and I'm still not sure who is the puppet and the puppeteer in that relationship -- shaped all the biggest deals.
The cabinet was shaped there. Policy decisions were taken there. People were offered jobs there. So you saw this move from Union Buildings to Luthuli House and then the Gupta compound.
PDT: The ANC's conference is not only about individuals and leadership, but about policy as well, although policy will be very much secondary. But Pravin Gordhan on 702 last night said the ANC is facing dismal prospects going into the 2019 general election. We've had four elections, including two local government elections, since JZ came to power. In 2004, the last election under Thabo Mbeki, the ANC garnered a majority of 69.69 per cent which was almost four per cent north of two-thirds. There has been a steady decline.
We know it's difficult to compare general and local government elections, but last year they got popular support of 54 percent. How worried should the ANC be?
FH: Pretty worried. Yesterday, I interviewed Joel Netshitenze -- an ANC NEC member, and I think a wise soul in the ANC -- and he told me the latest figures he has seen put the ANC at about 51 percent or 52 percent right now in approval ratings. The other phrase he told me is that the faction that may win this weekend may lose the 2019 election for the ANC. That's almost become a negotiating slogan as the party battles with how it's going to deal with what I think is a very critical conference this weekend where the certainties are not there at all as they were in Polokwane.
I think at this point at the Polokwane meeting at the University of Limpopo we were pretty clear who was going to be made King. But now, I couldn't say.
PDT: It is indeed very difficult to identify a clear winner at this stage. People always ask us who is going to win, but it's almost impossible to say, isn't it?
FH: There are people who maintain certainties in CR all along. There are analysts like Ralph Mathekga who have maintained certainty that this is Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's moment. But I think the consensus in the political reporting community is that this is an incredibly close race, and that while Ramaphosa may be winning by nomination, the big branches are Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma's strongholds. So when the final tallies are made on Sunday, I think the outcome is going to be a close one.
PDT: By Sunday we will know. It's quite interesting to me that this announcement [of the new president] will be happening quickly, almost 48 hours into conference. What will be the signposts you'll be looking at on Saturday and Sunday, given the constraints we'll be working under, but what will you be looking at to give you an indication of who might come out on top? At the policy conference, it was the debates around WMC and land restitution etc. What will be the proxy debates you'll be looking at closely?
FH: I think the resonance of the ideas of radical economic transformation because that has been the mantra of Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, very loudly and very clearly in the final weeks of her campaign. The loudness of the excoriation or criticism of state capture, by contrast, will tell you that the Ramaphosa group is in the lead, because I think that's a very popular concern within the ANC. So those are the two proxy sounds I'll be watching for.
The whole idea of credentialing and how much fighting there is around that, tell you people who know how things are looking are feeding that through provincial leaders. So the volume of their noise will tell you how contested the race is.
PDT: But it's not clear-cut.
FH: Indeed, not at all.