PRESIDENT Jacob Zuma’s political address on Sunday to open the African National Congress’s Mangaung elective conference was an opportunity to start the process of persuasion — to convince delegates to adopt the plans that could form the centrepiece of his second term.
While Mr Zuma spent much time on internal ANC matters, he also used the opportunity to discuss the future of South Africa through economic growth. In essence, he put his full political weight behind the National Development Plan (NDP).
Until now, Mr Zuma has tended to avoid discussing economic matters. When he has made announcements regarding the economy, he has usually had Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan with him, and directed questions to him. Sunday’s speech, one of the president’s first forays into debates around economic policy, appeared to mark a real break with that practice.
Mr Zuma told delegates that the formation of the plan itself was an "important achievement of the country" as people must know "where the country is going". He also said that the ANC must hold the plan "with both hands", and that commissions must discuss it fully.
He even went further, suggesting that there was "nothing that must go in any other direction" and that "this is conference — we must look at what is our plan about our plan".
With these categorical statements, Mr Zuma gave delegates their marching orders: that they must adopt the NDP as the only way to create an economy that will create both jobs and wealth.
This is a big fillip for Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. Two years ago, there was some public discussion about whether Mr Manuel was relatively politically powerful in government while serving in this position. Mr Zuma’s endorsement indicates that Mr Manuel has got everything he could have asked for regarding the NDP.
The other person politically assisted by Mr Zuma’s comments is Cyril Ramaphosa. While Mr Manuel is the political head of the National Planning Commission, Mr Ramaphosa is its deputy chairman. As Mr Zuma appears likely to have Mr Ramaphosa elected as his deputy in the ANC, this speech gives Mr Ramaphosa a political nudge. However, within the public imagination, the NPC is very much Mr Manuel’s baby.
Up to now, Mr Manuel has battled to gain much traction with the ANC’s allies, the South African Communist Party (SACP) and Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu). When he presented the plan at Cosatu’s congress earlier this year, several delegates chanted that he was a member of the "bourgeois". In alliance terminology, that constitutes an insult. The SACP has also been lukewarm, partly because it would prefer a plan that gives a bigger role to the state within the economy.
However, Mr Zuma’s critics on the left, particularly Cosatu, have also been calling on him to produce a "Lula moment", a reference to the second term of former Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who appeared to make much headway creating jobs. Perhaps Mr Zuma’s response has been that this is his "Lula moment" — using the NDP as the road map to fixing the economy.
But he may also have a slightly more mundane motive. He may feel political pressure to draw up a plan that shows he is in charge of the economy. There is a dearth of long-term plans on this issue at the moment, and the NDP is available. He may be implementing it just because it’s there.
While ANC delegates appear to have their instructions, there will still be much debate around the NDP — and the real debates may only emerge when the government starts to implement it.
• Grootes is an Eyewitness News reporter