JZ Plays to the Worker
Mail and Guardian
As the announcement boomed out that Deputy President Jacob Zuma was waiting outside the hall, the thousands of delegates to the Congress of South African Trade Unions' 8th national congress roared in approval. It was a clamorous welcome, not given to other African National Congress leaders who addressed the congress during the week. Not to President Thabo Mbeki, not to Defence Minister and ANC chairperson Mosiuoa Lekota, not even to ex-president Nelson Mandela.
In fact, not even Cosatu's office bearers received such an ovation. And when Zuma walked into the hall at Midrand's Gallagher Estate on Tuesday, delegates broke into a song that seemed to have been composed especially for the occasion: "[Bulelani] Ngcuka sitshele ukhuthi uZuma wenzeni? Uwena olawula amaScorpions. Sitshele, sifuna ukwazi [Ngcuka tell us what Zuma did? You command the Scorpions. Tell us - we want to know!]"
Led by the KwaZulu-Natal chapter of the South African Democratic Teachers' Union, the chant spread throughout the hall. "I like this new song," remarked a worker, nodding approvingly.
Zuma acknowledged the reception like a hero returning unscathed from war. He did not appear to be reeling from the courtroom setback he had suffered earlier in the week. On Monday the Pretoria High Court dismissed Zuma's urgent application to force National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka to hand over the hand-written copy of a fax from a French arms executive, allegedly detailing Zuma's request for a bribe. The court ruled that the matter was not urgent.
This was a man on the comeback trail - a worrying development for Ngcuka, who is fighting a titanic public battle with the deputy president. The battle is also being fought in the structures of the ANC-led tripartite alliance, of which Cosatu and the South African Communist Party are junior members.
Earlier in the week Zuma had been in Burundi, rescuing that country's shaky peace accord. This weekend he will be in Bisho, officiating at the Eastern Cape launch of the Moral Regeneration Movement, which, inter alia, aims to confront "individualism and selfishness" and "lack of integrity and honesty among people". Also at the launch will be Cabinet ministers, Eastern Cape Premier Makhenkesi Stofile, provincial ministers, MPs, members of the provincial legislature, mayors, councillors and business leaders.
At Gallagher Estate, Zuma's priority was to win the hearts and minds of the cream of the ANC's left-wing constituency and position himself as a friend of the working class. Judging by his omnipresence at this week's congress, he was not doing badly.
From Monday delegates were talking about the Zuma affair. Even those who admitted to being confused about the saga, and suspicious of Zuma, conceded that his popularity was overwhelming.
When he rose to speak, delegates thundered a known Zuma favourite "uMandela uthimayihlome [Mandela is rallying the troops]".
A shrewd strategist, Zuma had them eating out of his hand by throwing his weight behind Cosatu and the SACP's call to start building socialism now.
His public advocacy of the "socialist road" was the most pronounced by a senior ANC leader who is not a card-carrying communist. "He is speaking like us!" exclaimed a joyous delegate.
Addressing the hall in a mixture of Zulu and English, Zuma said socialism was "the final destination" of both Cosatu and the SACP. He said he appreciated communism, which enabled activists to bring the masses on board. Urging workers to back the ANC in next year's general election if they wanted their cause furthered, Zuma declared: "The ANC must win and the final destination [socialism] will be closer."
Zuma then launched into a discourse on Marxism, explaining the difference between socialism and communism. Dishing out Marxist phrases and catch-words, he told them that the ANC agreed that the workers had not reached "your final destination". Moist-eyed workers listened raptly, applauding at intervals or laughing when Zuma challenged them: "Do modern communists still talk like this?"
Zuma even had a bite at the very issue that is dogging his political career and standing, urging the ANC alliance to fight against corruption. "Some of the questions facing the alliance are how do we move forward, how do we fight against corruption," he said.
A SACP operative in exile, Zuma was among the ANC leaders who allowed his membership to lapse when the party was unbanned in 1990. He has, however, kept close ties with the SACP and Cosatu as the ideological gap between them and the ANC widened. He has served as a bridge between the ANC and its alliance partners when differences over economic direction threatened the marriage.
When Mbeki accused the SACP and Cosatu leadership of ultra-leftist tendencies, Zuma continued holding private meetings with them. SACP members said Zuma had given an even lengthier address on communism at the funeral of the party's KwaZulu-Natal office-bearer Smiso Nkwanyana last month. Then, said a member, Zuma had openly proclaimed that for an "old man" like him communism was the answer.
This week, trade union leaders singled Zuma out as the only ANC leader who had engaged them on the theme of the conference, the revival of thinking about a socialist path for South Africa. "For the first time, socialism is on the agenda," remarked an SACP official during the political session.
By Thursday, the last day of the congress, delegates were still singing the Ngcuka-Zuma song and debating the saga. "Yes, we want to know what did Zuma do?" said a delegate. Another remarked that she was "confused about the whole issue - people must talk openly".
While some felt that the issue was being used a "diversionary tactic from the real issues facing the federation", most felt Zuma, "a true friend of the alliance", needed their support.
With acknowledgement to Jaspreet Kindra and the Mail and Guardian.