PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma opened the 53rd national conference of the African National Congress in Mangaung on Sunday, addressing more than 4,500 delegates from all over the country in a massive marquee erected on the campus of the University of the Free State.
When Mr Zuma took the stage, delegates whistled, clapped and sang, loosely translated, "Those who do not want Zuma must back off."
Mr Zuma — who ignored a section of delegates calling for a "change" in leadership — then launched into a charm offensive, leading delegates in a spirited song in praise of ailing former president Nelson Mandela.
He added: "December 16 is the day on which the ANC launched the people’s army, Umkhonto we Sizwe, in 1961. We salute all generations of MK, many of whom sacrificed their youth for the struggle for liberation."
Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe had accepted a nomination to challenge Mr Zuma for the ANC’s top post, but when Mr Zuma arrived at the marquee earlier, there were clear signals to his opponents that he enjoyed most delegates’ support. Those against Mr Zuma at times seemed muted while his supporters sang and danced.
Mr Zuma paused for a section of the delegates to clap and ululate after he recognised Mr Motlanthe at the start of his speech.
Looking back to the Polokwane conference in 2007, he said the mandate was to mobilise "the vast majority of our people to take part fully in the ANC centenary celebrations" — something that had now been achieved.
"These celebrations revealed to us that the ANC remains the only hope for the poor and marginalised," he said. "We saw those who were disillusioned becoming re-energised and reaffirming their support and pledging their participation in the ANC’s cause for fundamental social transformation."
Mr Zuma said the road to Polokwane in 2007 had been turbulent, and it had been necessary to heal the ANC after that conference. He then cut to the chase, outlining "alien practices" seeping into the party, such as factionalism and ill discipline. The processes running up to the elective conference had been fraught with allegations of manipulation and fraud.
"Our audit and verification of membership procedures should be improved so that only branches in good standing determine the policy and leadership direction of the organisation," he said.
Rumour-mongering, gossip, "negative lobbying for positions" and public spats were harming the party’s image, he said, as did violence, including political killings — the most recent was the secretary of the Dr Kenneth Kaunda region in the North West.
"The shocking occurrences where armed comrades disrupt meetings ... raise questions about what exactly could be so much at stake that people would go so far to get their own way in the organisation," Mr Zuma said.
Money was being used to buy members, "turning members of the ANC into commodities", he said, and members turning to the courts to resolve internal processes was also "totally unacceptable".
Such lapses in discipline required the organisation to prioritise political education, he said.
When Mr Zuma cautioned against members who bought votes ahead of the Mangaung conference, ANC treasurer-general Mathews Phosa and Mr Motlanthe were the only two national officials seen clapping. Mr Phosa has accepted nomination to become the ANC’s next deputy president — a position for which Mr Motlanthe is also standing.
Mr Zuma acknowledged the "relevant and crucial" role still played by the various ANC leagues and its alliance partners, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), but cautioned that the relationship between alliance members had to be handled with care, avoiding public spats and "shouting from podiums if one partner is unhappy with the other".
Cosatu general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi — who was in the past criticised by the ruling party for taking an "oppositionist stance" — has in recent months sharply and publicly criticised the ANC on a range of issues. Mr Vavi was not present at the national conference on Sunday, as his wife was unwell, but was likely to arrive on Monday.
"We bring various strengths into the relationship," Mr Zuma said. "The SACP brings specific ideological input as the vanguard of the working class ... Cosatu stands solely and squarely for the interests of the workers. It is not a political party, while the ANC stands for the interests of the entire nation irrespective of class or station in society. The relationship amongst components of the alliance needs to be handled with the greatest of care because if we don’t do so, we can polarise the alliance."
The president extended his condolences to the families of the 40 miners who died in strike-related violence at Lonmin’s Marikana platinum mine this year, adding: "At a political level, the Marikana tragedy exposed the organisational challenges we face both at the workplace and in the community."
He said "strong shop-floor organisation and strong ANC and SACP plus Sanco (the South African National Civic Organisation) in and around Marikana would have anticipated the challenges facing the workers and acted accordingly. We need to avoid the danger of distance between leaders and members, both at the workplace and in the communities."
The events at Marikana "served as a springboard for more wildcat strikes and protests, which were also marred by violence. These labour strikes were illegal, violent and appeared designed to undermine collective bargaining in general and the National Union of Mineworkers in particular".
The ANC was continuing discussions with mine bosses on the living conditions of miners, Mr Zuma said, adding: "At a governance level, we need to reflect on the implementation of the Mining Charter, as mining companies should meet their obligations regarding the social and labour plans."
He said the ANC had to maintain contact with the masses. "We should explain to people when services are coming to them, and if there is going to be a delay, they also need to be told. We should engage our people more, even on the question of unacceptable violence that accompanies some of the strikes and protests."
State and economy
Five priorities were adopted at Polokwane, Mr Zuma said — education, health, rural development and land reform, the fight against crime and creating decent work.
Since then, new government departments were created and others were "reshaped to enhance delivery". For example, the Department of Housing was changed to the Department of Human Settlements, a "paradigm shift towards transforming our cities and towns", and basic and higher education were split "as we realised that basic education had been not receiving as much attention as it should have previously".
The president said there was already evidence that these changes were bearing fruit, in terms of both the restructuring of departments and ministries and the monitoring of ministers’ performance, though there was still "much room for improvement".
Regarding the "ground-breaking" National Development Plan (NDP) produced by the National Planning Commission, Mr Zuma said it was a "major achievement" that covered a number of sectors. "We now have a plan that has been welcomed by all sectors of society and not just government and the ruling party alone."
He stressed the need for the conference to discuss the plan thoroughly with a view to adopting it, as "having a national strategic vision as a country helps us stay on track" and "creates certainty about where we are going and how we intend to go there".
Addressing recent credit rating downgrades by agencies, Mr Zuma said: "We will not delve into the reasons for downgrading but we want to dismiss the perceptions that our country is falling apart because of the downgrades. We continue to do our development work, we continue to plan for a recovery."
He said the ANC would "continue to provide strong economic leadership and steer our economy boldly, and we do have a plan to grow the economy and create jobs ... Central to that plan is our overarching NDP."
Therefore, he added, the critical task for Mangaung was to take this forward with "single-minded determination" by creating a stronger sense of unity and purpose around the direction of economic change.
Mr Zuma reported expanded access to education and school feeding, with fewer children paying school fees, and said the government was investing more effort in improving basic education, especially via the Annual National Assessments programme, "government’s barometer of the performance of the education system".
The 2012 assessment results were "better than last year’s, except for the dismal Grade 9 maths results", Mr Zuma said, calling for better teacher training, no teacher absenteeism and no more failures to deliver textbooks.
Turning to crime, he said although there was a decrease in armed robberies, housebreakings and contact crimes, for example, the campaign against corruption continued.
"Our country is one of the most transparent societies when it comes to the fight against corruption," he said. "It is talked about often in the public domain as there is a unified effort by all in society to build a corruption-free South Africa."
He added: "One area of vulnerability in government is the tender system. Conference may wish to deliberate on tendering, which is often open to abuse currently."
In other brief comments, Mr Zuma condemned the poaching of South Africa’s rhinos and, turning to health, praised the pilot implementation of the National Health Insurance scheme and the rise in life expectancy as a result of better measures fighting HIV/AIDS.
On land reform, he said: "We are not likely to achieve the 2014 target due to a number of factors such as the fundamental policy design flaws inherent in the ‘willing buyer, willing seller’ paradigm. The ANC government has developed a green paper on land reform and proposals were made by the policy conference. This conference should produce a resolution that will take us forward in addressing the land question faster and within the ambit of the law."
Mr Zuma then declared the conference open, saying: "The future of our revolution and of our country is in our hands, and we must carry forward the work needed for the social and economic emancipation of our people. We need to prepare ourselves for this journey, starting today, towards socioeconomic freedom for all our people."