Zuma is taking charge
IT WAS a highly confident President Jacob Zuma who stood in front of over 3000 delegates to open the ANC's national policy conference in Midrand yesterday morning.
For a politician whose preference for fence-sitting has become legendary over the years, his speech was refreshingly bold.
Not only did he set the tone for the policy deliberations that would be taking place at Gallagher Estate for the next three days, Zuma used the platform to defend some of the party's potentially divisive decisions and stated clearly what he expected out of the meeting.
It must have been with the ANC Youth League's unhappiness about the axing of its president, Julius Malema, in mind that Zuma told the conference that the party had "taken action and will continue to take action against anyone who crosses the line".
In the days running up to the conference, there were rumours of Malema supporters planning to use the opening address to embarrass Zuma by booing and heckling him.
If such rumours reached his ear, they clearly didn't rattle him.
Though similar threats appear to have influenced his decision last month to give a June 16 rally a miss in favour of taking an early flight to a G20 summit in Mexico, this time Zuma seemed determined to take head on those who have labelled him a "dictator" for axing Malema.
"To maintain its character, the ANC should be able to cleanse itself of alien tendencies," he told delegates.
These "alien tendencies" included ill-discipline, corruption, patronage,careerism and the decline in the ideological depth of party members and leaders.
But perhaps what was most surprising about Zuma's speech was his spirited defence of a concept that seems to be unpopular with an overwhelming number of ANC structures and alliance partners.
The "second transition" is a concept proposed in an ANC draft strategy and tactics document that argues for a more radical, faster approach to economic transformation.
The authors of the document argue that the first 18 years of South Africa's freedom focused on political reforms and that the next 50 should be about introducing economic changes.
In many of the ANC provincial general councils convened to prepare for this week's conference, the concept was rejected by members who found it "unconvincing".
Even Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe, the man most people expect to challenge Zuma for the ANC presidency at the party's elective conference in December, has publicly expressed reservations about the notion.
In the face of such hostility, one would expect Zuma to, typically, steer clear of the issue or call on all to debate it without stating where he stands.
His populist approach to politics often means that he avoids championing causes that do not enjoy much support.
But Zuma showed a rare side to his leadership yesterday, bravely punting the concept before a sceptical audience.
Zuma blamed the country's "slow pace to economic freedom" on the pre-1994 negotiated political settlement.
"We had to make certain compromises in the national interest, and these were absolutely necessary to make.
"We had to be cautious about restructuring the economy in order to maintain economic stability and confidence at the time," he said.
Though it was refreshing to hear the president defend what, by all accounts, is an unpopular view within his party - instead of sitting on the fence as he has done in the past on many issues - it remains to be seen if his choice of "second transition" as a cause to champion marks the beginning of his downfall.
By publicly defending the notion in the midst of fears of opposition within the ANC, Zuma has made "second transition" his baby. If, by Friday, the concept is rejected by delegates, this would be seen as a major slap in the face for Zuma and his re-election bid.
It would be interpreted as an endorsement by the majority of delegates of Motlanthe, who has publicly questioned the idea.
But it could also be that Zuma took a calculated risk yesterday in order to draw a line and weigh up the balance of forces within the party before making up his mind on whether he'll run again in December.