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Jacob Zuma on stage
Jacob Zuma on stage
Christian Putsch

PRETORIA - Jacob Zuma sang in the choir when he was a political prisoner on Robben Island in the 1970s.

South Africa's president has a remarkable voice, and these days he uses it particularly effectively during election campaigns. Not necessarily when he gives speeches (he tends to read these) but in the songs he sings; songs about Nelson Mandela, the fight for freedom, his party.

And so it was on Tuesday. At the African National Congress (ANC) party meeting in the provincial city of Mangaung, the 70-year-old president of the party and of the country was reelected as ANC head with a large majority. Zuma also stands a good chance of being reelected as president of the country in the 2014 presidential elections.

In the hot sticky tent, Zuma did what the 4,000 delegates expected of him: he sang, he danced and he fostered community spirit among members of the ANC – which has always been more than just a party. During the fight against apartheid, the ANC organized cultural life in the townships and is still today – despite countless scandals and political failures – part of the identity of many black South Africans.

Outside, hundreds of street peddlers were selling caps, motorcycle jackets, even grandfather clocks – with the ANC emblem on them. Lucrative business.

While Zuma bonded with the crowd, now former deputy president Kgalema Motlanthe had already left the stage and it is expected that he will pretty much disappear from the circle of ANC leaders. He was replaced by Cyril Ramaphosa.

Warnings from South African business leaders were not given much play in Mangaung – and yet if the government keeps allowing debate about nationalizing the mines and fails to implement the National Development Plan infrastructure package, the country may face a fate similar to Greece’s, says Stephen Koseff, CEO of Investec Bank.

"South Africa can’t go on much longer living the way it has for the last six to nine months – during which relations between economic players, workers and the government have suffered considerably," Koseff warns. During this period the country experienced brutal strikes in the mining sector. Business leaders were also unsettled by the fact the issue of nationalizing the mines and reforming land reforms were on the agenda of the ANC congress.

The Chinese model

The ANC itself suffers from structural problems. In major cities like Johannesburg or Durban, since 1996 it has been running political schools to train future party members like Ntando Sibeko, 23, who spent three months learning party history. He says the party didn’t have its own schooling center, and that after his training he received no further communications from it.

However, basing itself on Beijing’s Celap Academy where China’s Communist party trains its future leaders, the ANC is apparently going to open an institution on a farm near Johannesburg. Heading it will be Tony Yengeni, who did nearly five months jail time for his involvement with arms deals – apparently not a hindrance to getting the job. Like Mr. Yengeni, 58, hardly anyone in ANC leadership circles is under 55.

The ANC’s teaching program is being treated as a priority, but the opposition – the Democratic Alliance (DA) – has been running a program called "Young Leaders" for six years. Its 60 graduates occupy positions in the party, local administrations, and at the national level.

The DA also uses the program to recruit talent from the non-white population. Since Lindiwe Mazibuko became parliamentary leader and Mmusi Maimane was named party spokesperson, it has been increasingly harder for the ANC to claim the DA is a party of whites.

"At the moment only 40% of our students are white," says Marike Groenewald who runs the DA’s education program. Skin color plays no role in selecting the 20 candidates out of the 800 who apply every year. What’s important is that "they think and have proven themselves in leadership positions in their community, the private sector or universities."

And they have to be willing to work really hard, since the program runs parallel to their job. Five times a year, the students meet for long weekends to discuss political issues and DA projects.

Tumi Ngqondo, for example, created DA links in universities near Durban, a traditional ANC stronghold. He received threatening calls, and as a result will no longer answer calls from unlisted numbers.

He and other attendees of the DA school say they can dance too – but they, unlike Zuma, aren’t about to let it replace substance at political gatherings.

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