From ANC poster boy to firefighter

2011-05-07 19:25

A little over two years ago, Jacob Zuma, then still relatively new in his role as ANC president, was hammering his way across South Africa. The frontman of the ruling party’s December 2007 ­Polokwane revolution, Zuma was a man on fire.

He stormed town after town, ­village after village, by turn charming and hard-selling the punters in every corner of the country.

Zuma’s mission was, in political terms, a pretty simple one: get an electoral mandate from Joe Voter not only for the ANC’s policy sea change and its dramatic ousting of his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, but also a buy-in for the idea of a ­revitalised – almost reborn – and delivery driven ruling party.

And, of course, getting the ­electorate onside in backing his bid for the presidency.

Zuma was the poster boy for an ANC which had undergone some kind of quasi-religious transformation – a ruling party newly in touch with voter needs, 100% committed to hard work and with no room for dead wood or political cronies. In many ways and in many areas, Zuma was the ANC’s secret ­weapon.

The man from Nxamalala was part revolutionary and part messiah: not only the ultimate survivor and champion of the poor; but also the Prophet of Polokwane, the public face of new policies and a new philosophy in a party which had held power for 15 years.

But in politics, like in football, two years is a long time.

Less than 25 months later, ­Zuma’s role has changed immeasurably. The Prophet is now the firefighter, moving from province to province to try and douse flames both in communities and in the ANC itself, as the party moves into the final phase of its campaign for the May 18 poll.

In KwaZulu-Natal this week – and in Western Cape and other provinces during the early phases of the campaign – Zuma and other ANC heavyweights had little time to focus on the party’s manifesto and to sell its policies to the ­electorate. Instead, he has had to focus on the new threat of keeping disillusioned ANC voters onside; on heading off support for the “ANC independents’’ the party has created through manipulation of its list process; and on massive g­rumblings among party faithfuls over the failure of councillors to deliver on the Polokwane promises and the five-point plan.

At KwaMashu outside Durban, Sweetwaters in Pietermaritzburg and Ndaleni in Richmond – ­already contested areas where ANC members bounced from the list are standing as independents – much of Zuma’s message was ­focused on firefighting and on getting the ANC vote out on May 18.

There were whistle-stop visits to impoverished residents – living, as one KwaMashu B Section resident shouted, “like rats, 10 of us in a two-roomed house’’ – to ­assess their problems, ask for patience and promise intervention.

There was also the real sense of empathy which Zuma expressed, not only to the dirt-poor residents of Sina Road, but in his address at the mini-rally at the nearby ­KwaMashu Hostel stadium.

But there was also the almost-nervous appeal to stay on board, not to dump the ANC and resist the temptation to stay at home and boycott the polls.

“There is all this talk about not voting. I don’t understand it. If you don’t vote you will have missed the democratic boat and your opportunity to have a say in your future. You will be creating a situation where other people are taking decisions for you and you will have to live with it,” Zuma told the crowd of several thousand people who had packed into the hostel stadium.

At Sweetwaters, the message was both highly personal and even more direct.

“Let us not act like these individuals who are half-baked ANC, who, when told to step aside and give way to others, decide to go and shout from the mountain top.

“When I was making regular trips to court I did not threaten to leave the party. I remained a member. If you feel the party has wronged you, go to the appropriate structures and raise them. Never assume that you are bigger than this organisation,” he said.

Unlike 2009, Zuma has also been forced to turn his attention to the opposition parties, normally a task relegated to lower-level leaders and firebrands like Youth League president Julius Malema.

“There are lots of political parties wanting you to vote for them,’’ he told Ndaleni residents, “but the ANC is not a political party. It is the people’s movement which has fought for people’s rights from the time it was born. If you vote any other way you are wasting your vote.’’

Zuma also took a similar tack campaigning earlier in Western Cape, attacking the DA administration over its service delivery record in black areas, both in ­addresses to voters and in a ­televised interview.

Similarly the ANC campaign; a slick, sexy, groove machine in 2009 has become a grimmer beast, more focused on putting the boot into the other side than on punting its own successes.

This is an election about bread-and-butter issues – potholes, ­water, electricity and toilets – but it also has a deeper philosophical and political importance.

While 2009 was about the ANC seeking a mandate for a Zuma-led administration to take power and deliver on its promises, this poll is the first – and all important – electoral test of how that administration has exercised that power.

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