At around 12:00 on a sunny and hot Sunday morning, a bakkie with a trailer carrying tent chairs drives into Bongani grounds, an open dusty field where presidential hopeful Jeff Radebe is due to host an ANC rally.
Two bakkies and a minibus emblazoned with pictures of Radebe are parked in the grounds in Siyancuma, a township outside Douglas – a remote town in the Northern Cape populated by a largely impoverished community.
At about 12:15, a convoy that includes police vans and a tinted Mercedes-Benz carrying Radebe arrives. The organisers had told the media the official programme would start at 14:00. But when Radebe arrives, he insists that they should start immediately, saying he had promised the community to address them at 12:00.
A man with the loudhailer appeals to the scattered crowd standing and waiting at different corners of the open field: “Comrades, get out of the trees, come over,” he asks those standing under the shelter of trees to mitigate the punishing heat.
“Comrade JR is waiting for us. So please come to the white tent.”
There are three tents: a big white tent for the community; a small blue tent for ANC branch members; and a even smaller blue tent for Radebe and other VIPs.
Preacher Abe Messelaar, who “opens” the event, asks: “Can good come out of this function because we have a minister here? Let us pray.”
A local ANC leader who introduces Radebe bemoans the divided state of the ANC because of factions and says that they “are here to rectify that”.
“It can’t be that we fold our hands and let it die”.
Radebe is introduced in Afrikaans to the community, who speak both Setswana and Afrikaans.
When he takes the mic, Radebe says: “My Afrikaans is nie goed nie, maar ek probeer [My Afrikaans is not great, but I try].”
When he starts speaking, it transpires that Radebe insisted the meeting start earlier as a branch general meeting (BGM) was due to start in the area at 14:00. There, members will nominate their candidate for presidency and other positions.
Their candidate may or may not be Radebe.
“The ball is in your hands. Do the right thing”
Besides reminding the crowd that it was not his first time in Siyancuma, Radebe spends most of his speech imploring the ANC members to realise the power they have as a branch. They do not need to have their choices approved by regional or provincial structures.
“Don’t allow your powers to be usurped by others, including leaders of the ANC. Don’t allow slates to be imposed on you. Don’t allow others to choose for you. The ball is in your hands. Do the right thing.”
In his speech the minister also says he was aware that there were people who wanted to stop the rally from happening.
Dorothy Seneo, a local ANC member who speaks after Radebe, hails him for coming to Siyancuma.
“He is here today because people in higher structures don’t want to come here.”
Seneo adds that, to his credit, Radebe did not appeal for members to vote for him.
City Press later saw an SMS which was circulated in the week leading up to the meeting. The SMS read: “Dear residents of Douglas. Please do not attend this so-called event on Sunday hosted by the ANC. Their guest speaker will deceive you into agreeing with the electricity and water metres.”
ANC members later tell City Press that the party in the province decided to nominate deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa as president, therefore they did not want any other contender coming to cause confusion.
These are tough times for the candidate originally from KwaMashu in Durban because many other BGMs were taking place around the country at the same time. If the preliminary figures were to be believed, Radebe’s star was not shining too brightly in those nominations.
When asked how his campaign is doing, Radebe responds by saying he believes in branches because they are “honest and positive” and that is what matters.
“As you can see, they are the ones who invited me. I accepted when they approached me. Where I have been, its been positive.”
But again he vents his frustration over slates: “I am opposed to slates. They are the reason the ANC is where it is. I will not be party to subverting the will of the branches”
In Siyancuma township and at the rally, there were no Radebe T-shirts, a phenomenon he discourages, but practised by other candidates. He also has no slates with his preferred leaders to serve in the top six.
Alluding to a lack of financial muscle for the campaign, one of the lobbyists says bluntly: “The problem is that our candidate did not steal any money”.
The lobbyist says he is working to ensure that Radebe gets the minimum level of support necessary to be a candidate and then he will take it from there.
The Siyancuma rally was instructive on two fronts.
First, it showed a leader who wanted to remind ANC branches at a crucial time that he is a contender, campaigning and available to be elected.
But it also reminded us of a Kgalema Motlanthe circa 2012 – a leader who is prepared to play by the traditional conservative ANC rules, even to his own disadvantage.
During an informal network with the media earlier, journalists told Radebe that he was way too diplomatic and his words did not always make the impact or grab headlines.
“I don’t think it’s a weakness. It’s a strength, because if you are a leader you don’t throw people out or throw them under the bus.
“So if you want to be the president of the ANC and enter the fray in a manner that will not be able to bring people together, that will be a weakness, in my view. That’s why people get into these factions and, as a result of that, they lose sight of the bigger picture, which is the people”.
Radebe insists that he is able to address matters without being dramatic.
“There is a way of attending to problems. But what I don’t lack is decision-making. My own track record, even in difficult situations, is of taking a stand where I have been responsible.”
His decision-making, however, was found wanting when the married 64-year-old was caught exchanging saucy messages with a 29-year-old government photographer.
The message: “C.L.I.T is requested” from Radebe to the presidential photographer is still used as a stick against a leader who boasts of a spotless record in government. He subsequently apologised for the behaviour.
As for his current boss President Jacob Zuma, the two have an interesting history.
Radebe says he withdrew from a contest against Zuma in 1991 for the leadership of the southern Natal conference after Nelson Mandela advised him to do so because he wanted to make Zuma the premier.
Later, Radebe contested Zuma for the position of national chairperson at the party’s 1994 Bloemfontein elective conference, but lost.
Although some in the presidency have questioned his effectiveness as monitoring and evaluation minister, Radebe insists he has a cordial relationship with the president.
5 REASONS JR WANTS TO BE PREZ
1. He was first elected into the national executive committee (NEC) in 1997 and is still a member 20 years later
2. He has always been among the most popular leaders elected to the NEC. He was number two at the last conference in Mangaung and number five in Polokwane 10 years ago
3. He has been head of the ANC policy unit since 1997
4. He chairs the national disciplinary committee of appeals and the drafting team, which prepares technical documents for conferences
5. He is the longest-serving government minister. He was first appointed public works minister by Nelson Mandela in 1994, and has served in all subsequent Cabinets
* This article first appeared in City Press on 29 October 2017.
(Photo credit: Gallo Images / The Times / Masi Losi)