In singing the historic hymn, umfundisi was reminding fellow members of their genealogy. He was saying they’re not imigqakwe - without parentage - but have a long and illustrious ancestry whom they dare not disgrace. Delegates sang with gusto, seemingly responding to the spiritual forces that umfundisi had invoked.
Following a distinguished line of clergy, who’ve served in the chaplaincy of the liberation movement and in a similar fashion to his predecessors, Mehane pleaded for divine intervention in the proceedings that were to follow over the next six days. As those gathered bowed their heads receiving the prayer, including communists, the reverend said, among other things: "Unity, oh Lord, is not a commodity. As your son Jesus said, I am one with my father. Let the delegates of this conference be one with each other. Let them be one with you let them be mindful of the foundations of this movement.
"Let us not go astray from the foundation that has been left by our forebears.
"Yenza ukuba singawuyilizeli umlimandlela esawunikwa ngobawo nomama bethu"
The choice of words in the prayer was deliberate. It was the priest’s way of pleading with the warring factions in the organisation to find each other. It didn’t take long, however, to realise that not all those gathered at Nasrec were real believers. Once they opened their eyes, it was back to realpolitik.
Sentimentality made way for cold calculation. What followed over the six days was not an attempt to recapture what once was, but a battle between contending factions: one keen to regenerate the organisation and other to preserve the status quo under the guise of pseudo radicalism.
The first indication that the conference would be a bruising feud came from the first address by the president of the organisation, Jacob Zuma.
While purporting to call for unity , Zuma was scathing oft his critics and the public institutions that sought to rein him in. For urging him to step down, Zuma mocked the veterans.
Zuma did not want delegates to heed the advice of those who had surrendered their lives to the cause of freedom, but to shun them as charlatans. The gloves were off and so was the pretence at seeking unity within the ranks.
The judiciary did not escape the president’s fury either. Judges have been the last line of defence against Zuma’s abuse of power. Rather than acquiesce in the same manner Parliament had done, the Constitutional Court said Zuma violated his oath of office. Zuma sees this as judicial overreach rather than a legitimate exercise to check the excesses of the executive.
He denounced the judicial decisions over the executive as anti-democratic, instigated by the opposition. And so Zuma urged the delegates look into curbing what he considers judicial intrusion.
In other words, what most consider misconduct, Zuma thinks is proper. This explains why his supporters resisted the tabling of Gwede Mantashe’s Diagnostic Report in the first session on the opening day. The report was not only approved by the party’s national executive committee (NEC), but also laid out the problems to which the Conference had set out the opening two days to discuss.
It was the most bizarre thing. So serious are the problems in the organisation that the party’s Strategy and Tactics Document, for the first time since its introduction in 1969, even dedicated a substantial part of its content to organisational challenges.
Yet Zuma’s supporters did not want a dedicated focus on the state of the organisation. How does one discuss the precarious state of the party without identifying the problems that afflict it?
The intention was to escape liability. Mantashe’s Diagnostic Report puts the blame for the party’s decline squarely on the moral lapses of leadership. Zuma did not want the spotlight shone on him. Doing so illuminates why he must resign, a call he has consistently resisted. Reason prevailed nonetheless.
Zuma’s supporters could not mount a convincing argument against discussing organisational problems, which they all agreed were the root cause of the party’s decline. This showed that, contrary to what Zuma thought, his provincial backers do not have control over the majority of branch delegates. That’s where Zuma figured he was most secured.
Branch delegates are prone to manipulation by money, while veterans are independent of this manipulative influence.
That is why he resisted having his fate decided at a consultative conference steered largely by the veterans, preferring branch delegates instead.
He got it wrong. Actually, Zuma’s failure to prevent the tabling of the Diagnostic Report reveals a bigger weakness than a lack of majority support in the branches. His platform simply lacks a superior argument.
Consider their proposal on land and their characterisation of South Africa’s economic problem. They want land expropriated without compensation. That measure has potential satisfaction for vengeance against dispossession, but its results are unappealing. Zimbabwe shows that path is ruinous.
Radicalism does not gel with self-enrichment either. Zuma and his associates are beneficiaries of the Gupta largesse pilfered from the state coffers. The public is inundated every day with details of how state money has been siphoned.
In one instance, R30 million of state money was embezzled to pay for a Gupta wedding. Parading as a radical, while feeding off state resources and being a proxy for expatriate capital, is to expose oneself as fake.
Zuma and his backers simply lack credibility. That’s why their characterisation of South Africa’s economic problem as “white monopoly capital” didn’t hold. It was correctly seen as a diversion from the existing problem of state capture. Conference rightfully resolved that the struggle is against monopoly capital, not whites.
Labelling whites a problem goes against ANC policy of non-racialism and social cohesion. This is not a denial of white hegemony. Striving for social cohesion doesn’t imply acceptance of white dominance that persists. The conference reiterated the ANCs commitment to racial redress.
Nor did Conference denounce private capital as the enemy. The ANC could never have settled on that position, for it resolved, decades ago, to embrace a mixed economy. Black business, for instance, is considered one of the primary beneficiaries of transformation. That is why the government is creating black industrialists.
That said, the ANC continues to regard monopoly as a problem. It leads to collusion, price inflation and bars new entrants to industry. This does not mean, however, that the organisation disapproves of conglomerates. Large-scale companies are needed because of their superior technology and abundant financial resources. They play a pioneering role. Where they resort to monopolistic practices, the Competition Commission is there to intervene.
What we are seeing in economic policy, is a reinstatement of the old, moderate ANC policies.
Targeting whites would have made it a chauvinist and populist nationalist movement. This is precisely what the organisation swore never to become, but remain a universalist, progressive movement.
Zuma’s forces had no rational grounds to stand on. Instead, they demanded that one of the rapporteurs, Joel Netshitenzhe, withdraw a proposal that had been reached after long deliberations. They could not win the argument, and thought they could intimidate Netshitenzhe into retracting.
He rightfully refused. That is why one sympathises with Derek Hanekom for saying they were talking nonsense.
Sanity won the day. ANC members demand integrity. Without integrity they realise they will lose power in 2019.
That is why combining the slates will not work. Having Cyril Ramaphosa as deputy president to Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma is a continuation of the status quo. It would give a veneer of legitimacy, the same that Ramaphosa has been doing to Zuma. Ramaphosa was forced on Zuma to give his presidency respectability. It degenerated nonetheless.
Durable unity is forged around principles, not a pretended co-operation. That is not a new start but concealment of a stalemate.
The ANC needs a complete break with the status quo, or it will sink. Salvation lies in renewal.
* Ndletyana is an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.