Then president Thabo Mbeki, left, and then ANC deputy president Jacob Zuma embrace at the 52nd ANC conference in Polokwane, in December 2007. The fate of Mbeki’s leadership hung in the balance as the party, with Zuma’s populist appeal, was compelled to increasingly identify with the poor masses. | AP
THE ADVENT of the Jacob Zuma ANC leadership at Polokwane marked the unsuspecting break with the conventional ANC identity of educated leadership. It also, in a sense, became the second time the ANC was forced to lead and identify more unequivocally with a pro-poor agenda.

The poor will increasingly begin to dictate the ANC’s agenda, with the threat of disturbing the equilibrium of elitist DNA.

Since Polokwane, we have heard countless ANC leaders, in public and private spaces, lament their claims of a different ANC. Some poignantly said they wanted “their” ANC back in what can be understood as the more elitist, and less pro-poor-driven ANC, that was temporarily lost.

Those who desired its “return” articulated their discomfort of not being able to fit in or be led by a pro-poor agenda. (A difficult, if not impossible thing to do, if you have managed, with the privileged preferential treatment bestowed on a few selected elite black business people - under the watchful eye of the white monopoly capital captains of industry - to become multimillionaires and billionaires.)

In fact, it would not be wrong to say that it is a contradiction in terms to purport to be a leader of the poor masses from that position of a created privileged advantage. They chose to frame it around claims of their discomfort with corruption with which they labelled former president Jacob Zuma’s leadership.

What they, as gross beneficiaries of a negotiated settlement at a personal level, really found uncomfortable was the ANC increasingly evidencing a pro-poor stance which, if left unattended, posed challenges for the perpetual existence of the elites.

This era would see the emergence of Zuma’s leadership. He, by default, represented a break from the elitism entrenched in the ANC, where formal education understood in claims of intellectualism stood central as a prerequisite, and often the dominant deciding factor, for a claim to elected leadership. Zuma, while unconventional because of his humble origins and sparse formal education, is an ANC member for close on three score and who was a confidante of OR Tambo, did not mark a total break from the ANC’s elitist character.

In his first term, he was less aggressive about advocating radical policy shifts that would benefit the poor. In fact, Zuma did little to augment what his predecessor stood for in engaging the predominantly apartheid and colonial beneficiaries. It was in his second term that he adopted a more public and no-holds-barred approach to what is called a pro-black-poor (and especially pro-African poor) rhetoric.

We might argue that if his second-term awakening to lead the ANC as non-elitist was premised on sincere conviction, or a basic political move no different to what Robert Mugabe, also an elitist, across the Limpopo River, did for the better part of his almost 40-year rule of Zanu-PF and Zimbabwe. We will remember Mugabe became radical on land reform only in the last 10 years of his term in office. The jury remains out about the authenticity of his choices, whether they were out of conviction or for the sake of personal political survival.

Perhaps Zuma’s calculated reading of the mood of the masses, who felt betrayed by the negotiated settlement between the binaries of white and black elites, which resulted in deformed freedom immanent in political but not economic freedom, thrust him as the face of the people’s campaign for economic freedom.

He, with his antithetical identity that was not your typical elitist ANC president, frowned upon by those who believed in “education” as the evidence of intellect-led ANC, would now openly begin to campaign on white and black binaries of economic imbalance, and call out the white monopoly capitalists (WMC), for their control of the economy and continuing exploitation of the black poor and economically disempowered masses.

This while the ANC elites were handsomely rewarded from the start to share in the unjust economy, and became the buffer-zone for white privilege. As a consequence, when the masses challenged the white apartheid-engineered and ongoing control of the economy, they ended up being confronted and opposed by a political leadership it elected who increasingly acted as the insurance policy in the protection of white privilege.

The consciousness of this elitist and privileged leadership was shaped by their newfound material and moneyed comfort, rather than any liberation-driven revolutionary consciousness. Proof that Karl Marx was correct when he stated that one’s class consciousness is ultimately determined by the property you own, and your material well-being, or lack thereof.

This was not an accidental situation, but a meticulously orchestrated and well-executed plan of the apartheid regime negotiators. We warrant extending them credit for having outfoxed their counterparts at the unequal table of a negotiated settlement.

Zuma, for his adopted stance on WMC, therefore could not go to the same white elites whom Mandela, Mbeki and all others were comfortable with, to support his agenda for economic freedom.

He thus became the enemy of white privilege to the extent that they marched against him, less for what they confused the masses in claims of corruption or an emptiness of morality, but more so because he was leading the ANC in another direction that militated against the negotiated beneficial settlement of, and for, the elites. The biggest casualties of a threatening revolution would have been the elites on both sides of the proverbial railway line.

White and black elitist groups feared the personal impact it would have on their economic well-being and opted to resist to such an extent that high-heeled and heavily sponsored pseudo-NGOs, like SAVE-SA, emerged specifically to get rid of Zuma.

The struggling-to-be-relevant South African Council of Churches (SACC) was enlisted to re-echo the message until Anglican Bishop Thabo Makgoba could abuse the most significant day of Christian celebration to prognosticate his personal political preferences of Zuma’s removal in an instruction to the Ramaphosa leadership.

This SAVE-SA agenda would also be joined by various “foundations”, that represented white-privilege interests as fulcrum realities. Not missing out on this was the SACP and Cosatu.

Zuma thus, in a sense, accidentally became the face of radical economic transformation and, by default, the face of RET.

It also appears Zuma, in his post-presidential life, continues to seek to define this as his real legacy and reading the trajectory of the ANC leadership, knows that there is a vacuum.

From the bedrock of that awareness he has decided to stay in touch and active in the daily politics and discourse with his more recent entrance of the Twitter social media platforms.

For the record, our support of Zuma was predicated on the axis of four cornerstones. First, we were and remain convinced he was disrespected by the elitist essentially for his lack of formal education, the same who until his emergence had never treated any ANC president with such disdain for his lack of education. Second, it remains our conviction that Zuma was served a grave injustice with a National Prosecuting Authority bungling and political meddling in apparent charges against him.

Third, his calculated reading of the masses in demand of RET and land redress and a willingness to associate with it. Fourth, throughout our commitment to a liberation Struggle which we also voted for, we have believed in the ANC as the vehicle for true change, not an uncommon hope if the measurement of disillusionment of many within the ANC is being used as a barometer.

We were labelled Zuma’s people, in defence of corruption and looting, and we therefore needed to be avoided at all costs. Where necessary, our economic livelihood needed to be crippled to teach us a lesson for associating with Zuma. To prove that we supported him without any intent of personal benefit, we can categorically state that we never benefited from Zuma, which is something we told him in jest when we had independent meetings with him.

Some, in ignorance, consider us fools because we did not benefit from Zuma, yet they fail to appreciate we were never surrendered to Zuma the person but identified with his association of the pro-poor people’s agenda for RET and land redress. He was the ANC president who ventured the closest to a pro-poor agenda hence his popularity with the masses to this day.

In a sense, he was South Africa’s first domestic president and will continue to be remembered as the father of RET, land redress and free tertiary education.

A year after his forced resignation, he remains popular because the masses do not appear to trust his successor to drive the same agenda.

Ramalaine is a writer and political commentator whose work has appeared in most major SA newspapers, including The Thinker Pan African Journal. He is the founder and chairperson of the TMoSA Foundation - The Thinking Masses of SA. In 2017, Ramalaine consciously supported the NDZ campaign with his incisive public commentaries and writings. Niehaus was actively involved in the NDZ17 Campaign. He is an ANC veteran with 40 years of uninterrupted membership, and a former ANC NEC member and MP. He served as the SA ambassador to The Netherlands. Niehaus is a member of the Umkhonto weSizwe Military Veterans Association NEC, and the MKMVA’s national spokesperson. He contributed to this article in his personal capacity.