Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma will be haunted by her failure to beat Cyril Ramaphosa in the race for the ANC presidency. And for good reason. She will know she had just one chance – she’s 68 years old – to take over at the helm of the troubled organization.

But she blew it.

And if she reflects on what happened at the ANC elective conference at Nasrec, near Soweto, this weekend, she will have to accept that she must take most of the blame for her failure to win the presidency.

Dlamini Zuma is a decent enough politician. She has an impressive CV, both during the years of Struggle and as a member of government in the new democratic dispensation. She is widely regarded as a hard worker, with more successes than failures.

As Health Minister in Nelson Mandela’s first democratic-era Cabinet, she introduced free healthcare for the poor (although this was offset by the Sarafina scandal, in which money for public health care programmes was misspent). During her next posting as Foreign Affairs Minister, she was widely credited with driving an African focus to South Africa’s foreign relations.

And as the Home Affairs Department’s political head she was responsible for overhauling what was described as an archaic department. There were mixed responses to her stint as African Union Commission head. To some, she was very good. To others, uninspiring.

Considering all this, and taking into account her selfless contribution over the years to the ANC, a narrow margin of people would have regarded her as the favourite to win the ANC’s top job.

Of course, she will wonder why she didn’t get it.

Perhaps, like some of the members of her team, she will point a finger at gender discrimination within the ranks of the ANC. This may well be true in some respects. The ANC should indeed hang its collective heads in shame for the way it takes its women members for granted.

But many of the women in the organization have let themselves down. What, for instance, has the ANC Women’s League (ANCWL) been doing to ensure that women get proper recognition in the organization?

The answer to both questions is simple. Dlamini Zuma has been a top-ranking member of the ANC for decades. Why didn’t she push harder? Why didn’t she shout louder? Some battles have to be taken out of the proverbial smoke-filled rooms where issues are discussed in whispered tones. Sometimes, the help of the public needs to be enlisted.

As for the ANCWL, its contribution to women’s interests has been pathetic. At the ANC’s elective conference, it backed the so-called ‘Unity’ candidate concept of DD Mabuza.

All this did was allow Mabuza to win the post of deputy president against a woman (but not the type of woman the ANCWL had much time for): Ramaphosa-backer Lindiwe Sisulu.

Perhaps Bathabile Dlamini and other members of the women’s league could, as proof of their commitment to women’s rights, say who they voted for in the race between Mabuza and Sisulu.

Dlamini Zuma was also made to pay dearly for ignoring the old maxim of “you are judged by the company you keep.”

Many members of her slate, her supporting team and her main supporters were a veritable who’s who of the dodgy, the shady and the incompetent. Moreover, her failure to put a wide gap between herself and Jacob Zuma was a big mistake.

It was an open secret that Zuma wanted her to win – and there was nothing she could do about that. But she could have done much more to condemn the machinations of the Guptas and “state capture”, other than saying she was against corruption from all sides.

 At a time when, as it was subsequently confirmed, ANC delegates were crying out for promises of decisive action from an aspirant president, all Dlamini Zuma could come up with was a “trust me” type of response.

This proved not good enough, especially considering who she had in her team. Her decision to appoint Carl Niehaus as her spokesman beggared belief. If she thought his shady past would be ignored by delegates, she was sadly mistaken.

Nothing could be worse for an aspirant presidential candidate than to have her judgement questioned.

And this is what happened in the case of Niehaus.

If Dlamini Zuma’s insistence on having him was not a lack of judgement, it had to be a sign of arrogance – a “don’t tell me what to do” type of attitude. There could not be any other explanation.

Either way, it did her untold harm.

Also harmful to her campaign was her closeness to some of the most inept ministers in the Zuma Cabinet.

Even diehard ANC supporters have been horrified at the way Social Development Minister Bathabile Dlamini has handled her portfolio. Social grants affect the poorest of the poor, and the fact that the Constitutional Court had to be approached because of Dlamini’s ineptness to ensure that grants are paid out on time was a disgrace and something that the ANC will take a long time to live down.

Then there is Water Affairs and Sanitation Minister Nomvula Makonyane. Who will forget her bizarre statement in response to the rand dropping after the rating agencies had downgraded South Africa earlier this year?

“You see the rand fall, all you have to do is pick it up,” she had said.

And yet she was also one of the main drivers behind a Dlamini Zuma push for the presidency. In many ways, the battle for the ANC presidency was a contest between the old and the new.

And Dlamini Zuma represented the old. It is easy to speak about “tried and tested” ANC ways of doing things. And yes, in the days of Mandela, Tambo, Sisulu and others, there were things that worked well. But perhaps it’s time to stop this longing for the past.

The world has changed. The ANC itself has changed, whatever many of its most loyal supporters might think.

The new ANC needs to be much more nimble. Its cadres must be encouraged to think on their feet. Decisions have to be made quicker.

Dlamini Zuma could never be part of a new corps of technocrats that should be taking the organization forward. She has given wonderful service to the ANC, but now the time has come for her to be given a role befitting a senior member of the organization – if she is still prepared to serve.

The election of Ramaphosa as president provides the ANC with an opportunity to look outwards instead of inwards.

South Africa faces serious challenges. The unity the ANC has been trying so hard to forge should revolve around the need to sweep out corruption. Because if this is not done, the promises made to alleviate the travails of the poor will never be kept.


Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising here and in the UK in sportswriting, politics and features.

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