Sunday Times STLive By Mondli makhanya , 2012-04-08

South Africa, brace yourself for eight months of toxic warfare

Mondli Makhanya
Image: Sunday Times

Grin-and-giggle show at Tuesday's press conference by ANC leaders fooled no one

Awkward! That's probably the best way to describe the ANC top leadership's dismal attempt at a show of unity this week.

If ever one wanted to illustrate the word "farce", the picture of those leaders pretending to love one another would be it. There was ever-blustery secretary-general Gwede Mantashe, who had forsaken his war-photographer flak jacket for a dark suit. In between clowning about and lecturing journalists on marxist theory, he found time to chastise ANC Youth League leader Julius Malema.

There was national chairwoman Baleka Mbete, whose vacant facial expression made her look very lost. Deputy secretary-general Thandi Modise wore a bored but obliging look that said: "I was told to come and so I did." Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe also had that obliging look, although he wore it more politely than Modise. Treasurer-general Mathews Phosa could not hide his annoyance at everything: for being there, for being asked to answer questions and for being forced to listen to all the guff that was being spoken by his comrades.

President Jacob Zuma just sat there grinning and giggling. When he was compelled to walk up to the podium to answer some questions, he began by giggling. He mangled some non-answers and then giggled again before returning to his seat. From there he continued his grin-and-giggle routine until the end.

This was meant to be Zuma's masterstroke, the move that would compel the party's leaders to symbolically pledge their undying loyalty to him in the face of persistent attacks by a bunch of errant youngsters.

Instead, the press conference laid bare the fissures in the party, and turned into quite a comical show. It made for entertaining television viewing.

But nobody, not least the rest of the senior ANC leadership who interact with them regularly, was going to be fooled.

The whole country could accurately predict that, as soon as they disappeared from the cameras, the six leaders would plough Sandton kugel-length nails into each other's necks.

It was reminiscent of the ludicrous statements by former president Thabo Mbeki's sidekick, Smuts Ngonyama, ahead of the 2007 Polokwane conference, that the ANC was more united than ever.

The fact that Zuma and Mantashe, who are both fighting for their political lives, felt the need to corral the others into a fake show of unity shows the depth of the crisis in South Africa's governing party. The fact that these six leaders - who are arguably the most politically powerful individuals in South Africa - had to resort to scolding the ANC's young brats on national television shows their frustration that the disciplinary processes have not been effective in neutering them.

As Zuma sat there next to Motlanthe, he knew full well that his deputy was planning to deny him a second term as party and state president. And as Motlanthe sat there, he knew that Zuma's rottweilers are working day and night to ensure the deputy president does not rise to the top.

And Phosa was fully aware that he and Motlanthe were just as much a target of the press conference as Malema. The two leaders have been among those who have refused to treat the youth leaguers like diseased serfs. Phosa, in particular, has been sounding notes seen to be discordant with the tune Zuma wants everyone to sing.

Despite the wishful thinking of some, Malema will not go away. Yes, his expulsion will be upheld by the appeals committee. If he then chooses to appeal to the national executive committee and, ultimately, to the December national conference, he will do so while facing more charges within the ANC and in the criminal courts.

The hopes of Zuma, Mantashe and those around them is that cutting off Malema's ANC oxygen and tying him up in courts on criminal charges will kill him off politically.

But that is just not going to happen.

You will see Malema popping up all over the show, spewing defiance in the knowledge that you cannot kill a dead man.

He and his youthful army will be buzzing around Zuma's ear day and night - thus driving him insane.

This may alienate many ANC members, who will see it as disrespectful, and could strengthen Zuma's hand in some quarters.

At the same time, however, it will severely undermine Zuma's authority and power, as many at all levels of the ANC already blame him for feeding and fattening the Malema monster.

While fighting Malema and his midget army, Zuma will also have to protect his other flanks as the movement to remove him gains momentum.

He will act irrationally and erratically, as besieged political leaders do; as we saw Mbeki do in 2007. We will see more Zuma-centric decisions, such as the reinstatement of a dodgy police chief. Governance will fall victim to intra-party wars. Discourse will go to sewers. And, and, and ...

South Africa, brace yourself for eight months of toxic warfare.