Ferial Haffajee

Jacob Zuma is going to win Mangaung

2012-12-17 18:20

Ferial Haffajee

Bloemfontein - On Sunday, I was late and bedraggled getting to the ANC conference, dragging my suit-case and looking every bit the flustered female. The plenary sessions, where all the action is, 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 stepped platforms, chandeliers and big screen TV screens 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 suit-case, escorted me in and put me in the middle of the Kwa-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 triumph 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 conference at Polokwane in 2007 where they, like Zuma, felt under siege.  The split was about six men out of every ten delegates;  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 role-modeled their image on various 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 two fingers were raised in the symbol for a second term.

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. Most had phones, lap-tops and conference apparel from ANC green fans, to dashikis featuring Zuma's image and 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 in the state. The ANC, under Zuma, has significantly boosted public sector jobs and there is lots more to come as the public works programme grows and the infrastructure building plans start.

If it happens and is executed well, the infrastructure plans will weather-proof the 2014 election for the governing party.

Zuma is not the world's best speaker, so even here in his most loyal seats, people nodded off as he picked his way through a technocrat's political report.  It was not a populist report but they dutifully clapped at his promise of  jobs and more free 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 meta-narrative we in the media and political analyst classes speak - of decline, corruption, 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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