The elective national conference of the African National Congress (ANC) is still three years away but, if the deliberations at the Gauteng provincial conference of the ruling party are anything to go by, the first salvos in the political and leadership battles have already been fired.
To put matters in context, we must remember that, towards the end of 2013, the leadership of the ANC argued that former President Thabo Mbeki should be the face of the ANC election campaign in Gauteng, given the fact that the pre-election polls the ANC had conducted in the province seemed to suggest that the party would suffer electoral losses in Gauteng. According to the polls, the ANC would lose support in Gauteng because of the growing antipathy towards the President on the part of the middle class. There was also the suggestion that such an erosion in support would culminate in the ANC losing the province within two elections.
The reality, however, is that not having Jacob Zuma as the face of the ANC election campaign was never an option. Politically, it would have amounted to a vote of no confidence against the President. Such a decision would have divided the party at a time when electoral support is partly contingent on perceptions of high levels of party unity and cohesion. Also, given the fact that voters, partly because of our electoral system, tend to distinguish between the party and the leader, why was it necessary to focus this kind of negative attention on Zuma? In other words, voters vote for the party, not the leader.
But Zuma’s image crisis was not the only challenge the ANC faced in the election. The election came at a time when there were very high levels of anger about e-tolling. Gauteng is also the province with the highest number of ‘service delivery protests’ in the country. Effectively, the ANC in Gauteng was faced with the twin challenge of a middle class that has become alienated from the party and poor communities that are victims of the underperformance of both the State and the economy. The provincial conference of the ANC in Gauteng was correct in its assessment that e-tolls were partly responsible for the decline in electoral support from 64.04% in 2009 to 53.59% in 2014. But the conference did not venture into an assessment of whether the image crisis of the President was partly responsible for the sharp decline in electoral support.
This notwithstanding, it is not uninteresting that the President, who was expected to address the Gauteng conference, either decided not to come, was advised against speaking at the conference or, because of his tight schedule, was unable to grace the Gauteng conference with his presence. The reality, however, is that not too many people expected the President to attend the Gauteng conference. More important is the possibility that not too many believe he could not come. His no-show, for whatever reason, creates the impression that he is not the president of ANC members who do not like him. In other words, Zuma has rendered himself vulnerable to the perception that he will go only to those provinces that are loyal to him. Unfortunately for him, his absence has fuelled even further the perception that the ANC in Gauteng is at war with the centre. If this perception is grounded in truth, upon it will rest another perception – the perception that the President is either unwilling or unable to rise above his personal feelings about political opponents inside and outside the ANC. If such a perception already exists, one hopes that it is illusory in content because the alternative has implications not only for the ANC but also for his capacity to lead South Africa out of its economic quagmire.
That is why the resolutions that were adopted by the Gauteng conference on e-tolling and radical transformation of the economy are so critical. A President who is a fair-weather leader will certainly not be equal to the task. What is required is pragmatic and wise leadership, given the fact that, in the economy, deficits of trust between the ANC and the private sector seem to be giving way to a crisis of confidence. Billions upon billions that should be invested in our economy to create opportunities for employment creation are sitting on the balance sheets of South African corporates.
The problem is that, when deficits in trust coincide with a lack of confidence in the ability of government to provide technical and thought leadership to other economic actors and society as a whole, this deficit in confidence may itself mutate into a lack of political confidence across the board. The time has come for decisive leadership, otherwise South Africa will enter a crisis period that will render the different actors susceptible to measures that are not in the national interest.