It was much of a muchness as VIP allies of Jacob Zuma gathered at People’s Park in Durban on Thursday, some to address the hundreds of supporters gathered at a prayer meeting/welcome home celebration/political rally in honour of the former president.
Had he turned up – as the media were told he would – it would have been Zuma’s first public appearance in-person since his thoroughly unsurprising release on medical parole in September, after serving a short stint in jail for being in contempt of a Constitutional Court order that he appear before the Zondo Commission.
But as the morning melted into afternoon, courtesy of a blistering KwaZulu-Natal sun and 37° temperature, it became clear that the potential for an appearance might have been punted to draw additional numbers to supplement the bussed-in faithful.
Among the VIPs were the usual suspects – a gaggle of alleged villains claiming to be victims, and those that had had their wings clipped by the governing party, and a has-been or two.
Ace Magashule, Zandile Gumede, Bathabile Dlamini, the freshly bailed alleged July riot instigators Ngizwe Mchunu and Bonginkosi Khanyile, and Carl Niehaus, were all present, as was the obligatory MKMVA troupe in military fatigues chanting Struggle songs while trying to march.
Zuma’s mostly scripted speech – during which he took potshots at the current ANC leadership – was broadcast to the park via loudspeakers in the afternoon, and to the general population via a video link, while he sat indoors reading it elsewhere.
It remains unclear if Zuma addressing a public event is contradictory to his parole conditions, as they are deemed classified by Correctional Services, but he did call them “very strict”.
In his long address, the former president repeated his mantra of being a victim of unconstitutional court processes, adding that the Constitution itself was increasingly being used to defend the rights of the “rich and powerful” over ordinary citizens.
“The Constitution has become a source of conflict rather than a mechanism to adjudicate and resolve civil and political conflicts,” he said.
Once Zuma had dealt with the Zondo Commission and the judiciary (again) and the latter’s interpretation of the Constitution – and the more favourable minority judgments in his contempt case and rescission application – he turned to his beloved ANC.
“Some people often mistake the behaviour of the incumbent leadership to be that of the ANC. The ANC is rooted among the people. Others mistake the behaviour of individual members as being the ANC…
“I want to underline that enemies of freedom have always tried to divide the ANC – those who fight for freedom and those who work for democracy.
“They have done this by spreading lies about the ANC and its leaders, by minimising successes and magnifying failures. They have planted and continue to sponsor their own agents in the ANC ranks, particularly at leadership level.
“Our opponents and enemies have been working hard to make the ANC to be a small government that can only form coalitions. We must be aware of this.”
Zuma said he had made a call to many “compatriots”, including senior members who appeared to be disillusioned, to vote ANC in the November 1 local government elections. “Which other party can help South Africa?” The governing party must grow, he said.
“We need to solve the problems in the ANC so we can move forward. We must remain vigilant and deflect their machinations. If leaders aren’t implementing decisions taken by members, deal with that. Leaders can be changed.
“At the end of the day, all social forces – black or white – know that an ANC rooted among the people can bring freedom and peace.”
Zuma also spoke out against ANC members running as or supporting independent candidates, saying those who did so made a “dangerous mistake”.
He acknowledged that this was done out of anger or disillusionment with the ANC, saying: “Don’t run away from challenges – correct them.
“I will vote ANC and I will die in the ANC. I will remain in it to correct it, not reduce its power in governing the country.”
He was sure, said Zuma, that delegates would “appropriately” share their views – presumably on the poll outcome and lack of policy implementation at the ANC’s 55th national conference next year. “[We] must make sure that when the conference adjourns, it brings in a truly new era”.
Returning to standing as or voting for independent candidates or “others”, and turning from his notes and speaking off the cuff, the former president said that by doing so, “you would have run away and can’t help the ANC.
“It worries me, because it [speaks to] how we understand the revolution and the running of the country.”
If an “enemy” was in one’s home, one had to get the enemy out, he said.
“My call is for all of us to ponder the future and see if we will come out as the best or worst of humanity. If faith in humanity was ever called upon to show itself, it is now.”
Once the live-stream sound was muted, Zuma could be seen shuffling his papers and laughing.
At People’s Park, supporters started leaving before the speech was over as a howling wind tore through marquees, toppling chairs.
Ngizwe Mchunu and Bonginkosi Khanyile – two of the alleged clutch of instigators of the devastating July riots – had earlier in the day taken to the stage, offering their support for Zuma.
Mchunu’s speech was peppered with humour directed at potential new councillors who would be voted in on election day, Khanyile – complete with bowtie and his now trademark middle parting – was fiery in his defence of Zuma, criticism of the media and minorities, and also of “black people” who “think like whites”.
“Nobody must be sent to prison without a trial, and we are going to fight for that. The gains of this democracy, we are going to defend by any means possible,” said Khanyile.
“There is no mass media propaganda that will deter us. There is no imprisonment, there is no judge [that will deter us], and even that will not stop us from our ideas that we hold so dear.
“White people are consolidating and working day and night, and they are working with the same black leaders amongst us.
“There are black leaders who march around us – you will think they are black when you look at their pigmentation, but in terms of what they think, they are white.” DM