Johannesburg – President Jacob Zuma’s trademark battle song Mshini Wam did not feature during his appearance at the Gauteng local government manifesto launch on Saturday.
In fact, it was all a very cordial affair.
Zuma wasn’t booed, as happened in that same FNB Stadium two and a half years ago. The resistance was more passive – not putting up posters with his face on ahead of the rally (they all featured provincial chairperson Paul Mashatile), arriving outside the stadium, but not entering it (the 94 000-seater was at most two-thirds full at any given time, despite official figures showing more than 85 000 clicking past the turnstiles), and cheering warmly, but not effusively.
By the time Zuma spoke – three and a half hours after the expected time – the stadium had started emptying out, partly driven by boredom and hunger from waiting all day for the stadium to fill up, and partly driven by disdain for the leader.
Zuma knows this isn’t his strongest province – according to a report in The Times this week he had to insist on attending the launch, which provincial leaders wanted to handle it themselves.
Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa tagged along for support, although he didn’t speak, sitting on stage with the leaders like a mascot and the province’s favoured son to take over from Zuma next year.
Zuma started his speech convincingly, with an appeal that Gauteng metros remain in ANC hands. “Gauteng must remain the home of the ANC,” he told a crowd which was still sizeable enough to cheer enthusiastically, before trickling out.
“Let me tell you comrades, as part of the emphasis of this point that Gauteng province is the home of the ANC: The ANC was formed in Mangaung, but throughout its life the headquarters of the ANC (have been) in Gauteng. In no way can we have any other party being in charge in Gauteng province except the ANC.
“You, therefore, have a very serious responsibility to defend and maintain the home of this mighty organisation,” he said.
It was a bit of a warning to a province where there is a real possibility of the party’s percentage of the vote continuing on its dramatic recent downward trend in metros like Tshwane and Johannesburg, perhaps to below 50%.
It is also the province in the country with the biggest share of “clever blacks”, as Zuma once called vocal and educated critics – so large that one of its election task teams focuses exclusively on professionals and academics in the province.
On Saturday, he attempted a somewhat scripted wooing of these. “Comrades and friends, let me also emphasise that the ANC needs the wisdom, skills, expertise of the black intelligentsia in Gauteng. We will work with all our black professionals to take transformation forward, especially to ensure that the deracialisation of the economy becomes a reality.”
Zuma also said something about reigniting growth and employment in line with the National Development Plan (remember that one?) and about attracting investment to the country. He was wise enough not to give specific job creation numbers in this time of economic crisis.
It was a far cry from Ramaphosa’s convincing appeal a few months ago to professionals at an event in Sandton for those with skills to get involved in the ANC.
It’s not only the luster that was lacking in Zuma’s speech. There was a notable absence of the c-word.
On Saturday evening, in a well-known township hangout near Midrand, one of the Gauteng comrades complained that they get asked questions about Zuma’s dodgy dealings in the state all the time when they do door-to-door campaigns.
The comrade, incidentally, was still dressed in the ANC T-shirt he wore to the rally during the day, which he defiantly left before Zuma could speak.
“I love the ANC,” he said, “but not Zuma’s corruption.”
His T-shirt was also somewhat of a passion killer when he made advances to two women over a drink, with one saying: “I can’t speak to you with that T-shirt.”
She explained that, although she was an ANC supporter, Zuma was putting her off party events and regalia. He had a tough time talking himself out of that one, and his dilemma entertainingly illustrates the party’s problems in the province.
Zuma hasn’t done much to address these shortcomings or to try make the party more attractive to the Gauteng middle classes.
In his speech, Zuma rightfully praised municipalities that showed an improvement in the 2014/15 financial year in the report released this week by the Auditor General – but he said nothing about the increase in billions of rands gone to waste on maladministration and corruption.
Zuma’s speech also avoided mention of state capture, an issue which was conveniently killed this week when the party ended its investigation into the issue.
The issue of state capture has been a bone of contention between the provincial and national leadership of the ANC.
Gauteng might have some of the best metros in the country, and its leadership might have found an effective way to deal with community protests, but ironically it is that same leadership that will be punished for Zuma’s numerous shortcomings.
And it has nothing to do with the absence of his machine gun.