WHILE newspapers, radio bulletins and even the National Assembly have recently been seized with talk critical of the conduct of President Jacob Zuma, the African National Congress (ANC) itself seems to be discussing other matters.
This points to specific understandings regarding our politics and the inner workings of the ANC. It also suggests a big disconnect between what appears to be the public political discourse, via the media, and actual political conversations within the ruling party. In short, it seems that in South Africa, the views of the chattering classes are not the dominant ones.
In recent weeks, much of the public political focus has been on Zuma’s conduct. In particular, there has been public outrage at the continued silence from the government over how much state money is being spent on the president’s Nkandla residence.
At the same time, he and his attorney, Michael Hulley, have been publicly accused by many people of contempt of court over their behaviour in the “spy tapes” case. Hulley has refused to hand over the tapes to the Democratic Alliance, which interpreted an order by the Supreme Court of Appeal to mean that he should do so.
There have also been public suggestions that Zuma has refused to take any action on the economy following wildcat strikes in the mining and agricultural sectors.
However, within the ANC, the focus appears to be on internal issues ahead of its Mangaung conference. While in some other democracies such bad press for a leader up for election in less than a month’s time would be cause for concern, in Zuma’s case it doesn’t appear to matter.
This is because of the way the ANC is structured.
Although ANC branches around the country hold independent meetings, Zuma’s allies appear to have ensured that they will win enough nominations to carry the day. They have done this by co-opting provincial leadership structures, in some cases, and by on-the-ground political work.
In the ANC, political campaigns are run via structures and via person-to-person meetings where people try to convince each other through direct communication. This is in stark contrast to the situation in the US, where big rallies and television appearances sway voters and delegates.
This could also explain why Zuma is so often accused of being a poor public speaker when delivering his set-piece speeches in English. It is not a skill that he needs to master to remain leader of the party. If he had been born in the US, this might have been different.
The fact that this picture differs so starkly from the one presented in the media could also be a function of how much the South African media focus on the middle classes, who are not necessarily natural ANC members.
The media also tend to cover mostly the big urban markets of Gauteng and the Western Cape, which are not where the ANC’s members are found. As the party’s recent audits have shown, most of its members live in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape — areas traditionally underserved by commercial media. At the same time, these areas are poorer than their urban counterparts, and people living there may therefore find it harder to take part in media-driven discussions regarding Zuma.
All of this suggests that those who drive media conversations are likely to remain frustrated with Zuma for some time to come.
• Grootes is the host of the Midday Report on Talk Radio 702 and 567 Cape Talk.