‘ANC has not moved away from people’

Jacob Zuma … “The ANC’s structure would never allow a distance between the leadership and the people.”   | Photo Credit: — Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

Harish Khare and Sandeep Dikshit

It is the same party and it is the same comrades, says Jacob Zuma.

Jacob Zuma,who defeated the incumbent president of the African National Congress (ANC) and South African President Thabo Mbeki last year to be elected ANC president, chose India as his first non-African official travel destination this year. The Hindu spoke to this man of the people who had spent a decade in the notorious Robben Island prison. Mr. Zuma was for over 11 years the deputy president of the ANC and is slated to become the President of South Africa when elections are held early next year. According to his former cellmate, Ibrahim Ibrahim, when Mr. Zuma first came to the prison he could speak only Zulu. By the time he left Robben Island, he was reading Leo Tolstoy.

Excerpts from the interview

After decades of struggle, how does it feel to be in the government?

After a revolutionary fight to win freedom, and then to have the responsibility of government of a country, must feel good and different when you have fought for its freedom.

One of your favourite songs seems to be “Bring back my machine gun.” What has happened to the machine gun?

It is actually the song of the ANC. During the struggle the ANC sang songs. It is one of those songs. It was sung everywhere, in the camps, by the soldiers of the ANC. It is just that people paid attention at a given time when I was singing. It is a freedom song and there are many [such] songs. If we have a history, we can’t say when we are some way in the future that we don’t have that history. Maybe they just like the tune of this song [laughs].

South Africa has had a remarkable transition. Soon it will be your turn to be the South African President. How has South Africa handled leadership change so well while many other African countries seem to have faltered?

I cannot speak for others. But with regard to South Africa, we, particularly the ANC, had the experience of a political organisation during the liberation movement. The ANC is the oldest political movement in the [African] continent. It emphasised the political education of its cadre so that they may grasp what the organisation is, and why the struggle, and therefore the understanding of a leadership change. I believe that if there is political clarity, when the leadership change comes it is [as a] part of political understanding that it comes.

The ANC has had a number of presidents. I am the twelfth. There was a long period from 1960 to 1990 when the ANC did not have the opportunity to have an open kind of conference. But all the time there were elections and change of leadership. It is something that has become the culture of the ANC. When the last [ANC] president [Oliver] Tambo came back, he was unwell and therefore President [Nelson] Mandela came in, first as deputy president. And he couldn’t stay too long as he was old and he wanted to allow the younger generation [in]. When he left, Thabo Mbkei came in.

According to our Constitution, a President of the country can have two terms. The ANC debated the issue and felt that we needed to have the president of the organisation as the President of the country. And that brought about a change from Mbeki to myself. That is not a problem in the ANC.

Does a change in leadership also involve a change in perspective?

Not at all. It is the same party and it is the same comrades.

Those who became part of the leadership did so with our participation.

Since 1997, I have been deputy president of the ANC and therefore I am one of the people the leadership would have been consulting more often than anyone else. So it is not like a new party coming in.

But in terms of dealing with the kind of crises every country has, such as unemployment, anti-immigrant violence, will there be a new approach?

The ANC deals with the transition and it puts across policies which the cadre have to implement. All of us implement the ANC’s policies.

With regard to the issue of immigrants, we are still trying to find out what the problem is.

On immigration, South Africa has had the most open-door policy. And now there is the anti-immigrant violence.

Exactly, exactly. We don’t understand why now. South Africa as a state has very advanced policies of dealing with immigrants, particularly the refugees. [For] decades and decades there never has been any problem. It came suddenly without any problem. As soon as it [violence] happened, the ANC through its structures moved immediately to deal with it, to control the situation. Of course, working hand in hand with the police and other departments of the state. The situation is under control now. At least we now know this is one problem other people could utilise. I am hoping at some point we would be able to get to the bottom of the problem.

Is the party moving away from the people since you say the ANC was taken by surprise?

No, no. Not at all. Not away from the people. It is part of the people.

When it happened in Johannesburg and then moved to Pretoria, I moved in straightway. But by the time I came there, the ANC local cadre had moved in to find out what was the cause of it. They moved from house to house checking the mood of the people. And they found that the mood of the people had not changed. And in the process they discovered that the criminals were actually responsible for this. They were able to identify the people. This would never suggest that the party is distanced from the people. It looked like there was some manipulation, but I would not like to make the claim till it is investigated.

We have a similar problem in India. When a party remains in power for very long, it moves away from the people. Are you alive to that problem? Is there some internal mechanism in the party?

We are very much alive. There is an internal mechanism to keep the party sensitive. The ANC’s structure would never allow a distance between the leadership and the people. There are specific portfolios which remain full-time with the party and never go to the government.

Such as those of the secretary-general, the treasurer-general, who remain full-time with the party. They will never go to the government. The deputy secretary-general also remains full-time with the party. He will never go to the government.

In addition, the ANC structure and the machinery is well-oiled. The branches of the ANC are at the critical level of the party. These branches discuss policy, determine policies and take the final decision at the conferences. Therefore the branches are among the people. We have branches all over the country that deal with matters at the local level. In no way have we moved away from the people, whose job ANC does on a daily basis. We also don’t want the ANC cadre in the government to believe they are now more important than the ANC. On that we are very clear.

What is your solution to the Zimbabwean problem?

The solution must be by the Zimbabwean people. We are assisting. We have played a role. We are engaging both ZANU (PF), the ruling party, and the MDC, the opposition. We have been talking to both and trying to find a solution together with them. We cannot impose a solution. We can only assist where there is a possibility for us to assist. It is up to the Zimbabweans to find a solution.

There has been talk that the Freedom Charter remains fully unimplemented in spirit.

It guides us all the time in casting policies and programmes. We might not have implemented everything in the Freedom Charter but I think… [what] you suggest would not be right…. Of course, in 14 years, with the legacy of apartheid, we cannot do everything that we wanted to do in the Freedom Charter. The time has been too short. But we are always guided by the Freedom Charter.