Lions, Princes, Bosses

R.W. Johnson reports from Durban on the ANC’s first national conference

A year ago you could probably have got odds of 100-1 against the proposition that the man chosen to open the ANC’s first national conference back in South Africa would be Jacob Zuma, the frequently feared chief of intelligence of the ANC’s guerrilla arm, Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK). But supreme among Mr Zuma’s qualities is the fact that he is one of the rare Zulus in the ANC’s leadership, a status which quickly earned him promotion to head of the ANC’s Southern Natal region, which includes Durban. From this position he earned a reputation as a charming and moderate diplomat in the tricky negotiations with Buthelezi’s Inkatha movement. Welcoming delegates to the ANC’s Durban conference, Mr Zuma caused minor gasps by talking of how Shaka Zulu, virtually Inkatha’s patron saint, had had ‘his own ideas of how to build a nation’ (essentially, conquest, mass murder and forced assimilation). He also reminded delegates that ‘everyone has wished this conference well; no one who has spoken of it has spoken against it’ – a scarcely veiled reference to Buthelezi and a hint that it would be as well to avoid furious denunciations of the chief in his own backyard.

This sort of moderation had not worked wholly to Zuma’s advantage in the feverish pre-conference manoeuvring over elections to the new National Executive Committee, and when Buthelezi publicly opined that Zuma would be a good choice for the post of ANC Deputy President vacated by Mandela on his assumption of the Presidency, the grinding of teeth within the ANC became almost audible. Initially, the No 2 job had seemed a clear choice between the movement’s two young lions, Thabo Mbeki and Chris Hani. Such a choice would, however, have been profoundly divisive, for although both men are members of the Communist Party (SACP) – as, indeed, is Zuma, for MK is a wholly SACP outfit – Mbeki is viewed as a moderate and Hani, the boss of MK, as a fire-eating radical. In addition, Mbeki is known to have an icy relationship with Winnie Mandela – she reportedly struck him in one contretemps – while Hani is her constant consort and even has a bedroom in the Mandela house. Accordingly, both men agreed to stand down – until Zuma’s name was mentioned as an alternative. Hani could hardly stand for the sight of another MK man, younger than himself, being promoted over his head and indicated that if Zuma was nominated, his own hat was back in the ring. Simultaneously a whispering campaign began against Zuma for being ‘soft on Buthelezi’, and it was hastily announced that the 79-year-old Walter Sisulu would stand for Deputy President to avoid all such difficulties.

Rumour persisted of a plan to ambush Hani: Sisulu would back out at the last minute saying he wanted time to be with his grandchildren and calling for a unanimous vote for Mbeki. Such rumours owed much to the frantic desire for reassurance felt in the boardrooms of corporate Johannesburg. Corporate lobbyists were hard at work amongst the presumed new men of power and talked earnestly about what would be best for ‘Jacob’ (Zuma), how ‘Cyril’ (Ramaphosa) was distressingly keen to keep his trade union and civic association jobs while taking over as ANC Secretary-General and, above all, how ‘if we can just get Thabo in, we’re set for the next twenty years.’ (I heard of one business supremo who, in the midst of just such a lobbying meeting, realised, too late, that he’d ‘bought the wrong man’.) The notion that choosing one personality rather than another can save the country from the ill effects of African nationalism is, of course, simple-minded. The fact that all the ‘smart money’ is on Mbeki is actually the best possible reason for betting on Hani.

The most active pre-conference skirmishers were all on the left. The hardly well-kept secret leaked out that Peter Mokaba, the fiery head of the youth section, had had a career as a police informer. Mokaba has become so prominent that it would be embarrassing for the ANC leadership to admit to this, so we suddenly found him cropping up at Mandela’s side to welcome Oliver Tambo at Jan Smuts Airport – a sure sign in the new palace politics that Mokaba is in favour. The veteran Communist and organiser of the underground ‘Vula’ plot, Ronnie Kasrils, ran for office by repeatedly surfacing in press interviews as a sort of high-profile Scarlet Pimpernel. Ronnie – he’s been a friend of mine for thirty years – is a man of great courage and incorrigible good humour. I derived great pleasure from seeing him back in Durban, a free man again.

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