Opinion Piece

Ian von Memerty: Jessie Duarte – portrait of a party in peril

Jessie Duarte will end her days wondering about how her party grew so weak when they were “doing so much right”. She is blinded by hindsight. The ANC was better in the distant past – she is right. But in the here and now – it is fractured, fractious and factioned.

It was inevitable. Nobody cared what Jessie Duarte said after JZ’s “perks and pink slip speech”. She answered the questions from the media – not him. She is now far more powerful than Jacob Zuma. She is now one of the three spokes of the NEC that are trying to power the ANC forward.

Recruited by Albertina Sisusulu in 1979, personal assistant to Nelson Mandela for four years, and deputy secretary general of the ANC since 2012. This is an influential woman with an impeccable political background. She is possibly the most powerful woman in the country, now that Baleka Mbete’s days are numbered. Even if Lindiwe Sisulu is crowned as vice-president of South Africa she is not a member of the top six in the ANC. Jessie Duarte is right at the heart of the party and might soon become Secretary General, should Ace Magashule meet his deserved fate.

So when Duarte stood up to answer questions about her “recalled” boss she was speaking for the party. And in 20 minutes she embodied all the contradictions of her party. She carried the authority of her years in the struggle and at the heart of government. She spoke with humanity and respect to the reporters, and answered their questions with clear-headed control. South Africans who have been devoted to the ANC heard the same calm tone of discipline they have heard from Mandela, Mbeki, Manuel, Motlanthe, even JZ. (This is something that the opposition could learn from – stunts and outrage might win you headlines, but South Africans vote for calm, approachable simplicity.)

She referred often to the historical journey of the ANC as the leading force of revolution and as the party in power for 24 years, giving a touch of perspective to the “sensation of the news”. She spoke with honesty and heart about being a “loyal” ANC comrade, and of her personal gratitude to man who had only left the scene of the crime when a political gun was held to his head.

But in her prepared remarks and her answers she showed just how deeply disconnected she and the party are from the facts. She tried to list Jacob Zuma’s success stories. It was a list of political platitudes and even bragged about education – in a country where our education system is one of the great shames of the ANC government. The shambolic betrayal of this young generation by an education department that is never held to account, does not deliver and is so deluded that it sees no reason for change, will haunt South Africa for at least another generation. It was a snapshot of ANC failure.

With a voice trembling with weary emotion, she lamented “we are not celebrating” that Zuma had been recalled from (not doing) the job of president of South Africa. She obliquely attacked the media for manufacturing a false pressure for his recall, delivered in a world-weary “I speak not in anger but in sorrow” tone. The party was grateful for all Zuma had done for the country. Huh? A Polaroid of personal relationships pasted over a distorted diagram of a devastated democracy.

And then she held the X-Ray of the cancerous lungs of the party up to the light-box of truth. The ANC would tell Jacob Zuma why he was being recalled, but it would not tell South Africa. The party had recalled him from leading the country, not the party, but the ANC does not think that the country, or the media who inform the country, have the right to know why our fourth president is now cast out and condemned. For Duarte and for the ANC, a national crisis is just an internal party matter. They cannot see the difference between the party and the country.

More importantly they cannot see that the party only exists because of the country. In their minds, the country only exists because of the party. They seem unable to shed the strict military discipline, and unquestioning blind faith of a liberation party and grow into a principled party of democracy and responsible government.

No man steps into the same river twice, for it is not the same river and he is not the same man.” This was a truth and an insight from Heraclitus in 544 BC, and it is just as true and insightful today. Ramaphosa (and whoever of his “team” that he manages to wedge into the Cabinet) will undoubtedly make much of the “return to the glory days of the ANC”. Those days of gone because the country and the party of those days has gone.

And that is why 46% of the country voted against the ANC in 2016. Not because of Zuma alone. He was just a symptom of a party that is losing touch with reality and its power. And Jessie Duarte, in her sad defence of President Perks and Potential Pardons, showed that all too clearly.

The head has been transplanted, but the party will increasingly wander into the wilderness as it looks for the way out of the woods. If it finds a way out it will find the land has changed while it has been hacking its way through a self-created impenetrable hedge of arrogance, betrayal, corruption and political delinquency.

Jessie Duarte will end her days wondering about how her party grew so weak when they were “doing so much right”. She is blinded by hindsight. The ANC was better in the distant past – she is right. But in the here and now – it is fractured and fractious. She is just one faction, but her voice, as calm, controlled and clear as it was on Wednesday night said all the wrong things, in a very nice way. She was a portrait of party in political peril. DM

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