When the ANC toppled its longest serving president in Polokwane in December 2007 at its 52nd National Conference, the internal ‘coup’ was both celebrated and denounced in equal measure. The images of an internal party revolt, which manifested in open jeering, singing and toy-toying - directed at the then ANC leadership - shook the entire nation. Jacob Zuma was elected party president, and a new National Executive Committee (NEC) (which eventually recalled the sitting president Thabo Mbeki the following year) was voted in.
To many ANC loyalists, it signaled the beginning of the end of the ANC that they knew and loved. For them, its carefully cultivated post-liberation identity, which emphasized its moral authority, professionalism and dignity, was now giving way to populism and crudity instead. To the supporters of the ‘coup’ a new, left-leaning leadership that would faithfully represent the burning needs of ‘the people’ was set to emerge, and Jacob Zuma was the ideal leader. He was consensus driven and representative of the everyday common man. He was not like the erstwhile ‘stuck up’ intelligentsia that had previously held the reins of the ANC.
Polokwane set in motion an irreversible change, which has ultimately led to the conditions that we find ourselves in today as a country. At the time, I was moved to write an article, which was entitled “Zuma’s precarious balancing act” by the Weekend Argus. In it, I warned against the dangers of mobilising the mob as a force in South African politics, because its dangers had the potential to quickly outweigh its expediency and short-term benefits. Perhaps it was the unbridled arrogance and peculiar over-sensitivity to criticism of the new ANC NEC that allowed it to overlook the dangers of the path they had chosen to tread. Perhaps it was short-termism or short-sightedness. Whatever the case, the new ANC NEC failed to grasp the relevance of what had transpired at Polokwane, and what it had unleashed in our political sphere.
The generational gap that had grown between older anti-apartheid era ANC members, and its newer, younger, more outspoken youth base; had reached a critical point. The new ANC NEC had mobilised this frustrated, impatient constituency as a vehicle for its own convenience, but failed to address the core issues that the youth were concerned with. Julius Malema, then leader of the ANC youth league, proclaimed his support for Jacob Zuma with the words that he was “prepared to kill for Jacob Zuma”.
The middle classes – and especially whites who have never been able to shake the fear of black uprising – drew a collective breath. The “kill” rhetoric had been invoked again. The revolutionary “kill the boer!” rhetoric had already created consternation and a reaction from various elements of civil society. Now, the youth league (and the leader of COSATU; Zwelinzima Vavi) had invoked violent imagery in their defence of Jacob Zuma. The message was ‘hands off our president, or else!’
When pushed to clarify exactly what the ‘or else’ part of their message meant in real terms they both retreated into semantics, equating their ‘willingness to die’ for Jacob Zuma with their ‘willingness to kill’ for him. Notwithstanding that this made no sense at all – that a willingness to die for beliefs did not equate to killing for them – it was swallowed up and readily digested by a public who just wanted things to return to normal, and for all this talk to go away.
This absurd reasoning has since characterised much of the ANC NEC’s stance on every issue that has presented a challenge to them. For a period of time, the ANC youth league went along with these performances, acquiring an autocratic aura where scathing proclamations dominated their communications, instead of well-reasoned arguments. No distinction was made between evidence and anecdote, or between theory and practise, and a politics of irony and whitewashing quickly entrenched itself. The ANC had become an impenetrable fortress, “a revolutionary house”, carefully guarded by a paranoid NEC, SACP, COSATU and Youth League. However, internally it was a house divided, and it never quite recovered from the ruptures that Polokwane brought with it.
Ultimately the cracks began to show. Julius Malema and Zwelinzima Vavi found themselves increasingly side-lined and outmanoeuvred (and even in conflict with each other). The unholy trinity that the ANC prides itself on has now all but disintegrated. Now only a farcical enactment of unity remains, propped up by empty rhetoric and tired, outdated, self-referencing clichés. But the lesson that Polokwane brought to a younger generation of marginalised, frustrated cadres was not forgotten.
Whereas there were only 13 service delivery protests in 2004, by 2012 there were well over 400, averaging around 100 per year leading up to the present***. While people may vote for the ANC, they have learnt that the only way they can get the ANC to act on its electoral promises is through open confrontation, and even violence. This, simply put, is clear evidence that our democracy is failing the very people that it was intended to represent.
“You have to fight for what you stand for” is Julius Malema’s clear message to the large, emerging youth bulge demographic. The EFF is not another COPE. It is not a DA. It is the first truly representative black opposition movement in parliament, and it has clearly demonstrated that it intends to achieve its vision through open confrontation and direct pressure, not negotiation and compromise. It will go the extra mile to bring about the changes it seeks, and won’t take no for an answer. It is very consistent with its origins. The lessons that Polokwane taught the next generation, is that change can be effected through open confrontation, intimidation, provocation and unrest.
The next generation has a few more lessons to teach the self-satisfied ex-heroes of the struggle who - despite their best efforts - cannot remain in power forever. The challenges will intensify, and we will reach new breaking points. The writing is on the wall; a new force has emerged and it will seek out and exploit every opportunity that it can to topple the ANC leadership that it believes has betrayed them, and the leader and leadership they helped put in power.
The only long term survival strategy that the ANC can realistically adopt is to draw the EFF back into its fold. In order to do that, a repeat of Polokwane is required. But it will have to take the form of many small Polokwanes such as what we recently witnessed in parliament. They will snap at the heels of the president until he slips and falls. Then they will go for the jugular, and the very man they swore to “kill” for will likely become their most celebrated victim, even more than Thabo Mbeki, who now cuts a very respectable figure by comparison to the man who replaced him.
The chant, “pay back the money!” has already rooted itself firmly in the collective psyche. It will be followed by other chants, and in the same way as “Umshini-wam” was invoked as a rallying cry to defend the president, these new chants will increasingly draw attention to the hollow spin doctoring that our politics is now infected by. As Julius Malema put it in an interview with e-tv, “It is the beginning of many, many actions to be taken against President Zuma, so that he is held accountable”. Ironically, Polokwane means “place of safety”. After December 2007, no place is safe anymore in South Africa, not even parliament, and we had all better get used to it.
***Assessments of service delivery protests vary between sources and different criteria are used to classify them, so the figures accounting for service delivery protests in South Africa are to be regarded as rough approximations of a general trend i.e. the figures for different years are not directly comparable. The figures cited in this article are taken from an Institute for Security Studies media briefing entitled "Community Protests 2004-2013: Some Research Findings" released on the 12th of February 2013 by the Social Change Research Unit, Authors Prof Peter Alexander, Dr Carin Runciman and Mr Trevor Ngwane (see https://www.issafrica.org/ and search for report). Note that the other often used data set is called Municipal IQ (see reference 3 below).
Some additional sources are listed here for the reader: