Analysing President Zuma’s political report: An exercise in political communications

Analysing President Zuma’s political report: An exercise in political communications

By Abdul Waheed Patel

ANC President Jacob Zuma’s political report to the opening session of the party’s 53rd national elective conference in the city of Mangaung in South Africa’s Free State Province yesterday, was highly anticipated to set the tone for the conference deliberations and proceedings. The occasion of the political report represented more than just the opportunity for a political speech. As an opportunity for Mr. Zuma to reflect on the successes and achievements of the party under his leadership since the historic 2007 Polokwane conference which ushered him in as party president, the occasion of the speech represented an exercise in political communications for Mr. Zuma to consolidate his campaign for a second term as party president, and effectively state president. Therefore the speech represented a strategic opportunity for Mr. Zuma to spell out in detail to both his supporters and detractors, how he has been able to harness the collective leadership and skills within the party to deliver on the mandate given to him by the party in 2007. By the same token, it was an opportunity for Mr. Zuma to impose collective responsibility on the leadership and membership of the party for its failures and disappointing performance in certain areas, at both the level of the party and the state.

So how exactly did Mr. Zuma fair? Here are some analysis and thoughts on his speech.

Something for everyone

In style typical of the man that is Jacob Zuma (some would call this populist), Mr. Zuma’s speech reached out to a broad base of ANC members and its alliance partners in the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the South African Community Party (SACP), as well as business people, the investment community, rating agencies and the international community. Even for media and opposition political parties, Mr. Zuma was frank in his assessment of the performance and challenges of the ANC is areas such as corruption and public procurement, on which he has come under constant criticism from these quarters.  He was clearly not only speaking to the party as an audience, but to the nation and observers at large.

Internal lobbying and contestation

Mr. Zuma was frank in confronting and condemning the negative tendencies associated with the kinds of lobbying for positions within the party and the negative and anti-social behaviour that have become associated with these e.g. violence and character assassination. In essence, Mr. Zuma made a case for such behaviour being un-ANC and that such behaviour and party members who resort to it, have no place in the ANC and the mass democratic movement that it leads. Interestingly though, Mr. Zuma’s campaigners have had some of these very tendencies attributed to them. In his manner of criticizing these tendencies, Mr. Zuma condemned it and simultaneously disassociated himself with it, even though some of it may have been done in his name, without his explicit approval and endorsement.

However, where Mr. Zuma could have done more is to have used his speech to introduce ideas which could lay the basis for more thorough conference dialogue and deliberation on how best modernize the system for internal leadership contestation, campaigning and lobbying.

The ANC-led alliance

Despite criticism from COSATU in particular about a number of decisions of government under the Zuma-led administration, Mr. Zuma was conciliatory in his approach to the continued significance and importance of both COSATU and the SACP in the ANC-led alliance. However, Mr. Zuma was candid in his references to the need for alliance partners to express and address their grievances within the structures of the alliance, thereby maintaining the strength of the alliance.

He diplomatically, but sternly told COSATU what their place is in the alliance. Most telling of all was Mr. Zuma’s assertion that neither COSATU nor the SACP are in opposition to the ANC and that COSATU “…is not a political party…” and that “…the ANC stands for the interests of the entire nation irrespective of class or station in society.” Thus effectively neutralising perceptions of the perennial threat of COSATU contesting future elections as a labour party.

A performance scorecard of government

Mr. Zuma went into some detail to elaborate on the performance and efficiency gains achieved in his reconfiguration of government departments following his ascendance to the highest office in the land. This included the functioning of government under an expanded cabinet system. This is perhaps an indication of few changes being contemplated under his leadership should he be re-elected for a second term at the helm of the party and therefore by implication a second term as president of the country. Tactfully, these aspects of Mr. Zuma’s speech linked with other remarks he made about the qualities, characteristics and experience of cadres the party requires in order to be able to lead effectively in government – clearly painting an image of himself as such as a cadre of the party who espouse these characteristics and therefore worthy of reelection for a second term at the helm of the party.

National Development Plan

The political report delivered by Mr. Zuma was his strongest advocacy and stewardship to date on the NDP produced by the National Planning Commission established under his presidency.  This amounted to positioning the NDP as the centerpiece and primary driver of government action into the future.

Against the backdrop of Minister for National Planning in the Presidency – Trevor Manuel announcing his unavailability to serve on the party’s national executive committee, by centrally locating the NDP within his political report, Mr. Zuma’s speech delicately and discretely sent the message that the good work led by the honorable Minister Manuel is to the credit of party.

For the first time, Mr. Zuma and for that matter any leader of the ANC used a major party platform to fully embrace and promote the NDP and to encourage the party to consider how best to adopt and integrated it into the party policy resolutions. This will secure Mr. Zuma and the ANC substantial kudos from the business sector, which have recently coalesced around the NDP as the blueprint for the development of the country, around which all other policies, strategies, programmes and interventions of government must revolve.

Mr. Zuma’s stewardship and advocacy of the NDP can also been seen as an attempt to neutralize the rallying and support around the NDP by opposition political parties, who like the business sector regard it as a highly credible plan deserving of their support and which requires greater government commitment and parliamentary oversight.

However, it is important that ownership of the NDP by rank and file members of the party is achieved not for the purposes of avoiding it being usurped from the ANC by opposition parties for its credibility. The ANC must embrace it because it believes it to be the best plan for the country.

Policy certainty and clarity vs. Policy consistency

What was less clear in Mr. Zuma’s speech was the inter-linkages between the NDP and other prevailing centre-pieces of Government’s economy policy initiatives e.g. the New Growth Path, the Industrial Policy Action and the Presidential Infrastructure Coordinating Commission. Instead the speech focused on the myriad of policy choices made the state, with less clear delineation of how these various policy instruments fit together, compliment and support each other. This raises important issues of the extent to which policy clarity and certainty (i.e. a clear understanding of the thrust and substantive nature of policy) and policy consistency (i.e. policy choices which do not compete and undermine each other, but which are mutually supportive and inclusive).

Role of the state in the economy

Given the recent coalescing of voices within the business sector calling for greater certainty about the role of state intervention in the economy, Mr. Zuma cleverly steered away from any reference and rhetoric to nationalization and strategic nationalization of strategic sectors in the economy, such as those which characterized his speeches at the July 2012 national policy conference of the party. On the face of it, this may be an attempt to appease the business and investment community who have recently coalesced to make an impassionate plea to the ruling party for policy certainty, clarity and to reconsider any nationalization of strategic economic sectors.

However, the devil lies in the details of conference policy deliberations to be engaged in by rank and file party members, who may well still push for more radical state intervention in the economy. It is well known that the vocal ANC Youth League intends to utilize the conference as a platform to reignite the debate on the strategic nature of state intervention in the economy, particularly the mining sector.

That said, Mr. Zuma did not mince his words about the transformational challenges facing the economy, which in itself can be interpreted as a subtle reference for delegates to consider more intrusive measures for state intervention in the economy.


For a first time Mr. Zuma lamented the issue of corruption which plagues the performance of government and its roots in the ruling party. The challenge however is that Mr. Zuma himself and a number of others in the party’s national executive committee have had their personal and business dealings questioned. The old adage of leading from the front (or at least perceptions thereof), holds true. This notwithstanding, Mr. Zuma’s speech sent the right signal to society and the markets about a zero tolerance approach to corruption, which the party must now internalize to take appropriate action and policy resolutions around.


For already convinced supporters and loyalists firmly behind Mr. Zuma’s bid for a second term as president of the party, Mr. Zuma’s speech was a successful attempt to reassure them that their support is backed by demonstrable evidence of the positive performance of government and the party under his leadership.

Mr. Zuma invoked the spirit of the party’s 2007 Polokwane conference by referencing various parts of his speech to conference and policy resolutions adopted at Polokwane. With the Polokwane conference having catapulted him to the head of the party and the state, it is a powerful rallying point around which to keep captured the hearts and minds of his followers and supporters and in so doing poignantly reminding them of the circumstances under which he and his supporters came to the ascendency in the party.

ETHICORE will be closely monitoring, analyzing and reporting on the outcomes and implications of the conference, throughout its duration and on a customized basis for clients thereafter. This includes political and risk analysis, briefing papers and research reports. For more information and enquiries in this regard, kindly do not hesitate to contact us.

Abdul Waheed Patel is Managing Director at ETHICORE Political Consulting. He specialises in policy consulting, analysis and risk, including South African political parties, post-apartheid democratic politics and parliamentary democracy.

Click here to download: Political Report by President Jacob Zuma to the 53rd National Conference of the ANC

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