Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
Planning Minister Trevor Manuel. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

THE critics have spoken and the African National Congress (ANC) is on a slide, rudderless, drifting away from the people, and riven by factionalism. By the critics, I mean the party’s senior leaders, of course. In this winter of discontent, Helen Zille can’t get a word in edgeways.

The first frost arrived in June when Gill Marcus, a stalwart of the exile struggle who is now governor of the Reserve Bank, decided to speak her mind.

An article on the front page of this newspaper reported how Marcus called on the government to "act coherently and exhibit strong and focused leadership from the top".

By implication, the government is not acting coherently and is exhibiting weak and unfocused leadership "from the top". That is about as damning a criticism of President Jacob Zuma and his Cabinet as you could make without pulling the chestnut of corruption out of the ashes.

There was more — South Africa needed "decisive leadership that consistently demonstrates a co-ordinated plan of action". Again, by implication, Zuma is indecisive and inconsistently demonstrates an uncoordinated plan of inaction. There may be a double negative or two in there, but I think you get the point.

For Marcus to make these comments from the apolitical eyrie of the Reserve Bank tower means she must be frightfully concerned.

She talked of the country’s "deep-rooted structural problems", which included "weak competitiveness, a poor skills profile and an educational system that in parts is dysfunctional". The solutions lay, she said, "way beyond the scope of monetary policy". Within the scope of political leadership, then?

After Marcus’s frost came a blizzard from Trevor Manuel early this month.

The occasion was the delivery of the yearly Govan Mbeki Memorial Lecture at the Red Location Museum, in the township of New Brighton, Port Elizabeth. Outside, the air was crisp as the sun set in a magnificent blaze over the shacks, while inside a small crowd sat expectantly.

The smattering of townsfolk in their finery was outnumbered by the majority who wore woollen beanies, some rising high to conceal dreadlocks. The overall effect was more branch meeting than academic lecture. Manuel was ushered into the hall by the mayor of the Nelson Mandela Bay metro, Ben Fihla.

At 81, Fihla was installed earlier this year to try to bring an end to a severe factional battle within the metro, which has slid into a state of severe crisis as a factional battle has ripped it apart. He has so far failed.

Those who thought that Manuel’s lecture on the merits of "Oom Gov" would provide a moment of warm nostalgia were, however, to be sorely disappointed.

He started gently enough, paying tribute to the man who has iconic status in the Eastern Cape. However, he was building up to something. He wanted, he said, to "contextualise the lessons of Oom Gov’s life for us in the present and the future".

After the caveat "with great respect comrade mayor", Manuel began his assault on the ANC’s failure to connect with the people.

"If we — this generation gathered here this evening — are the rightful heirs to the spirit and traditions of those who have gone before we must engage in introspection about why our fortunes in running the Nelson Mandela Bay metro leave so much to be desired," he said.

Manuel wanted to know how the poor state of delivery in the Eastern Cape could be explained in terms of the constitution’s imperative to "improve the quality of life of all citizens".

There was some coughing and shuffling. "What is it that our people see when they refuse to voluntarily support us in their overwhelming numbers in elections?" More coughing and shuffling.

Manuel had laughed off a Democratic Alliance (DA) claim that it would win the Nelson Mandela Bay metro in the previous election. "Imagine my horror when I read the results and saw that they had indeed secured 26 of the 60 wards, a mere five wards short of a majority."

The ANC had attacked the DA in the Western Cape over its failure to deliver decent sanitation, but had condemned those in the ANC who had flung faeces at Premier Helen Zille in protest.

"But we later learned that those horrible tactics were, in fact, first used in iRhini … where protesters had thrown faeces in the foyer of the Grahamstown city hall as a statement of outrage at the failings of an ANC municipality."

There was more. "You can take it right through this province — or in fact any other province — and observe the amount of filth and low quality of services to the poor. I’ve driven through the province from the other side, through towns like Bizana and I am horrified because this is happening on our watch."

Why, he asked, was it that "teachers, who are members of allied trade unions and indeed of the ANC, show so little regard for the enormous tasks we face?"

Public healthcare was not spared. Manuel quoted Phyllis Ntantala, mother of fellow ANC stalwart Pallo Jordan, on her horrifying experience at Nelson Mandela Academic Hospital in Mthatha.

She had written: "I was admitted as an emergency case at the intensive care unit at Nelson Mandela hospital. There I was stripped and lay naked in bed under an obviously used sheet for two days until a member of my family managed to bring me some nightclothes.

"In all my 80-plus years, I have never felt as insulted as I did for those two days.

"Yet this is a modern, state-of-the-art facility, well designed with the latest equipment. Unfortunately, however, some of the equipment malfunctions. Toilet tanks, for example, do not fill up automatically and remain dry, with the result that waste is not flushed away. Nobody seems to know why this should be so or why the lights in the wards are dim or do not function at all."

Manuel was perplexed: "This is an 80-odd-year-old mother of the struggle writing of her experience. We must ask, in the spirit of our heroes whom we so cherish, is this the best we can offer?"

Manuel’s blizzard had barely lifted when Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe’s sleet cut through the air just last weekend.

Asked by the Financial Times about the prospect of the ANC’s portion of the vote declining below 60% next year, Motlanthe replied: "It worries me a great deal."

"It’s definitely not going to be an easy election … People assess a party not on the basis of its glorious history, but on the basis of what they experience."

Was the problem being solved? "The crisis must reach its apex first. I think it will be self-delusion to believe it’s something that can self-correct. It has to get worse first," Motlanthe said.

The ANC had changed since the days when it was led by Nelson Mandela — when "you still had a leadership which was not tainted by the trappings of power". Meaning the present leadership is tainted.

The culture of expelling dissidents from the party (Julius Malema) was "incomprehensible because it’s not political. I don’t think the motives are political. It’s more vested personal interests at play".

And so the winter of discontent rolls on.

Perhaps this is the light at the end of the tunnel. Perhaps it shows that the threat of political competition has finally become real enough to awaken some dread, even if it is only the dread that politicians feel when their grasp on power begins to slip.