Mangaung: A view from the benches

2012-12-18 10:55

Sitting in the plenary among the delegates, it’s easy to feel the love for our president

On Sunday, I was late and bedraggled getting to the ANC conference.

I dragged my suitcase and looked every bit the flustered female.

The plenary sessions, where all the action takes place, are held in a huge and beautiful tent bedecked in flowing green, black and gold.

It’s hot as hell in there, but it is lovely, with steeped platforms, chandeliers and big-screen TVs so you can see what’s happening on stage no matter where you sit.

A kind young marshall took pity on me and grabbed my suitcase, escorted me in and placed me in the middle of the KwaZulu-Natal delegation to find a perch.

It is the delegation with the highest number of delegates at the conference – Jacob Zuma’s army if you like.

It was a good vantage point from which to take a look at the president from an angle we don’t inspect often enough.

Yet it offered every explanation for why Zuma will win this week and why the ANC will keep winning elections.

The delegation was not militant, as I had expected from experience reporting the party’s last conference in 2007 where they, like Zuma, felt under siege.

The delegate gender split was about 60% male, largely black, with a sprinkle of highly vocal Indian loyalists.

I spotted a single white woman wearing ANC colours.

The women in the delegation looked like they modelled themselves on some of the Zuma wives and seemed as smitten with the president as the first ladies.

Nobody sang “Awulethu ‘Mshiniwami”, the militant presidential anthem, but as Zuma entered the tent and started speaking, the aisles rocked in peace-time song and the two-finger signal was shown, calling for Zuma’s second term.

http://youtu.be/DxAKztDFZIk

The delegates looked prosperous in the way of a new middle class – not glossy like an elite, but like a generation with a bit more than their parents had.

Most had phones, laptops and conference apparel – from ANC fans and dashikis featuring Zuma’s image, to the official conference golf shirts.

These are people with ANC in the marrow, and who see their rising prosperity as a function of their government and president.

I guess that most of the people here who are employed work for the state.

The ANC under Zuma has significantly boosted public sector jobs, and there is a lot more to come as the expanded public works programme grows and the massive infrastructure building plans gain momentum.

If executed well, the infrastructure plans will weatherproof the ANC’s 2014 national election campaign.

Zuma is not the world’s best speaker, so even here in his most loyal seats, people dozed off as he picked his way through a technocratic report.

It was not a populist report, but they dutifully clapped at his promise of jobs and freer education.

While we in the chattering classes may pick apart the speech for “meaning”, for the bulk of the delegates here, the importance lies not in what Zuma says, but what he is: one of them, a man made good, the expression of their potential.

A love-brand, in marketing speak.

So, the metanarrative we in the media and political-analyst classes trot out – of decline, corruption and failure – gets no traction in these seats, possibly because the experience of the president and the party is different depending on your life circumstance and political history.

Here, there is a different consensus: the ANC has its problems, but it’s not doing badly at all.

And yes, the president may be building himself a sprawling estate, but what’s the problem with that?

It may be yet another symbol of realisable aspiration, just as Zuma himself is.

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