Ask any journalist and he or she will tell you, Mcebisi Jonas is not the most accessible of politicians. But when you do pin him down for an interview be prepared, he will talk your ear off.
Although somewhat a maverick, politically he has never been a crowdpuller nor a populist slogan chanter. But as an avid reader with a firm grasp of local and global trends, over the years Jonas has earned himself a reputation as a sound and respected voice in the ANC.
He is a central part of its brains trust, a useful and reliable hand in its policy formulation machinery. Simply put, he is the guy the ANC calls for some sober analysis of situations. He is also the guy it never listens to. For 30 minutes on Saturday, Jonas addressed ANC members at the party’s regional consultative conference in Port Elizabeth.
First, let me say that his invitation to the conference, together with that of leaders such as former president Kgalema Motlanthe and businessman Sipho Pityana was, in my view, a statement on its own, considering the current factional dynamics of the ANC. However, that is not the point I am making today.
We are told that the conference was to give a platform for members to assess the state of the movement, the tripartite alliance and to find solutions to its pressing troubles. At face value, this appears to be a pointless exercise.
Until it removes President Jacob Zuma from power, many believe that the ANC’s internal discussions are mere ramblings by men and women completely out of touch with reality.
In fact for many people who live in Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, the ANC had long lost its relevance and its embarrassing drubbing at the polls in August confirms this.
While I understand this view, I believe it is dangerously naive to write off a party that ultimately controls our taxes, simply because it is no longer directly responsible for collecting our refuse.
Whether or not the ANC will be in power beyond 2019, I do not know. But for the next three years it is in charge – well kind of, with the help of a powerful family, but I digress.
This is why I take interest in its deliberations, whether they take place in Port Elizabeth or in Sauer Street, Johannesburg.
Having listened to a recording of Jonas’s speech on Saturday, I wondered whether what he said actually resonated with his audience. I wondered whether the politicians, business and religious leaders who were there actually comprehended the depth of the trouble the ANC, and by extension the country, finds itself in currently.
Although he has never publicly stated so, I believe it is common cause that Jonas identifies with a group in the ANC which believes Zuma has failed this nation and therefore should go. He hinted as much on Saturday when he advised that in its so-called introspection, the ANC needed to go beyond what he said was the “obvious” discussion of who to change.
It needed to reflect on what it must change within its ranks.
Critics say this view is a deliberate avoidance of Zuma’s disastrous leadership. I disagree.
I believe it is a much needed, comprehensive assessment of the situation. It takes the discussion beyond one man’s betrayal of a nation, to confront the broader moral erosion that has given room for such a man to flourish and become so powerful. It confronts the legacy he will leave behind, both in the ANC and the very fibre of the state.
When Zuma goes – and he will – he will not automatically take with him the entrenched decay which allows branch leaders to manipulate democratic processes, ultimately placing people with zero mental capacity to lead in positions of influence.
He will not take with him the rot which makes it acceptable to hire managers who are hopelessly underqualified to run our municipalities and government departments.
His exit will not automatically raise the level of debate from superficial politics of personalities to the kind that seeks to find meaningful solutions to our ailing economy, to fighting crime and to helping more and more young South Africans compete on a global stage.
In his speech, Jonas warned that if the ANC did not change its ways, it could lose control of Gauteng in 2019 and possibly be out of the Union Buildings by 2028.
I do not believe that the fear of losing power will whip the ANC back into shape. This is precisely because, as Jonas stated, the party has experienced a growing erosion of the capacity to reflect on what it is confronted with. Many in its ranks believe that governance is their birthright or an eternal reward from the heavens for the party’s role in defeating apartheid.
Whether the ANC can ever restore itself, is yet to be seen. What we know so far is that, to its own detriment and to that of our nation, it has so far refused to raise the bar.