JOHANNESBURG (Reuters) - The conference of South Africa’s ruling party is going so smoothly, it seems, that President Jacob Zuma had time on Monday to wander among statues of past party icons, joke with the public and even try out a virtual reality headset.
The carefully choreographed media event was supposed to send a clear message that rifts in the African National Congress (ANC) have been mended and that party members are focused on policy rather than a looming leadership battle.
But behind the scenes, the party remains deeply divided over who should succeed Zuma at a conference in December. One faction backs Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and another Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, former African Union chair and Zuma’s ex-wife.
Dlamini-Zuma’s camp says it wants to radically address racial inequality by increasing black ownership of land and businesses, while Ramaphosa’s supporters pledge to end the corruption and scandals that have plagued the ANC under Zuma.
In the build-up to the six-day meeting, held once every five years, there have been public spats between the two camps and ANC sources said it was likely the leadership question would dominate what is ostensibly a policy conference.
But the president was keen to put aside any talk of backroom jostling.
“It is going absolutely very well. The results are going to be wonderful,” Zuma, dressed in an ANC leather jacket and baseball cap, told reporters, who were marshalled by dozens of security staff and not allowed to ask questions.
Accompanying Zuma and nodding in agreement was ANC spokesman Zizi Kodwa, who chose an unusually casual outfit for a party conference - trainers, sweatpants and sunglasses.
“If things weren’t going well, would I be dressed like this?” Kodwa told Reuters, before briefly running on the spot.
“I‘m so relaxed because things are going so well.”
At a sprawling venue in the shadow of Soccer City stadium in Soweto, journalists are separated from the thousands of party delegates by a high metal fence and only allowed out for stage-managed events under the watchful eye of security.
“You’re not allowed to wander around alone in case you don’t know where to go,” one security guard told Reuters.
“WHITE MONOPOLY CAPITAL”
Ramaphosa and Dlamini-Zuma both talk of “radical socio-economic transformation”, a vague ANC plan to tackle the glaring racial inequality that exists 23 years after the end of apartheid.
In reality, the two factions in the ANC have major ideological differences.
Dlamini-Zuma, who has the support of Zuma and his powerful grassroots Zulu ANC support base, has accused her opponents of being “anti-transformation” and too cozy with rich whites.
She has called for the defeat of the “enemy” of “white monopoly capital”. White South Africans, who make up 9 percent of the population, still control much of the economy.
These messages play well with many poorer, rural ANC delegates who believe rich people in the ANC, like Ramaphosa, have not done enough to redistribute wealth since the end of white minority rule.
Ramaphosa has also pledged to tackle inequality but is viewed as more moderate and investor-friendly.
A trade unionist-turned-business tycoon, he has been a vocal critic of corruption. Some of his supporters say Dlamini-Zuma would do little to clean up an atmosphere of sleaze in public life that grew under her husband’s presidency.
Critics charge that under Zuma, the idealism epitomized by former president Nelson Mandela has been replaced by a scramble for power and patronage, dividing the party and tarnishing the reputation of the post-apartheid “Rainbow Nation”. Popular support for the ANC has slumped.
Though few major policy changes are expected to be agreed at this week’s meeting, the agenda will be watched for clues to whose voice - Ramaphosa’s or Dlamini-Zuma’s - seems the dominant one.
Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Writing by Joe Brock; Editing by Andrew Roche